Paying for crime

15 May 2015

Most of the time, I steer well clear of opinionated blog posts. However, something is concerning me. I am currently investigating the familyhistory of a man transported to Australia, having been tried and convicted for burglary in London. He spent the remainder of his life in Australia, had a family and earned a good living after serving the required ‘time’ for his crime. At Bodmin Gaol, the first confirmed hangings (1802) were those of John Vanstone and William Lee who were convicted for burglary.

The news channels have been filled recently with the trial of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the Boston Marathon bomber and the case of Lindsay Sandiford who has been jailed in Bali for smuggling drugs from Thailand (with a street value of £1.6m) in 2012. These are, of course, far more serious crimes than the chap I am researching who burgled homes in the late 1840s. Though it set me wondering – transportation or hanging for stealing someone else’s possessions or goods in the 1800s and now, those crimes often go unpunished (or aren’t even investigated)? You have to commit a far more serious crime now to be sentenced to death. [In case you have missed the news, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev has been sentenced to death today and Lindsay Sandford has a six-month window to appeal.]


Has our justice system softened over the last few centuries? On the face of it, it would certainly appear so. The criminal records available in relation to our ancestor’s misdemeanours, indicate that the punishments meted out were much greater.

For example, Joseph Charman, was convicted for stealing a tame fowl. He was discharged aged twelve after serving a sentence of six weeks’ hard labour. In his record, there is also a note ‘5 years ref’, which means he was ordered to serve five years on the Reformatory School Ship Cornwall, which was moored at Purfleet. For stealing an a tame fowl!

Joseph was in Ham (Surrey) in 1871 – one year before his conviction – with his widowed father, four siblings and a nephew. Joseph may well have fallen foul of the law in order to support his family in troubled times. This was often the case for young criminals in Victorian times.

My question though: if Joseph had been around in the 21st century and committed the same crime, would he have been given the same punishment? I am certain that the answer to that question is ‘No’. Did his punishment fit the crime? Should people be sentenced to death as a punishment for their crime/s? Your thoughts….?

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