[GS: I am very pleased to include this blog post from Matthew Parish, one of our former legal history students. Matthew is currently completing his LL.M. at the University of Bristol, having graduated from the LL.B. last year. His interest in legal history was sparked by the legal history unit, and, in his own words, he was ‘hooked by tales of goose thievery, witch trials, and clandestine marriages, and became increasingly aware of the historical contingency of contemporary law and the importance of understanding the social, cultural, and intellectual forces that shaped it’. After the LL.M., he is off to work at the Law Commission as a Research Assistant for 2023/24 – and then hopes to return to academia and undertake a PhD, pursuing his passion for all things legal history. Many thanks for this, Matthew, and now, on with those geese …]
Awaking early on the morning of the 8th of September 1866, Thomas Clark, a farmer of Lewisham Village, opened his stable doors and witnessed a scene that horrified him. The stable, which had just the night before been alive with much squawking, clucking, and avian merriment, now lay silent. His 14 geese had vanished! Later that same day, in the Earl Grey pub of Lewisham Village, 3 men happened to be selling geese. “Six for a sovereign”, they cried. Evidently hungrier than James Ware – the other bystander present to the tantalising offer (who had decided to reject the bargain) – Fredrick Haynes accepted and paid 3s for a goose. Fortunately, this is not the opening to Sherlock Holmes’s shortest and dullest adventure. Instead, it is a criminal case, held at the Old Bailey on the 22nd of October 1866. Indeed, the mind of a great detective was not required. Local policeman John Moore possessed facilities enough to link the disappearance of geese from a local farm in the morning, to the sale of geese in the local pub in the evening. Guilty verdicts for animal theft were secured for 2 of the 3 men.
What to 21st-century readers may seem to be the least cunning criminal plot imaginable may provide historical insight into 19th-century England. If nothing else, the case of the 14 missing geese highlights the centrality of the local village community to 19th-century life. John Hibbert, one of the convicted goose thieves, was well known within the community, and, according to a local villager, regularly demonstrated his hard-working character in the neighbourhood. Thus, the entire scope of the crime was within the boundaries of a small community; the geese were stolen by local men from a local farm and sold at the local pub. One explanation for such a locally situated and blatant crime may be the weak intellectual prowess of the thieves. Alternatively, and perhaps cumulatively with the former explanation, the locality of the crime may indicate the centrality of the local community to the lives of those living within it, with individuals unable to conceptualise, and unwilling to pursue, a broader world of criminal and non-criminal enterprise beyond the narrow boundaries of their community.
The centrality of the local community is also demonstrated in criminal cases regarding transportation. Transportation was a criminal punishment in English law, prevalent in the 18th and 19th centuries, in which convicts were deported to foreign settlements, primarily in the West Indies, America and Australia. However, in 1789, under the rafters of the Old Bailey, a curious objection to the punishment arose at the hands of a group of women. The women were sentenced to death; their crime – robbing a rich man of his hat and 14 guineas. The women were subsequently offered a pardon, with their sentence reduced to transportation (a common scenario in the chaotic and discretionary sentencing regimes of 18th and 19th-century criminal law). Yet, the women refused the pardon and the lesser sentence of transportation to Botany Bay. Instead, they demanded the full sentence of execution…
Whilst, to contemporary readers, the opportunity to be transported to Australia may seem like the premise of a Channel 4 real estate show, the conditions of Australian transportation settlements were often horrific and boasted extraordinary fatality rates. Yet, given the slow spread of news in the 18th century, the convicted women would have had no awareness of the poor conditions of Botany Bay at the time they were offered a pardon. Thus, the choice the women faced was simply that of certain death vs an uncertain life in Australia. In choosing the former, and perceiving life in Australia as a fate worse than death, the decision of the women appears to be – to put it mildly – an ill-judgment (perhaps rivalled only by the plot to sell stolen geese in the local pub).
However, the remarks of the women at the Old Bailey illuminate their baffling decision. As one of the women retorted, “I will die by the laws of my country before I go abroad for my life”. She subsequently added, “I will die first, I will not go out of my native country”. The preference for dying in England highlights the almost inexplicable significance that individuals placed on the certainty of local life and community. In this sense, much like the goose thieves, it seems that the women’s conception of ‘life’ and ‘the world’ did not stretch beyond that of their local community.
Unsurprisingly, the women eventually recanted, and reluctantly accepted transportation over death. Remarkably, in taking advantage of a small mutiny, the women managed to flee transportation. Upon escape, rejecting the chance to seek anonymity in the shadows of one of the darker corners of England, the women simply returned to their lives in London. Unsurprisingly, two of the women were subsequently recaptured. Again, the seemingly baffling decision merely to return, as wanted convicts, to their lives in London highlights the centrality of community and local life. The world to such individuals is seemingly a permanent and fixed dichotomy between ‘home’ and ‘not home’, with it uncountenanceable to live a life beyond the boundaries their community.
When reading criminal trials such as the aforementioned, the immediate response of understanding 19th-century criminals as intellectually deficient is certainly an impulse hard to resist. Indeed, given the apparently poor standards of Victorian criminality and policing, it is hard to overcome the temptation of concluding that, had I been alive, I would have been the most infamous and feared goose thief in all the land. And yet, a more in-depth look at such criminal cases makes plain that to assume the ineptitude of 19th-century convicts is an anachronism that ignores the value that local community life once held in the minds of individuals. We must then look beyond apparent ineptitude – and put aside egotistical notions of being master goose-thieves – instead understanding that had we been alive, our worldview would have been much the same.