Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Crime watch 1642

Mr John Band of Leek has showed me a fascinating collection of documents dating from the 17th century concerning Leek at a time when the country was caught up in the Civil War. The collection is made up of journals, newspaper accounts and letters which gives a real flavour of the time- and a really turbulent time it was.

A letter signed by the prominent citizens of Leek and dated early 1642 is indicative of how law and order was breaking down before the onset of the war which started in October. The period was a very harsh one. The late 16th century and the first decades of the following one saw a series of harvest failures, the possible result of climate change, food price rises and inflation hitting the poor hard. Famine conditions frequently occurred. Roving bands of impoverished were a common sight in England and the response of the authority was one of panic as the example from Leek shows.

The letter was addressed to King Charles 1st representatives complained about riotous disturbances in the town especially on market days.

“ Unto which said markets and ffairs there have usually come and repaired divers misbehaved, deboyst and felonious people not only to the disturbance of his Majesty’s peace committing many felonious acts amongst said inhabitants, but also among other of the said majesty’s liege people”.

(“Deboyst” means corrupt or depraved and appears in Shakespeare’s “Tempest” and “King Lear”}

According to the writer of the letter the answer to the bands of vagabonds and beggars was the construction of a cage and stocks. But Leek being Leek was that no one would pay for the work hence the need to go cap in hand to the authorities in Stafford.

“Accordingly whereby the saide worke beinge a thing of soe great necessity & consequence is likely to bee neglected & utterly loste of unlesse by yor hono worships yor petitioners may be herein relieved”

Of course, England was not the only part of Europe where disturbances occurred. In 1642 the Thirty Years War which had convulsed Central Europe was coming to an end with approximately a third of the population of Germany dead and the countryside ruined. Ireland had been in rebellion the previous year with atrocities recorded.

And in Holland the problem of fecklessness was addressed in a unique way. Simon Schama in his book on the 17th century Dutch Republic describes, not quite believing, the existence of a “water house” in Amsterdam which ne’er do wells were tethered and put in a cell which filled with water and were forced to work a pump to stop from drowning.

I am sure there are people who would agree with such a contrivance existing now!