In the spring of 1795, Elizabeth Morley (or Morlay) was convicted at the Middlesex Sessions of the Peace and sentenced to 7 years transportation. Because this was not at the Old Bailey, we have very little information about her trial. Her entry in the Home Office Criminal Registers doesn’t include a physical description or even a description of her offence. But Elizabeth petitioned the magistrates for clemency, and from that we’re able to learn quite a bit more about her offence and Elizabeth herself – or at least the version she presented to the magistrates.
Throughout the 18th century and well into the 19th, many convicted criminals petitioned authorities begging for mercy; a few were granted a full pardon and released but a reduction in the severity of the sentence passed in court was more common, whether that had been for death, transportation or imprisonment. Petitioners were successful in changing the punishment initially prescribed in court so often that tracing actual outcomes is a major challenge for historians of criminal justice in the period and, of course, for our project.
The main series of criminal petitions relating to the more serious crimes that incurred the death penalty or transportation is at The National Archives (TNA HO17-18). There is currently an important volunteer project underway at TNA to catalogue HO17, and a large group of the petitions and related records has been digitised by FindMyPast. It’s more unusual to find a petition concerning a sentence of transportation in local archives, though this one is earlier than TNA’s petitions. However, Elizabeth’s petition is very similar in form and style to many of TNA’s criminal petitions.
They’re documents intended to persuade authorities that the petitioner is a worthy object of mercy. This includes extreme deference to authority – they’re always ‘humble’ petitions. It’s hard for historians to know to what extent petitions really represented the ‘authentic’ voices of ordinary people. The flowery language similarly may not be Elizabeth’s own – the handwriting is that of a highly educated person, and the mention of ‘social passions’ wouldn’t have been out of place in literary genres from philosophical tracts to Jane Austen novels. It’s common for petitioners to stress their age, as Elizabeth does, and perhaps with good reason, since it seems that older prisoners were slightly less likely to be transported. It’s also not uncommon for them to blame someone else for leading them astray!
Elizabeth’s petition seems to have been successful, in that she doesn’t appear in the Transportation Registers or convict indents data, but we don’t (yet) know what did happen to her. However, I think we have a little bit of her previous history. In October 1793, an Elizabeth Morley was tried at the Old Bailey for stealing a variety of items including shirts, napkins, women’s clothes and pockets. She was acquitted; much of the evidence against her was quite circumstantial. In the course of the trial we learn that she was a married woman, with two sons. This is corroborated by her entry in the Criminal Registers, which describes her as
48. 5/2 Hazel Eyes Brown hair fresh Complexion Brentford Married woman
Now, this would of course make this Elizabeth only 50 in 1795, five years younger than the age stated in the petition. But ages in our data, before the age of universal civil registration, are often approximations and it isn’t at all unlikely that the 1795 Elizabeth would be exaggerating her age slightly for sympathy. (It’s striking that she claims to be 55 – Richard Ward has shown how ages in the Old Bailey data tended to be rounded up or down to numbers ending in 0 or 5.)
The context of the 1793 offence is also a good fit. Women were often charged with receiving in circumstances very similar to those of the 1793 trial; thieving and receiving domestic items like these were closely related criminal activities in women’s ‘economies of makeshifts‘.
It isn’t an absolutely certainty that the two sets of records belong to the same woman, but the balance of probabilities is looking good. What do you think?[This post is one of a series of Convict Tales, in which we post about individual convicts whose lives the project has begun to link together. It may be updated as we learn more.]