In the Dorset History Centre and available on Ancestry is the Criminal process register. 1782-1808, Catalogue Reference NG-PR/1/D/1/1. This gives much information, such as the prisoner’s name, the magistrate who committed them, their place of residence, their description, age, date of committal, charge and sentence. It makes for harrowing reading to see the incredibly harsh penalties for minor crimes such as stealing turnips, stealing some ash poles, vagrancy. All sentenced to at least one month’s hard labour, sometimes more.
There is much to be learnt from these records and much research could be done. For example what was a typical sentence for poaching? Did it change with time? Who were the magistrates? What is their record of convictions? How frequent are poaching offences? Are some estates more prone than others to bring poachers to justice?- so many questions.
The Combination Acts of 1799 and 1800 (repealed in 1824) were used against trade unions, or combinations of workmen, when the government feared unrest and even revolution. Combinations were in fact already illegal under both common law and statute; the Acts were intended to simplify and speed up prosecution by summary trial. We now know that the Milton Abbas Martyrs were the first men in Dorset, March 1803, to be convicted of ‘conspiring with others to increase wages’. So they were very important to Dorset History.
Were they the first in England?
Why are the Combination Acts so little studied today? Surely they are important to English social history. They were introduced by the well known William Pitt.
At least they were well known to the Webbs – History of Trade Unionism 1907 “The general Combination Act of 1799, re-affirmed and amended by that of 1800 (39 and 40 Geo. III. c. 60), which added some abortive arbitration clauses, was not merely the codification of existing laws, or their extension from particular trades to the whole field of industry. It represented a new and momentous departure.” And to E P Thomson – The Making of the English Working Class, 1980. Classic books which are so little studied today.