Written by Dr Jack Binns
Out of a British population of over 60 million, today more than 80,000 adult men and women are in prison, each costing an average of £40,000 a year. The prison population has been rising steadily during the last two decades: since 1990 the figure has doubled.
In the well-remembered and often-quoted words of a former Home Secretary, Michael Howard, “prison works”, and it is true that the number of reported crimes has fallen as the prison population has increased.
A recent report, published by Birmingham University, “Acquisitive Crime: Imprisonment, Detection and Social Factors”, covering the years 1993 to 2008 in England and Wales, confirmed what might seem blindingly obvious. Putting more convicted burglars, thieves and fraudsters behind bars and keeping them there longer reduced cases of burglary and fraud!
So how did our ancestors manage to live in a society much freer of crime than ours without prisons? Four hundred years ago Scarborough had no lock-up for long-term civil and criminal offenders. The Crown used its castle as a prison for political and religious dissenters. Most famously, George Fox, the Quaker leader, spent 16 very uncomfortable months there in 1665-6; but the town had no such accommodation.
Debtors were required to pay their creditors in money or seized goods; if they had neither they were subjected to the public humiliation of the market stocks. Vagrants and beggars might be locked up for a day or two, but then whipped out of the borough to the next parish by Scarborough’s constables.
The town had a gaoler, yet his responsibility was for no more than a single cell, variously described as “the cage” or, ominously, “the Black Hole”, built into the structure of Newborough Bar. His only fee was fourpence for “every arrest of a strainger or unfreeman for his gaole”. Inmates were required to pay for their own subsistence.
So how can historians explain Scarborough’s law-abiding record four centuries ago in the absence of the deterrence and punishment of prison? On more than one occasion, the borough magistrates had no cases to consider and the clerk wrote “Omne bene” (All’s well) in the court book!
Some commentators might argue that because detection and punishment were more certain and severe in such a small community, fear of arrest, the pain of whipping and exposure in the stocks were the principal and sufficient deterrents. Others would say that dread of Hell and belief in heavenly reward for virtue were then far more persuasive than the earthly menaces of constables, juries and justices.
A possible explanation for Scarborough’s relative freedom from peacetime crime 400 years ago might be found in the character of its community and the effectiveness of its local government.
Between two and three thousand residents lived closely together in a confined area between Sandside and Newborough Bar. As yet, there was no segregation by wealth or occupation. In all four Quarters, Undercliff, Oldborough, Newborough and St Mary’s, rich and poor lived side by side. Scarborough’s grandest town mansion with 12 tax-paying hearths belonging to the Thompsons was in Sepulchregate. Scarborough’s up and coming ship-building elite, the Porrits, Cockerills and Tindalls, chose to live close to their yards on Sandside. The poorest people were to be found in Falsgrave village, where more than two out of five households had only one fireplace.
Secondly, Scarborough had extremes of affluence and deprivation, but its widows, child orphans, bastard children and the impotent elderly were all taken care of, one way or another, by the parish churchwardens.
The town had a poorhouse for the worst cases. Poor law records, for instance, show that in 1647, a time of exceptional distress, 46 “aged poore and impotent” residents received weekly sums depending on their circumstances ranging from ten to twopence. The eldest, George Potter, was 101, the youngest, a widow of 57. Contributors to the poor fund were assessed according to their perceived means. In addition, 16 orphaned infants, aged from five to 13, and therefore considered too young yet to be apprenticed, received similar small weekly sums for their poorhouse keep. Masters who refused to take on paupers as apprentices were heavily fined.
Thirdly, the borough’s governors kept a tight but fair hold on the town’s commerce and industries. The customer was protected against exploitation and deceit; the quality of market goods was monitored; employers had to pay minimum wages; craftsmen and traders were shielded from foreign competition. In short, when times were good there was a fairly equitable share of prosperity and, when they were bad, the weakest were given shelter and sustenance.
Finally, though the Town Hall was a self-perpetuating oligarchy and virtually a closed shop, most townspeople respected its authority and acknowledged its ancient rights of government. One of the most heinous offences was to question or insult the absolute power of the bailiffs, especially when they were sitting as justices of the peace.
It was very rare for a councillor to live outside the borough: nearly all of the 44 resided, worked and drew their livelihood within the Liberty. A high proportion of them were shipbuilders, shipowners, master mariners and merchant traders. When “foreigners”, like Sir Henry Gate of Seamer or Sir Thomas Hoby of Hackness, tried to elbow their way into the town’s affairs or question its privileges, the councillors closed ranks and resisted them successfully.
Scarborians were proud of themselves, of their royal castle and their royal charters, of their two MPs in the House of Commons, of their splendid man-made harbour, of their grammar school and their magnificent parish church. And that pride induced a strong spirit of community which allowed the town clerk to write “Omne bene” in the quarter sessions court book.