The justice of Felons

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In my dad’s column from 14th February 1981, he mentions some interesting ‘crime prevention’ initiatives that local populations established in the early 19th century to protect themselves and their property from the attentions of any ne’er-do-wells.

Before a national police force was created, many communities across the country came together to form groups with the aim of crime prevention and for the apprehension and punishment of outlaws. They were a bit like today’s neighbourhood watch schemes and the names of all these bodies were very similar, such as the ‘Glaisdale and Lealholm Society for the Prevention and Prosecution of Felons’, or the ‘Weardale Park and Forest Association for the Prosecution of Felons’.

These cumbersome names were shortened to ‘The Felons’ and, according to Dad, some of them were still going strong in 1981, though by then their main point of business seemed to be the arranging of an annual dinner, rather than maintaining local law and order. 

But what I found fascinating was the record of the original duties of the societies as it demonstrates what was important to rural residents in the 19th century. It gives us a snapshot of their lives back then, what it was that they valued and what was likely to be targeted by the criminals. They were also tasked with ensuring the streets were kept free of bothersome youths who would gather en masse in certain places to seek the kind of entertainment that would irritate the older members of the community.

The following is an account of the principles of the Weardale Felons. What follows is possibly one of the longest sentences known to man (whoever wrote it was not acquainted with the full stop), but I hope you will find it as entertaining as I did. 

The association existed ‘for the apprehending and bringing to conviction any person or persons committing murder, robberies, felonies or petty theft, notorious crimes or misdemeanours, in any of our dwelling houses or against any of our persons or by stealing any of our property from any outhouses, field or premises, or off or from the commons appurtenant or appendant to the said Parish of Stanhope, or any horses, mares, geldings, cows, calves, sheep, swine and poultry, and other goods and chattels of any description, hay, corn, turnips, potatoes, gates, flood-gates, rails, or by cutting or destroying any young trees or plants or breaking gardens or by taking away or destroying or burning any of our hedges or quicksets within said Parish of Stanhope, and also for the due punishing of any person or persons that may hereafter be found trespassing by going out of the roads, fighting, sliding upon the snow or ice, or playing at football or other unlawful games, in any of our fields and premises or otherwise, and for other purposes on the bond of association contained.’ Phew!

It’s funny to us now that football might be considered an ‘outlawed’ game, but it could be an extremely violent und unruly pastime, rather than the ‘beautiful game’ we see today. The rules of football were not officially set down until the 1850s, but most local clubs continued with their own version of ‘mob’ football which often resulted in some nasty injuries.

What I found most troubling though was a subsequent (and mercifully much shorter) paragraph about the punishment of felons: ‘We are determined that no means shall be neglected for apprehending and bringing such offenders to condign punishment.’ This suggests to me that they are giving themselves leave to dispense whatever form of vigilante justice they deem fit, which in itself is just a different kind of lawlessness. 

There were two words I had to look up in these society rules, and I hope I’m not the only one. I didn’t know that a ‘quickset’ was actually a type of hedge and not something offered by the hairdresser. And ‘condign’ in this context means a punishment that befits the crime, such as having your hand chopped off if you are caught stealing (although that is more a mediaeval punishment than from the 19th century). 

Although they seem to have granted members limitless powers, I’m not sure how effective these societies actually were. They gradually fizzled out with the advent of a national police force, with only a few, as I mentioned, enduring into modern times.

I wonder if any are still going to this day?

Contact me, and read more, at countrymansdaughter.com. Follow me on Twitter @countrymansdaug

This column appeared in the Darlington & Stockton Times on 19th February and the Gazette & Herald on 17th February 2021

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