The ‘habit and repute’ thief in Scottish law

A later 19th century thief (courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums).

A later 19th century thief (courtesy of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums).

Daniel Morrison was just 17 years old, but he had a bad reputation.

He had started thieving young, and had already received convictions for theft and swindling. Now he was up again in court.

It was October 1817, Edinburgh.

Daniel was charged with two offences; the first, with obtaining money under false pretences. This was not unexpected. He would go to almost any length to get money from somewhere – stealing, cheating, whatever.

But the second charge? That was a bit different. He was accused of being a ‘habit and repute thief’. This was a charge under Scottish common law that took into account the temper and disposition of a person, and was an admittance of ‘bad character’.

You could not be charged with being a habit and repute a thief unless you were charged with another offence – excluding murder or assault – at the same time. You could not be found guilty of the former, unless you were found guilty of the latter.

This is not to say that the law was always followed to the letter. On occasion, a person had been found guilty of habit and repute, but acquitted of the other theft charge, and bound over to good behaviour.

But in short, Daniel was being written off by the system – still in his teens, but dismissed as being a criminal character who had little chance of repenting.

He was found guilty of being a ‘habit and repute thief’, the facts being ‘satisfactorily proven’. This meant that it was considered that he had a bad character, a bad name for theft specifically, and that other witnesses considered him a bad person.

Poor Daniel was sentenced to a 60 day spell in the local bridewell – and for thirty days of his sentence, he was ordered to only be fed on bread and water.

Sources: Caledonian Mercury, 23 October 1817; ‘A Treatise on various branches of the criminal law in Scotland’ by John Burnett (Archibald Constable, Edinburgh, 1811), pp.127-131

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