Crime and the rural community in eighteenth century Berkshire, 1740-1789
Eighteenth Century Berkshire was a relatively prosperous
agricultural county, with a steadily growing population and
several thriving commercial centres. This thesis has examined
the recorded incidence of the most common criminal offences
against the person and against property in the fifty years
between 1740 and 1789. Common assault was the most frequent
offence against the person, but its incidence remained fairly
steady until the 1770s, and only thereafter did it cause
the authorities any real concern. The incidence and variety
of assaults was examined and so too were murder, infanticide,
manslaughter and rape. It is suggested that violence was
never far below the surface of the small, close-knit communities
of rural Berkshire, yet it was not indiscriminate.
Recorded theft was also examined and there was a
considerable increase in prosecutions during the period.
Convictions for petty larceny were particularly large.
Factors which might have been responsible for this increase
in recorded crime were examined and so too was the process of
detection, apprehension and conviction. Justices of the
Peace, although diligent, prudent and severe when required to
be, were too few in number and too widely scattered throughout
the county to be entirely effective. Personal initiative
was found to be an important and integral part of the fight
against crime. Litigants predominated amongst the middling
groups in rural society, yet labourers did use the law,
albeit when informal arbitration and sanctions had failed.
It is suggested that they initially depended on "community
justice" to resolve their differences.