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Today's Citizens, Past Lives at Beverley

Law and order

During the great Victorian Age of Improvement the social pressures of the Industrial Revolution seemed less intense in Beverley. This was said to be due partly to its withdrawn geographical position and partly to its inward-looking middle-classes (Brown, P, Old Beverley, 1991). So, although the government was becoming concerned about an increase in crime, this was mainly in the growing industrial cities. Small towns like Beverley were probably just as law abiding as ever.


In the mid-Victorian period Beverley had a borough court, dealing with petty crimes, and the East Riding Sessions House which was the centre of justice for the East Riding. The petty sessions were held at the Guildhall, sometimes several times per week depending on the number of cases. The most serious crimes, those carrying the death penalty, were tried in York.


The borough police force was set up under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. In the early 1850s the force comprised a superintendent, eight constables-cum-night watchmen and three sergeants at mace or day policemen (Crowther, J, Beverley in Mid-Victorian Times, 62). The watchmen were supplied with rattles to summon help and carried lanterns, handcuffs and staves. For many years the force was considered inadequate by the government and was refused a grant until 1861 when Beverley reconstituted its force.


Crimes committed in Beverley during the nineteenth century ranged from murder and riot to drunkeness and petty theft. Punishments ranged from fines to imprisonment with hard labour on the treadmill in the House of Correction. The “Hull Express” newspaper provided a fascinating account of the use of stocks under the Market Cross as a punishment for drunkeness (Markham, J, The Living Past, 14). Drunkeness seems to have given the Beverley force much of its work. Gambling, dog fighting and poaching offences also feature quite frequently in police reports. Domestic arguments, family problems and quarrels between neighbours brought many people to the attention of the police. Beggars, vagrants and other undesirable characters were often found in the streets. Many of the cases brought to the bench concerned stealing – of money, food, clothes, animals and other goods (Crowther, J).


Riotous behaviour on a minor scale was not uncommon, especially during busy times when publicans and innkeepers did good business. Market days, elections and fairs were times when police were called upon for extra duties. Beverley races attracted many visitors, although generally they seem to have caused minimal disruption.


When criminals were imprisoned they went to the House of Correction, which was behind the Sessions House in New Walk. It was opened in 1810. In the mid-Victorian period there were sometimes as many as 100 convicts in prison at one time. Convicts went there to have their behaviour corrected by a diet of plain food, hard work and moral training which was supposed to leave them determined to turn over a new leaf. Prisoners were strictly segregated and were expected to work to earn their keep. Weaving and dressing flax were tolerable occupations. More arduous tasks included breaking stones or, worst of all, working the treadmill to produce whiting from chalk. The Silent System of total isolation aimed to stop any prisoner from speaking to another (Markham, J, 5). The House of Correction was closed in 1878 and its building was converted into a house in Norfolk Street.


(You can also examine the life of Sophia Constable, an 11 year old girl who was imprisoned at Northallerton Gaol in the late 19th Century, through a series of documents from North Yorkshire County Council Record Office, in the Learning Journey 'Crime & Punishment - Sophia Constable' on My Learning)

Document icon Learning article provided by: The Treasure House, Beverley | 

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