Home » Leeds History » Crime and Punishment in Leeds, 1850

Crime and Punishment in Leeds, 1850

  • Volunteers’ Week takes place every year from 1-7 June. Leeds Libraries held a celebratory reception yesterday, recognizing the efforts of our volunteering team – including event supporters, At-Home Service deliverers, partners and, of course, heritage volunteers – several of whom have written for this very blog. Today, we hand over to another of these, Joan Ellis, who’s been researching the history of crime in Leeds, including the strange case of an ‘assault with a worsted sock’…

When I volunteered to research historic crimes for the Local and Family History Library, the brief seemed quite wide. At my induction, an 1850 edition of the Leeds Mercury on microfilm was chosen to show how the newspaper archive worked, but it wasn’t long before I decided this would be a good starting-point. As the aim was to create something that could help people find information on past family members, I decided to create a spreadsheet detailing crimes reported in the Leeds Mercury during the first six months of 1850 (an achievable sample to start with). I further decided the best way forward was to record details of hearings which appeared to have had an outcome – for example, committed for trial, fined, or dismissed. This would make it relatively easy for users to look up information in an easy-to-access format.

Postcard view of Armley Jail, opened in 1847 (leodis.net)

After reviewing the first few articles, it soon became apparent what fields I would need to record the information. The full spreadsheet has many columns but I’ve listed the main ones below:

  • The date of the newspaper edition (January-June 1850).
  • The page on which the article appears.
  • The headline under which the article appears. (Not only should this make it easier to find the original, but this can often be interesting in its own right. For example, the headline ‘An Elderly Orphan’ reports the tale of an elderly man of nearly 60 arrested in a state of ‘helpless intoxication’ who, when asked whether he had anyone to look after him replied that he had neither father and mother.)
  • Where the hearing was held.
  • The name of the person accused and any further information given in the article, for example where they are from and/or their occupation. (I soon discovered there were inconsistencies in the spelling of names, sometimes within articles, a notable example being the case of the ‘Horrible Murder and Mutilation at Otley’ report, where the original spelling of one of the accused was Towlarton, but appeared as Tollerton in the trial report. In the same example the name Jacques/Jaques was interchangeable within and across the articles.)
  • As with the accused, I have tried to include information such as where the victim resides, their occupation, etc.
  • Identifying the charge in a consistent way was not always easy. I have again tried to use the information contained in the article, but the results are somewhat arbitrary. As a result larceny, theft, stealing from shop door are pretty much the same but appear as separate entries.
  • The outcome – whether the charge was proved, dismissed or whether the outcome was to ‘commit for trial’.
  • The sentence. Fines, penalties and short prison terms were all imposed at the hearings, along with any prison terms identified from the sentencing reports, such as found in the ‘Trial reports and outcomes from Leeds Borough Sessions’.

Many of the reports involved public houses, and I have also compiled a list of pubs mentioned in the various articles, some of which are still in existence, or have only relatively recently closed down.

In all, I recorded some 869 cases, of which 385 cases (about 44%) were some form of theft or robbery. There is then a sharp drop to 83 cases (9.5%) involving assault. Licensing laws are the next highest taking up 79 cases (9%), with Bye Laws, etc, following closely behind at 60 cases (6.9%).

As mentioned above, the charges field was somewhat arbitrary so, in summarising the data, I have tried to combine relevant entries to give a general idea as to events in 1850. As can be seen, cases of fraud, intent to defraud, etc, have an entry – 40 cases. So too do cases involving counterfeit coin, embezzlement, etc – 38 cases. Combined, they have 78 cases or 8.9%.

Then, as now, clampdowns on various crimes can highlight certain types of crime. For example, there are 19 cases of gambling reported. Fourteen of these were at Huddersfield, where a ‘Superintendent Heaton’ seemed to have been determined to stamp out the practice of playing ‘unlawful games of chance’. The full stats are available in the spreadsheet, and I reproduce a copy below (you will notice that I have combined the charges which fall into broad areas):

I have also summarised below the number of charges by town. As some of the cases were taken straight from sentencing reports – for example, the Yorkshire Assizes trial and sentencing reports – the accused, victim and offence would be listed, but not where the offence occurred. Where full trial reports have been covered, which include where the offence took place, I have not included these if they do not fall in the Leeds or surrounding areas covered:

Armed with my spreadsheet, I soon became immersed in my research, and it was clear that I had fallen into a Dickens novel set in and around Leeds.  What stands out is that there was a lot of petty crime, for which some quite hefty sentencing could be given. For example, there was a case where stealing cheese resulted in a 16-year-old boy being transported for seven years. There was also a case where a 12-year-old was transported for stealing a book, as his father and a brother were under sentence of transportation.

The perception of the ‘accused’ could also affect the outcome. I refer to one particular case where a women of ‘dissolute habits’ had been dragged into a field by four men and left for dead. They were charged with manslaughter but they were discharged, the judge having referred to the victim as a ‘woman of abandoned habits’. Perhaps the most ‘sensational’ case was the one relating to the ‘Horrible murder and mutilation at Otley’, mentioned above. This involved several men working on excavating a reservoir at Romalds Moor. After a good afternoon and evening drinking in Otley, the men started breaking the windows of houses on their way back to their lodgings. Why they did this does not come to light, but when the men were challenged by residents, a sequence of events occurred, resulting was several stabbings, one of which was fatal. The initial report of this incident was very poor copy, so I have transcribed this article and, for consistency, the trial report relating to this case.

Despite being plunged into what could at times seem like a dark history of Leeds, there were some lighter moments. The ‘elderly orphan’ mentioned above was one example. Another was about a ‘man from the country’ who had visited Leeds in order to buy some pigs and, after visiting ‘several public houses’, he and a companion met with two females in Kirkgate and took them to a dram house. On leaving, the man went ‘up a yard’ with one of the females, who put her hand into his coat pocket and took out his purse. Whilst remonstrating with the woman, another woman came up to ask what was going on. The report suggested the purse was passed to the second woman. It went on to report that the complainant’s wife, ‘a great strapping woman’, attended the examination in court and ‘looked thunder and daggers at her other half as he detailed one foolish act after another’.

A yard off Kirkgate, 1901 (leodis.net)

There were other one-off cases which evoked other emotions. A washerwoman was charged by a surgeon with ‘injuring and spoiling his grass’ by spreading her clothes out to dry in his grass field. The article goes on to report that the surgeon noticed the clothes in the field and walked his horse about on them. He also complained she assaulted him with a worsted sock. Another example was a report of two ‘idle vagabonds’ who had spent the night at the Vagrant Office and were charged with tearing up their clothes in order to compel the Relieving Officer to provide them with new ones. They had done this thinking they would be sent to Wakefield and there be provided with clothes. One of the boys was in ‘a state of nudity’ and had been provided with a sheet. The report goes on to say that if they appeared again, they might be treated to ‘a sound thrashing’. The outcome was for them to be sent back to prison until some coarse wrapping could be stitched into a smock and trousers.

What was fascinating about this piece of research was the way it opened up the geography of Leeds. Many of the streets and lanes still exist, as do most of the areas of Leeds mentioned in the articles. Interesting also was the way certain areas of Leeds and its surroundings were regularly mentioned – the Bank being one area – whilst there were several mentions of the ‘Old Post Office Yard’ just off Kirkgate, one of which referred to a ‘house of ill-fame’.

In all, I found this a fascinating look at Leeds and the surrounding area in 1850, albeit on the darker side of life. I hope anyone using this piece of research will find it as interesting and as informative as I have.

  • A huge thanks to Joan for this fascinating and useful study. We’re still in the process of compiling her research and findings into an accessible resource but are happy to assist with any enquiries you may have about it. Email us at: localandfamilyhistory@leeds.gov.uk. Also, keep following the Secret Library blog to find out about future heritage volunteering opportunities this summer.
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