Sunday, April 19, 2009

17th Century Parish Records of Crime and Punishment

This article was fascinating. Can you guess what appealed to me most? Story from the Edinbourgh News: Ancient court record shows thieves faced hangman's whip Published Date: 15 April 2009 By LAURA CUMMINGS EVEN for those who accuse modern judges of being too soft on crime, it's a punishment that probably goes a little far. A whipping at the hands of the local hangman was the kind of treatment thieves in Musselburgh could expect 500 years ago however, according to newly uncovered records.Hundreds of historic documents have been unearthed by council workmen during a clear-out of Musselburgh Town House. The earliest records date back to 1545 and experts say they are providing a unique glimpse into what life was like in the East Lothian town almost 500 years ago. One of the most significant finds was a selection of Musselburgh Baillie Court books spanning 450 years and detailing offences committed by citizens of the burgh, and subsequent punishments. These included a whipping by the town's hangman for a criminal found guilty of breaking into a warehouse in the 17th century. Ruth Fyfe, an archivist for East Lothian Council, said: "Most of the people were being brought before the Musselburgh Baillie Court because they owed money for goods such as ale, leather and cloth. "However, we did come across a man who broke into a warehouse and was sentenced to a whipping by the hangman." She added: "This is a very exciting find because it is rare for such a large collection of documents to come to light. They will offer a fantastic insight into the life of the town over a span of about 450 years." The court books also contained information on the "Shoot for the Musselburgh Silver Arrow" – an annual competition for the Royal Company of Archers which still takes place to this day. The documents state that on September 8, 1647, Robert Dobie of Stainyhill won the silver arrow for the third time and was allowed to keep it. However, he gave it back to the people of Musselburgh for "love of the borough". Council wage books were also found in the basement of the Town House, revealing that – on average – workers in the cleaning, carting and lighting departments earned £1 for six days' work in 1898. [So the average yearly wage for these workers was £52 a year, because most average workers did not take a week's vacation back then -- it was unpaid and they could not afford to go without the wages.] Shipping records listing the cargoes imported and exported from Musselburgh Harbour were also unveiled from 1635-1649. The cargo usually consisted of wood or barley, with the ships travelling from other parts of Scotland and even Norway. George MacKenzie, the Keeper of the Records of Scotland, said: "The recent discovery of many of the older records of Musselburgh, long given up for lost, is exciting and will enrich the history both of the town and the county." The oldest documents uncovered were Sasines books dating back to 1545, which detailed land transactions in Musselburgh. The documents are currently being kept at the East Lothian archive store but will be relocated to the John Gray Centre in Haddington when it opens in 2011. STEP BACK IN CRIME June 21, 1660 James Waterstone confessed to breaking into a warehouse in Musselburgh which belonged to David Ross and stealing cloth. He was kept in the town's tolbooth from the day of his confession and was sentenced to a whipping by the hangman in an attempt to make him name his accomplices. He later attempted to break free from the tolbooth, risking his life by climbing over the roof. November 22, 1654 James Hog brought an action against William Merstein, who stole one of Mr Hog's horses which was carrying food to the army at the Battle of Dunbar. The documents state: "Bags of meal were thrown off the horse and the horse was taken violently." The court ordered Merstein to return the horse and pay 20 shillings expenses. July 19, 1659 Richard Gibsone – an "indweller in the Brigend" was ordered to pay David Thomson the 50 pounds that he owed him for "aill". July 9, 1861 Thomas Gilmoire was ordered to pay 50 shillings which he owed for cloth to John Richardone.
Okay - this is what caught my fancy: July 19, 1659 Richard Gibsone – an "indweller in the Brigend" was ordered to pay David Thomson the 50 pounds that he owed him for "aill". I interpret "indweller in the Brigend" to mean that poor Richard was imprisoned - either in debtors' prison or in the parish jail. He owed David Thomson the enormous sum of 50 pounds - nearly a year's wages for some workers. The question is - what was the debt for? Was it for "ale," in which case it seems that Richard was likely to die shortly from liver failure, or was it for "all?" -- which I take to mean those items necessary to someone in debtors' prison (or possibly in the parish jail) for the basics of life: food and water, fuel for warmth, and light (candles or whale oil for lanterns). Either way - not a pleasant prospect. That Dickens was writing about just such a subject nearly 200 years later in "Little Dorrit" shows how little the justice system in England had changed. Speaking of which, a PBS showing of "Little Dorrit" from the BBC is currently being broadcast on Masterpiece Theater. Oh my! I just had the most overwhelming feeling of deja vu'. Did I write about this topic recently???

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