WHO WERE THE CRIMINALS?
During the early part of the 19th century there was a great deal of poverty.
The population had increased and England had to produce more food. It was that, or starve. Agricultural reform therefore was an economic necessity. But this fact played into the hands of the large landowners who could visualise huge farming profits from possession of great estates.
This was achieved by a method which proved to be one of the most controversial subjects of economic history in England, and that was enclosure.
Although the process of land enclosure was in place by the start of the 13th century, it was not until the latter part of the 18th century that enclosure started to accelerate under the cloak of agricultural reform. Across the country the powerful and wealthy seized the land at tremendous cost to the villagers, who were deprived of their age-old rights of grazing their livestock on the commons.
They hang the man, and flog the woman,
That steals the goose from off the common;
But let the greater villain loose,
That steals the common from the goose.
An anonymous protest poem from the 17th century
The majority of the crimes in the early 19th century were petty theft.
There were also the rioters.
There were many arrests for sheep stealing, a crime which carried a death sentence.
However, this was generally commuted to transportation for life.
In May 1814, William Elliott, aged 33 from Cranfield in Bedfordshire was sentenced to death for stealing bread.
He was reprieved and
given transportation for life. He sailed on the Marquis of Wellington, bound for New South Wales in September 1814.
THEFT OF BREAD
James Wilmour aged 33 from Houghton Conquest was transported to New South Wales on the Shipley in July 1818.
He was sentenced to 7
years under the game laws.
On 4th March 1831 at the Bedford Assizes Henry Gentle, aged 35, and William Saunderson, aged 27, both from Stotfold were convicted
of riotous conduct and felony.
They were sentenced to death but it was commuted to transportation for 14 years.
They were put on
the convict ship Isabella in November 1831, bound for New South Wales.
Mary Brown, aged seven years, and her younger brother, James, aged four, were sentenced to 21 days hard labour in April 1856 for vagrancy
They were released by Queen's Pardon after 10 days.
John Ratcliffe, aged seven years was sentenced to 14 days hard labour in Bedford Gaol in 1856 for vagrancy and begging. He stated
that he had been in the prison many times.
This caused terrible hardship for the villagers and led to the poverty of a considerable proportion of the rural community.
Enclosure has therefore been seen as a factor towards the exodus of villagers to industrial towns.
Now it was a crime to catch a rabbit in a field which was once theirs to roam at will.
THE STOTFOLD RIOTS
In December 1830, riots which had broken out mainly in the south of England reached Bedfordshire. In the village of Stotfold, impoverished labourers gathered to demand exemption from taxes and the dismissal of the assistant overseer.
They also called for the raising of wages to two shillings a day. When their demands were refused they set light to some straw in a field.