The Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts

For my PhD I am investigating the social and spatial worlds of impoverished Old Bailey convicts to determine to what extent poverty was a cause of crime. Part of this research involves investigating whether convicts were engaging in criminal activity because they were unable to, or unwilling to obtain parish poor relief, or because parish relief was insufficient. Although the Old Poor Law (1601) declared that parishes must relieve their poor, there are various reasons why people may have been outside of that system. The provisions of the Settlement Act (1662), and the Workhouse Test Act (1723) might have excluded people from parish support, or discouraged their applications. Though the law stated that the poor must be relieved in their parish, there was no legal basis to determine who would be relieved and by how much. This too could prevent access to official relief systems, or when relief was obtained it might not be enough to support individuals and families in need. If relief was unobtainable, undesirable, or insufficient then crime might have become a means of support for poorer members of society.

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Image via NY Times

  Historians have concluded that official parish relief was only one strategy which individuals and families used for support. This concept was encapsulated as an ‘economy of makeshifts’. This describes the network of informal sources of support accessed by the poor, which included casual labour, borrowing and small loans, and critically, crime.[1] This phrase provides a conceptual bridge between the history of crime and the history of the poor but there is much work to be done before the relationship between poverty and crime can be fully established.

       Until recently the methodological techniques to enable this type of research within a reasonable timeframe were simply not available. Judicial sources are extensive collections and poor law records for the metropolis are intimidatingly vast but the Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online 1674-1913, as well as the growing number of digitised parish records (an excellent collection can be found at London Lives), alongside the development of modern record linkage techniques means that this work can now be done. It is important to determine whether the poor – who were never a homogenous group but rather a disparate section of society who might move in and out of poverty throughout their lifetimes – were committing crimes, and whether poverty was the cause.

     At present I have more questions than I do answers but preliminary source analyses reveal that some people were stating in their trials at the Old Bailey that they committed theft because they were unable to obtain parish relief.  Mary Johnson, a spinster from Bishopsgate was found guilty of stealing a silver spoon, worth 10 shillings from a public house in Old Bedlam in 1751. During her trial, Mary admitted the theft but claimed that the parish officers in Bishopsgate would give her no relief. She declared that when she asked for relief, an officer told her that he did not care how she ‘got her bread’ and that she could go whoring or thieving. This story was either not believed, or it was not considered to be a mitigating circumstance so Mary was sentenced to be transported for seven years.[2] In 1792 John Shaw was tried for grand larceny. He stood accused of stealing a length of oak timber from Thomas Winkworth in Cripplegate. Shaw admitted that he stole the timber and claimed it was ‘real distress and want’ which prompted him to do it. The clerk of the court recorded him saying ‘I had not a farthing in the world nor could I get any relief from the parish where I belong to; I took a piece of wood whether it is the same or no I cannot tell’. In this case the jury was more sympathetic. Although Shaw admitted to the theft, he was found not guilty of stealing that particular length of timber and acquitted.[3]

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Image: Thomas Rowlandson, A Select Vestry, 1806. Lewis Walpole Library, 806.0.49. © The Lewis Walpole Library, Yale University.

     These two cases illustrate how convicts sometimes blamed their crime on having been denied parish relief, however, it is crucial that these statements are not taken at face value. Claims of poverty in the Old Bailey proceedings must be treated with caution. Defendants might cite poverty in court in the hope of soliciting clemency from judge and jury, or they might claim poverty when apprehended to dissuade victims from prosecuting them. However, if defendants were poor, and were settled in a parish, this could be corroborated by exploring poor law records. The poor law records for Bishopsgate are undigitised but they are held at London Metropolitan Archive and so, the next step would be to locate Mary Johnson in the archives and attempt to verify the claims she made in court. However, as her application for relief was allegedly denied, we might not find her in those records, but this absence might also be revealing.

       Explicit claims of poor relief being denied, such as those made my Mary Johnson and John Shaw are only one line of enquiry which will be followed. Of course, not all convicts made a defence in their trials, (using poverty as a defence would involve admitting to the crime, after all) and not all defences were recorded in the trial proceedings. Other strategies for determining the socio-economic status of Old Bailey convicts must be devised. The occupations of prisoners are often recorded and these can be illuminating. The type of crime and, particularly in petty larceny cases, the types of items which were stolen can also provide vital contextual clues.

     This research is a natural step forward for me as prior to joining the Digital Panopticon project I completed a Master of Research degree which analysed the provisions of the Old Poor Law and the agency of parish officials – within the framework of social discipline theories – to determine whether poor citizens were criminalised, stigmatised or controlled by the Old Poor Law. I have an abiding interest in the experiences of working class people in the past and am keen to understand to what extent criminality was part of that experience.

Lucy Huggins, University of Sheffield

[1] Olwen H. Hufton, The Poor of Eighteenth-Century France, 1750-1789 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974).

[2] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 17 April 2011), October 1751, trial of Mary Johnson (t17511016-12).

[3] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 6.0, 17 April 2011), December 1792, trial of John Shaw (t17921215-92).

2 thoughts on “The Social and Spatial Worlds of Old Bailey Convicts

  1. Teresa Foster

    Thank you for a glimpse into an interesting line of inquiry, one that is useful to me as a historian who seeks to understand circumstances preceding transportation to the colonies. Assuming a convict sought parish relief in Britain, I wonder whether the same occurred post-transportation. Mary Johnson was transported to Maryland in 1752 and sold as a convict bond servant for 7 years, but whether she survived the bond period and later requested parish relief (perhaps due to age or infirmity) is unknown. It might be helpful (in a future study) to know how often transported women and men turned to colonial parishes for relief, given a very different “economy of makeshifts.”

  2. Lucy Huggins

    Dear Teresa,
    Firstly, I apologise for the terrible delay in responding to your post! I seem to have missed it, for some reason. Secondly, thank you very much for your comments. I too am interested in whether post-transported convicts relied upon official relief, either abroad, or at home. If transportees returned home (legally, having ‘served their time’) their ‘life chances’ might have been considerably reduced, regardless of age or infirmity thus prompting them to seek parish relief. I also wonder how sympathetic parish officials might have been towards any such applications. However, as you say, this might have to be a study for another day!
    Again, please accept my apologies for my extremely tardy response. I’d be very glad to discuss this with you in greater detail at some point.

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