May 07, 2008

The Robbery of Thomas Barnard

In the next place was Try'd a Butcher , against whom it was alledged that he and his Companions rob'd one Thomas Barnard of about five or six pound in money, and afterwards desperately wounded him, with an intention, as was thought, to have kill'd him, to prevent Discovery , being, it seems, known to the said Barnard; But he by providence escaping with his life, declaring the manner of the fact, and naming one of the principal persons concern'd in it, upon a diligent serch it was not longe'r he was apprehended.This Fellony and Robbery was committed a little beyond Islington , between which place and Barnet divers others were robbed that Evening, and as was supposed, by the same gang, but no more of them were taken, neither did any of the persons so robed give Evidence against the Prisoner, but onely the said Thomas Barnard , who knowing him so well, and giving in so plain an Evidence against him, the Jury could do no less then find him Guilty , according to which evidence he now stands Condemned.

I have highlighted this from the Old Bailey records website - because I think it is intrinsically interesting. But before that the website itself is pretty extraordinary and is going straight on my blogroll- as it contains all the published records for the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey from the 17th Century to the early 20th Century when records ceased to be published. I am adding this to my blogroll because its a really wonderful resource for anyone interested in social and criminal history.

I bring up this entry though, about the robbery and attempted murder of Thomas Barnard, for a variety of reasons. One is two important signs of the way that life has changed: the first is that Islington in the 17th Century was a village not part of London as it is now, Barnet too is part of London. Highwaymen do not frequent the roads around Barnet and Islington now: that's partly because there are no highwaymen in the UK (we will move onto the reasons for that later) but those roads on which Thomas Barnard was robbed are today roads through suburban houses, filled with the bustle of city life and the area where he was robbed is now passed through by trains and tubes. That's one major change- another is the amount of money for which he was robbed- five or six pounds isn't that much money today, it will buy you some fruit, a sandwich and a coffee at some places today- in the seventeenth century five or six pounds was a hell of a lot of money. A lease in 1688 for a house with "courtledge [curtilage] orchard, garden, Hempland Meadow and close on West Cheseldon, one and a half acres" was worth roughly 2 pounds a year. So Thomas Barnard, fifteen years before that lease was brought out, was robbed of the equivalent of a two rents for a house with land- that's a hell of a lot of money in anyone's terms.

What else is interesting in this record? Well there is plenty more obviously but lets start with something I consider very interesting. There are no Highwaymen in England anymore. Why? It might seem like an odd question- afterall the levels of violence have fallen across the centuries- but think again whilst levels of violence have fallen, the types of violence have not disappeared. Violent assault by men on their wives, I would guess is less than it was in 1673, but it has not disappeared. So why did Highwaymen disappear? There is a reason that highwaymen disappeared and it has to do with the fact that their habitat disappeared. So let us look for the moment at what happened to their habitat- the rural roads around Islington and Barnet which once were prayed on and dominated by gangs like those referred to above: well one thing is that they aren't rural any more, but there are rural roads so what has changed about those rural roads?

One word comes to mind, one word that really explains the way that the English countryside has changed: that word is "Enclosure". From 1500 onwards English agriculture changed its ways completely- in your stereotypical medieval village the fields were divided into strips. Each peasant would have a strip and the field of several acres would be managed by the whole group collectively rather than individually. Property rights were subject to what E.P. Thompson called the 'moral economy'- they were not absolute. Common fields existed within people's property and were tilled by all- often for instance people would have rights to take turf for fires from a field whilst the ownership went with someone else. Significantly of course, there were common ways stretching across fields and boundaries between fields were crooked and fields were unfenced and unhedged and only locals might know where a right of passage had evolved across centuries. In this system of local byways and chaotic field organisation, highwaymen could easily evaporate into the landscape, knowing routes unavailable to less local law enforcement officials. Notice what happened within Barnard's case- he only managed to gain a conviction because he recognised his assailant.

That brings me to my last interesting point about what we can tell from this one transcript: Barnard recognised his assailant. Presumably the assailant was someone Barnard knew in his other trade as a butcher- again remember this is a local society. More often than not, people would know their assailant if they were local. Unlike most of us, whose worlds at home scarcely stretch outside our streets- these were people whose main social network were those who lived closely to them. In the Barnard case, this Butcher was unlucky enough to come across someone from the community who used his local knowledge to escape and who could identify the assailant. Of course by the end of the seventeenth century that was changing- by 1700 a tenth of the population of England lived in London- but still as a general truth it holds, this was a much less numerous and much more local society than any any of the readers of this blog lives in.

One thing though doesn't appear to have changed- if we look at the record and assess it on face value (ie assume it tells the truth about whatever happened that night in Islington) then it confirms something all of us are familiar with from the news: that robbers when frightened by the prospect of discovery will often murder rather than pursue their other crime. History is full of these moments of strangeness- when the past seems so far away that we can barely understand it (for a Londoner imagining Islington as a village!) and moments of familiarity where you can understand immediately what is happening. The task of a historian is not to forget when feeling one emotion that the other exists- history is the human past: it happened to people, but not people like us.


Lil Jimmy said...

In moving towards the new feudalism, Tiberius, we may well eventually recognize our assailant again.

Gracchi said...

James I have no idea what the 'new feudalism' is but if you mean we are heading back to the British economy of c.1700 I see no indications of that.