Victorian Society in the N.W.- Outside of the Law

by Phil Rigby


A good number of members and friends met at tebay on october 20th to hear Dr. Mike Winstanley, formerly of Lancaster University, speak on the topic: ‘Victorian Society in the north-west – outside the law.’ 

He began by pointing out that information on this topic is in practice quite difficult to find, as what records are available are sparse, scattered and selective. This is particularly true of the early part of the period, though actual figures are for much of the nineteenth century simply not available, especially those relating to local areas. It’s also hard to measure lawbreaking, especially when we don’t know the relative level of reporting of offences committed, officially reported, and solved. From 1830 county figures are available, though only from Quarter Sessions or assizes, thus only serious crimes. From 1857 there are figures of offences known to the police, so they would include more petty crime, such as drunkenness and vagrancy, but also included offences like failure to send children to school (especially, perhaps, as this had to be paid for till 1891). 

It is true, though, that then as now there was a fascination with lurid crimes, so that publications like the Newgate Calendar and the Illustrated Police News flourished, as did fiction writers like Charles Dickens, whose work often reflected this interest. Local newspapers throughout the period are also a good source of information, and also fill out the social background. We need to be aware, though, that this fascination tends to distort our impression, as most low level crime goes unreported. 

Not surprisingly, Cumberland & Westmorland throughout this period seems to have had a relatively low level of crime, much of it apparently committed by outsiders, given that then as now the area was on a major through route between north and south. Indictable offences were at a low level, though those such as larceny tended to be punished very harshly, by imprisonment. Poaching was one offence that the police at first were reluctant to deal with, leaving it to local gamekeepers, as the police did not want to be seen to be in the local landowners’ pockets – surprisingly, this offence seems to have been punished relatively lightly, given that the local landowners would also have been the magistrates! 

The Appleby Assizes, which met twice a year, were, as one would expect, widely reported. There were two notorious local murders, that of Thomas Hunter at Kelleth in 1838, and Thomas Patrick at Sunbiggin in 1848: although some ‘dubious characters’ were arrested, no proof could be found, and the murders remain unsolved. For much of that period, there was interest in trying to identify characteristics which identified actual or potential criminal classes – an instinct which has still not entirely disappeared – so that those in serious economic need tended to be looked on with more suspicion. 

The nineteenth century is characterised by the beginning and development of the formal police service from voluntary associations and private security guards like gamekeepers. Overall direction has since Robert Peel in 1829 been under Home Office supervision, though borough (urban) police forces began in 1835 and county (rural) ones from 1839, with local control and funded publicly. The Cumberland and Westmorland combined Constabulary was founded in 1856 with John Dunn as its first Chief Constable. Cover, though, was extremely sparse, especially in rural areas, with one policeman in places like Orton, who presumable worked round the clock if necessary! And it was not until the early 20th century that the fire and ambulance service developed as separate entities, so till then the police did it all. 

Dr. Winstanley’s talk was full of interest and fascinating detail. We look forward very much to inviting him to speak to us again on some future occasion.

Close