Hitchcock, Tim (University of Hertfordshire)
History Working Papers Project: Open Peer Review for the Humanities, 25 August (2011)
Most historians of crime and poverty are familiar with the intertwined crises of punishment and criminal justice, of riot and social disorder associated with the late 1770s and 1780s. But what is less familiar is how that crisis impacted on the evolution of the treatment of paupers and vagrants. This paper is intended to point up a crises that did not make the headlines, but which arguably affected a larger proportion of the population than did crime and its punishment, and which forced the authorities of the City of London and County of Middlesex to reassess their treatment of the vagrant poor. It argues that the crisis of the 1780s created a new system for treating vagrants, that was midwifed into existence by vagrants themselves.
For most of the first half of the 1780s, and in particular following the destruction of Newgate Prison in June 1780, the Houses of Correction in London and Middlesex that had been dedicated to punishing vagrants, were increasingly used to hold felony prisoners. At the same time, the criminal justice system, faced with unprecedented anxiety and popular opposition, increased the numbers of felons executed, whipped and sentenced to the hulks; exacerbating the problem of overcrowding in the prisons and Houses of Correction, and of simply inflicting punishments.