Severe penalties for theft

Gallows Close before the development of Sainsburys
Gallows Close before the development of Sainsburys

Written by Dr Jack Binns

Four hundred years ago, the law made clear, crucial distinction between grand and petty larceny: the former was theft of property worth more than 12 pence or one shilling, the latter, theft of goods worth less than that. The distinction was crucial because grand larceny was a capital offence punishable by hanging, whereas petty larceny would earn the offender, if convicted, either a public whipping or a term in the town stocks.

Though this curious, ancient law had been outdated by inflation of prices, it lasted for centuries and was still current in the 1600s. In practice, however, by that time juries were reluctant to convict thieves who had stolen anything that might have been valued at more than a shilling.

A pioneer, scholarly examination of nearly 2,500 cases heard in the assize and quarter sessions courts of East Sussex between 1592 and 1640 revealed that nearly half of them concerned crimes against property, ranging from grand larceny, burglary, petty larceny, horse theft, highway robbery to breaking and entering and cutpursing. Yet in Scarborough, since all these felonies, except petty larceny, were capital crimes, by 1600 they would have been referred to the assizes at York. The borough’s two magistrates had an infamous reputation for “hasty hangyng” of thieves, but by then Gallows Close was only a former place of execution. So for theft in Scarborough we are left with only cases of petty larceny.

As with cases of bastardy, the punishment for petty larceny discriminated unequally and most unfairly between male and female culprits: usually men and boys were committed to the stocks, whereas women and girls were whipped in public on their bare backs.

Early in 1604 there seems to have been a minor epidemic of sheep stealing.

Three men were each presented “upon pettie lacinie” for taking sheep valued at fourpence, threepence and threepence. One of them, William Wardell, after unspecified punishment, was expelled from the town along with his wife and children. Probably, Wardell was a “stranger” or “vagrant” and therefore denied the common rights belonging to residents.

If the case was one of 
aggravated “petty larciny”, the punishment might be increased.

In 1625 two men were whipped after they had been found guilty of stealing plough irons valued at ninepence. Plough irons might not be all that expensive, but to their owner, a Newby farmer, they were indispensable.

Most of the items reported stolen at Scarborough’s sessions were indeed “petty”, yet often the thief must have been desperate, rather than greedy or acquisitive. For instance, in May 1649, William Sheppard was found guilty of merely “offring [attempting] to take cloths from the hedge”. Possibly he was an habitual offender, but for this act of “wickedness” he was set in the stocks for two hours and “a 
paper [put] on his brest [or brow] expressing his fait”.

Ann Harwood certainly was a persistent law-breaker, a notorious scold and quick to resort to violence. At the same sessions, she confessed to Bailiffs Harrison and Fowler that she had “milked Michael Dickinson’s kine in the night”. They sentenced her to be whipped all the way from the [Common] Hall door to Newborough gates.

Elizabeth Stonehouse was no doubt desperate for fuel when she went abroad on the cold night of January 2, 1661. She was found guilty of “takeing feloniously some coales out of the cellar of Mr Francis Sollitt” after she had admitted to have taken “two gowpen [double-hand] fulls of coales out of the cellar”. There were no extending circumstances to moderate her punishment. The bellman was instructed “to whip her upon her naked shoulders from the west of Sandgate to the cellar under the castle where she stole the coales”.

However small the item it was clearly most dangerous to try to rob one of the bailiffs.

Katherine Brooks was accused of taking goods out of the yard of Mr Bailiff Lawson in January 1661. Though only one rope was found “in her custody”, since she was “a most suspected person for severall other misdemeanors of that kind”, the court ordered a whipping. The bellman was told to apply his whip to her bare shoulders “from the market cross (Butter Cross?) into the little lane going from Nether Westgate (Princess Street) to Tuthill” and from there to Jane 
Burton’s house where she lodged.

Just occasionally the larceny was far too grand to be settled in Scarborough and had to be referred to the judges of the York assizes. This was the case of Lord Widdrington’s portmanteau.

“Not having the fear of God before his eyes”, Joseph Weatherill, a Scarborough shoemaker and former constable, was brought before the bailiffs’ court in October 1661 for stealing and carrying away a luggage trunk belonging to Lord Widdrington. What made this crime so remarkable was that it had happened 17 years previously on Seamer fair day, July 4, 1644!

Two days earlier, the Royalist army in Yorkshire had suffered a devastating defeat in battle on Marston Moor. Widdrington was one of a party of aristocratic staff officers who had fled to Scarborough to take ship for exile on the continent.

Though it was very early in the morning, Weatherill was seen by two surviving eye-witnesses to the robbery. Thomas Boyes, then a messenger, and Mary Wright, then a servant, both saw Weatherill draw a knife, cut the strings that tied the heavy portmanteau, take it down from the packhorse and carry it up the stairs from the street into his own house. When Widdrington discovered his loss and complained to Sir Hugh Cholmley, the town’s military governor, the musketeers sent to arrest Weatherill were too late: he had already left the town.

Presumably, given the lapse of time and the disorder of the times, Joseph had thought it safe to return home to Scarborough. He could not have foreseen that in the distant future the Royalists would return to power. It was a fatal error: Weatherill was sent to stand trial at York, found guilty and hanged there. He was one of the many victims of the Restoration of 1660.