The story is told of a raft-full of shipwrecked sailors who had been adrift at sea for many days when finally, and just in time, land came into sight. It was a tropical island, densely forested and apparently uninhabited. They hacked their way through the jungle, growing weaker and more dispirited, until suddenly a clearing opened up before them. In the middle of the clearing was a decaying, stinking human corpse suspended from a gibbet. “At last”, cried one of the desperate mariners, “we’re back to civilisation.”
Whether the seamen came from Scarborough has not been discovered, yet their association of public hanging of convicted criminals with law enforcement would have been a natural assumption of any of our countrymen until as recently as the 1860s. Indeed, going further back to 200 years ago, there were no fewer that 220 offences for which in England the death penalty could be imposed. They ranged from pick-pocketing, house-breaking, sheep-stealing and forgery to multiple murder and high treason. Injuring Westminster bridge or impersonating a Chelsea pensioner were also capital crimes. Nor was public hanging the only severe penalty for what we would today regard as minor breaches of the law: poachers of rabbits or hares could be transported to Australia for seven years. The same punishment was meted out to the Tolpuddle Martyrs in 1834 for taking “unlawful oaths”.
If the rule of law is regarded as an essential requirement of a civilised society and an effective government, then so is the exemplary punishment of those who offend against them. Benjamin Franklin wrote famously that death and taxes were the only two certainties in the world, but he might well have added two more – crime and punishment.
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to live in a society free of felony? In such an ideal place there would be no need for police, for criminal law courts, for prisons, and for criminal lawyers, justices and juries. Think of the pain and suffering we would be spared and the vast amount of money saved. When you received your most recent Council Tax bill for 2012-13 you might not have noticed that you were asked to pay as much for North Yorkshire police as to Scarborough Borough Council – 18 per cent of the total to each. This alone is only some of the financial cost of reported crime and crime prevention: the cost in personal happiness and social well-being is far greater and invariably far more hurtful. And we all suspect that unreported crime is hidden, immeasurable, yet potentially devastating.
It is therefore hardly surprising that, ever since Adam and Eve disobediently lost their innocence (and ours) by eating the forbidden fruit, humanity has sought how it might recapture the peaceful paradise it had forfeited. There was no crime in the Garden of Eden but there has been crime everywhere ever since.
However, if in the real world crime and punishment seem ineradicable, clearly they are not constants: from place to place and from time to time they have varied enormously. Crime is what any given society regards as a defiance of its rules and punishment what is thought to match it as a deterrent or revenge or both. So that what behaviour is judged unacceptable and outrageous and what forms of retribution are meted out can tell us a great deal about the values of that community. Manners do not make men, men make manners.
Take what might seem a trivial illustration of changing custom and practice. In 1366, Edward III decreed that outdoor bowling was banned in England because it interfered with Sunday archery practice. In 1470, bowlers caught in the act were liable to two years imprisonment for the offence. In 1541, Henry VIII enacted that plebeian subjects who broke the anti-bowling laws should be whipped in public and exposed to ridicule in the stocks. Only gentlemen and ladies were permitted to bowl and many then had their own private house greens. Sir Francis Drake played the game because he was a gentleman. Lady Margaret Hoby had her own bowling green at Hackness Hall and Charles I was addicted to the game. On public greens gentlemen who wore high heeled shoes had to pay an extra sixpence. Henry VIII’s ban was not lifted until 1845.
Here then is a tale of English social history in miniature: from the time of the superiority of the English longbow that won so many victories over foreigners, through class privilege, to democratic freedom. High heels are now forbidden on the green however much you might be able or willing to pay extra to wear them.
The purpose of this new forthcoming series will be to demonstrate the history of the people of Scarborough during the past 400 years by way of their misbehaviour and the penalties they suffered for it. If only by comparison and contrast, it should tell us something about our-selves.