Crime in late Georgian and Regency Epsom and Ewell
Sources for Epsom and Ewell History
The Bench by William Hogarth, 1758
From the Restoration through to the nineteenth century, the law in England was administered at three levels, depending on the seriousness of the crime. Small-scale offences against public order were handled by the local magistrate at Petty Sessions; ordinary cases were presented before the bench of county magistrates at Quarter Sessions; and the most serious offences, those which carried the risk of capital punishment, went before the annual Assizes.
The Court of Quarter Sessions was so called because it met every three months, at Epiphany (6th January), Easter, Midsummer and Michaelmas (29th September). Courts were held in rotation at Southwark, Guildford, Reigate and Kingston. The two main sources for cases are the process books (SHC: QS 3/5/-) and the gaol calendars (SHC: QS 2/6/-). For some offences, more detailed examinations also survive in the Quarter Sessions papers.
Surrey History Centre have published a CD of abstracts from these documents over the Napoleonic period (available at https://www.surreycc.gov.uk). A search of this resource reveals that from 1780 to 1819 inclusive there were 235 occasions on which individuals were charged with a crime in the parishes of Epsom, Ewell and Cuddington. Full details can be found at
Indictments before Quarter Sessions ranged from the significant crimes of theft and assault, to bastardy cases where a man wouldn't pay for his child, down to regulatory offences such as keeping a shop open on a Sunday. The sweep of the law extended to the prohibition of the bareknuckle boxing match between Crib and Belcher on Epsom Downs, and an attempt by James Reeves of 24 High Street Ewell to stop his windows being broken in the annual Shrove Tuesday game of football.
A significant portion of the local population appeared before Quarter Sessions at one time or another, and so did passing Gypsies like Hannah Scamp and Major Eyres, and soldiers on their way to the regiment such as Thomas Holland and James MacDougall. Some crime was evidently targeted because it offended the local gentry - there are poaching offences, and complaints of pilfering firewood from the hedges - but most of it seems to reflect stresses and strains within the community. There was a lot of casual filching from masters or fellow tenants, reports of inmates being obstreperous in the Workhouse, and domestic assaults. Sometimes a whole household would turn on the village constable, whose unenviable job was held for a year by rotation among the householders.
The Idle Apprentice by William Hogarth 1747
There wasn't much repeat crime. Of those who appeared before the court in the 40 years covered by the records, 152 men and 43 women only turned up once. 16 men and 2 women appeared twice, and one individual - the unfortunate James Prosser - came up before the court four times. He clearly had mental health problems and it was difficult to deal with him as a criminal at all. Most of the accused are described as labourer, which is just the court's shorthand for 'working-class male'. Several trades and professions are listed, but the only one that seems to be represented disproportionately is that of victualler/ innkeeper. Evidently Epsom had several pubs where doubtful dealings were part of regular business.
Of the 229 clearly identified offences (some are just listed as 'felony' or 'misdemeanour'), the most significant were theft (77 individuals), assault (55) and vagrancy (27). Most of the vagrants were committed by Sir George Glyn of Ewell, a magistrate who seems to have had a crusading zeal on this topic which wasn't shared by his colleagues. Next come gambling (12), bastardy (8), maintenance and fraud (6 each), poaching (5), riot (4), and then workhouse discipline, licensing laws and conspiracy (all 3). Riot wasn't as bad as it sounds - it included offences such as street football, and nobody was convicted for it; conspiracy seems to have involved everything from price-fixing to attempts to form a union. Finally, at 2 each, come domestic violence, receiving stolen goods, passing false coin, and leaving a public nuisance in the streets, followed by 1 instance only of trading offences, failure to keep a prisoner, and libel.
The punishments inflicted by the court ranged from fines (about 6/8d was the median figure) through whipping, imprisonment for up to two years, imprisonment followed by whipping (sometimes in public) and for the most serious offenders, transportation for 7 or 14 years. Only one transportation sentence can be traced in other records, that of Fargus McGlockling, who left for New South Wales on the Royal Admiral on 1st May 1792 (www.convictrecords.com.au/convicts/mcglockling/fergus/107495).
However, a slender majority of offenders were simply let off, either through acquittal or through the case being dropped. It is likely that in many cases the experience of being summonsed to court - which could involve up to ten weeks in the county jail waiting for the next Sessions to begin - was felt to be punishment enough.