Victorian Bournemouth (166)

Victorian Bournemouth (166): sentences for thieves

Porridge for the starving poor


Victorian Bournemouth (166) analyses and discusses theft cases heard by local magistrates which resulted in imprisonment. It considers the nature of the crimes, the participants, and the presiding magistrates. A review of theft cases resulting in fines provides a comparison point. Although incipient starvation motivated many thefts, some magistrates interpreted them as cases of social disorder.

Victorian Bournemouth (166): background

Social bias to some theft sentences

Almost every case heard resulted in a conviction followed by a punishment. Most cases resulted in fines and costs. Prison sentences most often went to beggars and thieves. Drunkenness and assault might result in a prison sentence, but not very often: less than a tenth of such cases. Overall, only one in five convicted thieves went to prison. Theft has no intrinsic social bias. The bank embezzlements of the notorious Colonel Waugh do not differ in type from apple scrumping. Nevertheless, analysis suggests that, in some cases, social factors resulted in prison sentences for thieves. First, prison sentences may have varied by presiding magistrate. Magistrates Venner and Elwes, both former military officers, presided more often when a prison sentence resulted. For Everett and Moore, in contrast, prison occurred less often. Second, prison sentences may have occurred more often in cases of prosperous plaintiffs. Order needed severe penalties as its defence. 

Economic circumstances create social bias

Thefts convicted by Bournemouth magistrates involved members of the same social group: labouring people. The convicted included delivery men, a bus-conductor, a navvy, and a labourer. Locational analysis suggests that many dwelt in Springbourne or Boscombe, a zone inhabited by working people, unskilled and skilled. The threat of starvation will have stalked the area’s streets and homes. A coat thief even claimed that this need drove his crime. Illegal digging of vegetables perhaps had similar motives. Amongst this community, sudden receipt of a little cash could make a large difference. Often, when apprehended, even soon after the crime, the thief had already fenced the stolen item. Many stole to survive, few for a living. Thus, theft committed by a homogeneous group of people, although for economic reasons, created the perception of its social bias. Compounded with social prejudice amongst some magistrates this may have increased the chances of prison sentences.

Victorian Bournemouth (166): actions

Prison for old lags

Prison sentences for theft appear to have resulted either from the item stolen or in the case of habitual offenders. An apple stealer, 18, received prison, although the object had little value. Yet, he had behaved in a suspicious way when apprehended holding the fruit. At first, he gave a false address. As a known offender, however, he received five weeks. A woman travelling into the town centre by omnibus found her purse gone. She suspected the conductor. On confrontation, he agreed having it, but his prevarication for several days over returning it appears to have contributed toward receiving three weeks in prison. The proximity between female servants and their mistresses provided a ready opportunity for theft. In one case, a domestic absconded with her employer’s jewellery and clothing. The police apprehended her on board the London train at Poole. As a known offender, she received four months. 

Fines for minor thefts

Theft resulting in fines appeared to occur for first offenders or for minor infractions. Several concerned scrumping or digging up vegetables. Carrots, potatoes, and cabbages obtained through theft all resulted in fines and costs. Travelling on a train without buying a ticket received the same sentence. The magistrates fined a man for obtaining a drink without paying by claiming to work as a commercial traveller, perhaps for the drink manufacturer. Other cases incurring fines included stealing pork, a shilling, a sheet, or just pick-pocketing. A cabdriver stole plates from a china shop. The same happened for theft of a watch or a coat. In some of these cases, the magistrates awarded fines. In others, however, they offered the felon a choice between paying a fine or serving time in prison to avoid the expense. Crimes of this nature perhaps employed mechanical processing without arousing any social prejudices held by magistrates.

Victorian Bournemouth (166): people

Dangerous types

Amongst the flotsam of desperate people thieving items to fund their next meal, some dangerous types appeared before Bournemouth’s magistrates. These people already had experienced both dock and jail but found them no deterrent. Their presence provided magistrates with occasional views of a darker world. A female thief, posing as a servant, stole an expensive jacket and jewellery. A cool operator, she wore the stolen items, hiding in plain sight when the police arrested her. The magistrates sent her back to jail. For another offender, investigation exposed an extended criminal career conducted while still a teenager. After going to a reformatory aged ten, he incurred seven prison sentences for various thefts over five years. His last sentence suggested deepening crime: attempted rape of a six-year old girl. Thus, the magistrates perhaps used prison as a way to remove thieves who posed a more fundamental threat to local order.

Respectable types

Respect for property had always had value within the English establishment. The courts punished people for taking others’ property: a watch, takings, even apples. Genealogical exploration in some cases results in identification of one or both parties involved in a theft. Analysis of the complainants suggests a pattern whereby magistrates awarded prison in cases of offence against established members of society. A repeat offender, a teenager received prison for stealing apples growing in Crag Head, the enormous house built by the plutocrat George Fenwick, a brewer and banker. Stealing tools from the well-known builder C. A. D. George had the same result. Prison went to others who had offended against people trying to run businesses: a baker, dairyman, a draper, a nurseryman. The dairyman’s father farmed over six hundred acres. Thus, the magistrates perhaps used their discretion to protect respectability, awarding harsher sentences for offenders against that social position.


Victorian Bournemouth (166) has assessed crimes of theft which resulted in prison sentences handed down by the local magistrates. It has suggested that the bench awarded prison both for serious crimes as well as to repeat offenders. Lesser crimes, however, might also draw time in prison, if against respectable people. In many cases, theft had occurred for economic reasons, but some magistrates, viewing it through the prism of social discord, awarded prison sentences.


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