This is my first time writing for Archives+ blog, and what better way to start than by writing about crime?! 

When I first started researching this post I set myself a wide brief of ‘crime and/or prisons in Manchester before 1900.’ Much of the information about prisons that I looked at were minutes from committee meetings which were not quite as interesting or damning as I would have hoped: the bulk of the minutes said, in short, that prison conditions were generally fine although some prisoners weren’t particularly happy with the food. When you take into consideration that New Bailey Prison (of which the records that I studied were written) closed in 1868 due to overcrowding, it does make you wonder how truthful the minutes were. If you are interested in finding out more about the history of the New Bailey Prison I found quite an interesting article (with pictures and plans) here. Manchester Archives have also created a map showing the location of prisons and workhouses in Manchester prior to 1929.

The only snapshot that I could find about what a prisoner’s life would or could have been like come from some prison accounts. The images below show details of income and expenditure of prisoners at the New Bailey as well as the treasurer’s accounts, both in 1846. Unsurprisingly the food was far from being a gastronomic delight, although considering the poor standard of living outside the prison walls it does make you wonder how prison life would have fared compared to poverty.


Prisoners’ Earning and Cost of Provisions


Treasurer of the New Bailey Prison (1 of 2)


Treasurer of the New Bailey Prison (2 of 2)

My research into prisons had essentially hit a brick wall so, as is the way with many millennials, I decided to move on to crime rather than to delve deeper and hope for the best with prisons. Thankfully researching crime in Manchester was a much more fruitful and enjoyable endeavour and there was a plethora of interesting, comical and well-worded (the meaning of this will become apparent later) crimes that were reported in newspapers and court records.

First to the newspapers. It is worth noting that the majority of crimes were of theft or burglary, and interestingly that these were classed as felonies while the majority of other crimes, such violent crimes and assault, were usually classed as misdemeanours. Newspaper column inches were full of reports of petty thefts and many took place in shops or taverns.

BR FF 942.72 Felony 147

Felony: theft, 1793

Some ‘bigger’ crimes that featured in newspapers included this report on an assault and highway robbery. This was quite a violent robbery and was relatively uncommon when compared to other types of theft and crime, details of which can be found on the Archives+ Flickr and also in another Archives+ blog on wanted posters.

BR FF 942.72 Assault 150

Highway Robbery

While looking at the many reported thefts and burglaries was not uninteresting, it was the more left-field crimes and notices that caught my eye. There wasn’t a great number in the newspaper clippings, but the public notice about people being prosecuted for using wheelbarrows on public footpaths did catch my eye and it really makes you think about how different the streets of Manchester would have been back in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

BR FF 942.72 Public Notice 148

Having seen this notice, and having finished looking through the newspaper clippings, I wondered if the court records would shed light on interesting crimes in Manchester. Opening the first page of the court records which gave an overview of proceedings I was not disappointed, with a note written that a prisoner wished that “the Devil might whip the Chairman and Jury seven times Round Hell.” This serves as a nice introduction to the final, and most entertaining, part of this blog post which I shall call ‘interesting, well-worded crimes and their sentences’ (I’m not happy with this title, but sometimes you just have to move forward…). 

In the Calendars of All the Prisoners in the House of Correction at Manchester, by W. Dunstan, Governor of the New Bailey Prison there were two crimes of note:

11th October 1809 – Includes man to be set in the pillory at Manchester and imprisoned for 6 months for selling obscene songs.

9th January 1832 – Selling immoral prints at Manchester and committing a nuisance by boiling bones into size (sentence not given).

It seems a bit harsh to have been imprisoned for six months for selling obscene songs, but without a record of the song itself I suppose that it’s difficult to really know if the punishment was fit for the crime. As for selling immoral prints and boiling bones into size, artists are always the first to suffer.

1821, James Loverty and James Lowry, both aged 20 – charged, convicted and imprisoned for 6 months, on the oath of John Rollinson, with being rogues and vagabonds, found, at Great Bolton, wandering abroad, and lodging at ale-houses, barns, and out-houses, or in the open air, not giving a good account of themselves.

It makes you wonder how much of a punishment imprisonment was when you were a vagabond.

1821 – Imprisoned for 2 months and sureties herself in £20 and two sureties in £10 each, to keep the peace 2 years longer – charged, on the oath of James Taylor, with keeping, at Wardleworth, a certain bad and disorderly house, and thereby, for her own lucre and gain, encouraging divers evil and ill-disposed persons, as well men as women, of evil name and fame, to come together and there continue, to the great nuisance of his majesty’s liege subjects.

If this was quite as bad as the number of times they used ‘evil’ implies that it was, this seems like a relatively lax punishment. To put it into perspective, here is a sample of some common crimes (yes, common) and their sentences.

Offence: a lewd woman. Punishment: imprisonment for 6 – 12 months. (I suppose the sentence depended upon the extent of their lewdness).

Offence: Bastardy. Punishment: imprisonment 3 months, or a fine of £1. 6s – £5. 0s. 1d.

Offence: Neglect of family. Punishment: 1-2 months imprisonment.

Offence: Exposing his person. Punishment: 6 days imprisonment or pay 5/ and 5/.

Offence: Obstructing a footpath. Punishment: 3 days or (and?) pay 5/ and 5/.

Offence: Friendly prostitute. Punishment: 7 days hard labour.

Offence: Damaging a plant. Punishment: 21 days hard labour or pay 10/1 and 8/ costs.

Offence: Using profane language. Punishment: 7 days imprisonment or pay 2/6 and 21/ costs.

Offence: Drunk & riotous (which was increasingly common towards the 1860s). Punishment: 7 days imprisonment or pay 5/ and 3/.

In addition rape, or, being “charged on the oath of [name] with having assaulted her, with intent to ravish, and carnally to know,” carried a sentence of one year’s imprisonment.

Finally, death sentences did appear in the records and the following three criminals were all executed at New Bailey. 

1866 – James Burrows, sentenced to death, on the 21st May 1866 wilfully + of malice aforethought killed + murdered one John Brennan at Hopwood.

1868 – Miles Weatherill, sentenced to death, having on the 2nd March 1868 feloniously wilfully & with malice aforethought killed & murdered one June Smith, also by drawing a fizel feloniously attempted to discharge a loaded pistol at the Rev Anthony John Plow with intent to murder him, also did with a hatchet wound the said Rev Anthony John Plow, also further charged with shooting at one Harriet Louisa Plow with intent to murder her & with a certain piece of iron, to wit a poker, did wound the said Harriet Plow. 

1868 – Timothy Faherty, sentenced to death, on the 25th December 1867 feloniously , wilfully and of his malice aforethought did kill and murder one Mary Hamner at Droylsden. 

Looking at the crimes that were committed is an interesting read and is surprisingly varied. I would highly recommend anyone who has an interest in crime in Manchester to take a look on  Find My Past to explore the prison and court records, and I also found this very good blog which goes into detail about court records and prison records for New Bailey prison as well as Strangeways and Belle Vue prisons.

This blog post was written for Archives+ by one of our volunteers as part of our Heritage Lottery Funded project.