Henry Fielding Grapples with Crime and a Consumer Society

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding

In the reign of Edward VI, a law was made that was deemed so severe that it only lasted two years. Designed to deter the “idle poor” from living the life of a “vagabond”, in the eighteenth century, Henry Fielding used it as an example of how civilised Georgian society had both moved on, and how easy a life the idle and disorderly had it in his world.

Fielding wrote that any “runagate servant” who “liveth idly and loiteringly” for at least three days, could be brought before two magistrates. They would brand him on the chest with a hot iron, forming the letter V.

He would then be sent to lodge with the person who had brought him to the magistrates, who, for two years, would have the right to “cause him to work by beating, chaining, or otherwise, in such work and labour as he shall put him, be it never so vile.”

If the “slave” tried to run away, and was gone for 14 days, he could be brought before the magistrates again, where he would again be branded – this time with the letter S, burnt into his forehead or cheek, very visibly. He would then be bound to his “master” for the rest of his life. A further escape attempt would make him a felon in the eyes of the law.

Although Fielding stated that the law was “cruel, unconstitutional” and rightly repealed, he noted that there was a difference between making men “slaves and felons” and trying to get them to be good subjects – the difference being “between throwing the Reins on the Neck of Idleness, and riding it with Spurs of Iron.”

Fielding was clearly grappling with the issues of idleness and criminality, investigating what he thought of as being the causes of common crimes such as thieving, and what punishments would be sufficient as to deter such people from a life of crime without being seen as unconstitutional.

He saw a large part of the problem as originating with the rise in consumer culture during the eighteenth century, arguing that the labouring classes were starting to aspire to a lifestyle that they had no means of legitimately affording.

They coveted the lifestyles of the gentry, and would steal in order to bring themselves closer to that goal. These were people who sought comfort in drink, gambling, and other dangerous pursuits; those who on their first criminal sentence would view a spell in the Bridewell with “horror” but on subsequent sentences “usually treated [it] with ridicule and contempt”.

It was clear that Fielding grappled with two issues: that the poor should not have dreams of a better life, for therein lay dissatisfaction and possibly idleness, bad habits, and from there criminality, along with a lack of respect for the punishments meted out to them; but also that a civilised society should not treat the poor as “slaves” and have respect for them when setting out punishments.

The problem lay in reconciling those two things, and the most effective way of punishing criminals – the one that would give them the best chance of “reforming” –  continued to be debated. It could be argued that it is still an issue that has yet to be resolved.

Quotes taken from Henry Fielding’s An Enquiry Into The Causes Of The Late Increase In Robbers, &c