Who used the criminal justice system?

The judiciary: not enough to scare the poor and 'middling sorts' off prosecuting thieves

The judiciary: not enough to scare the poor and ‘middling sorts’ off prosecuting thieves

Who used the criminal justice system in rural England during the 18th century? And who complained when they were the victims of theft, in particular – was it just those wealthy enough to involve the law and to pay for a prosecution?

Historians have debated this for some time; Douglas Hay ‘minimised’ the involvement of the poor in prosecuting crime, Peter King has suggested, and has himself putting forward the argument that ‘the law in relation to property crime was a resource available to and used by almost every layer in the eighteenth century.’*

I have been looking at thefts in rural communities in the long eighteenth century, with a focus on summary proceedings – the initial stage of the criminal justice system, where individuals would go to their local magistrate to complain about an offence or dispute.

These complaints – often dealt with summarily, the JP convicting and punishing the offender without the need for an indictment – were recorded in magistrates’ notebooks. These can be frustrating to analyse, as there were no standard rules on how they should be filled in. So some are full of detail about the individuals and what happened to them; others are somewhat sparse.

So magistrates didn’t always record the occupations of those who complained to them; but I have taken occupational details, where given in five different notebooks from across the 18th century, about those who complained about theft, and put them into a visual summary, using Voyant Tools.


The picture is clearly of a range of backgrounds being represented. The larger the word, the more often it appears in the notebooks, so it is clear that farmers/yeomen (ignore my rogue spelling in one instance!) were the most common complainants. Yet labourers are the second most common; showing that reporting crime was not the preserve of the wealth, of the gentry class that the magistrates were themselves drawn from.

There are a healthy mix of trades, too, and the overall picture is one that echoes King’s findings at a higher level of the system that ‘most middling, gentry and labouring families saw the courts as an acceptable means of protecting their personal or household property.’

It should be noted, though, that where stewards are listed, these were representatives of gentry landowners, complaining about poaching/game offences. They do not represent the majority of property offences, and do not appear in the notebooks to complain about their own property.