Margate Crime and Margate Punishment

Anthony Lee

1. The Justice System at Margate.

Anti-social behaviour has been a problem for all communities, at all times, and was so even for a small town like Margate which, in the days before the craze for sea-bathing, contained only about 600 families.1 Misdemeanours within the town would mostly have been fairly minor; sexual wrongdoing, drunkenness, family squabbles, arguments with neighbours, and missing church on a Sunday, all matters that could be dealt with by the churchwardens and the church courts. However, the role of the church courts gradually declined and by the middle of the eighteenth century most crimes were dealt with by courts presided over by the local magistrates, the Justices of the Peace. This created a problem for Margate. Margate was a ‘limb’ or administrative part of the port and town of Dover and, under this arrangement, Dover was responsible for the implementation of law in Margate; Margate was not answerable to the Justices of the Peace for Kent, meeting at Maidstone and Canterbury, but came under the legal system operating at Dover. Dover, like most of the other corporate towns in Kent, was governed by twelve jurats (aldermen), from whom the Mayor was elected, and thirty six common councillors; the jurats and councillors were chosen from the freemen (all male) of Dover.2 The Dover jurats acted as Justices of the Peace at what, by the 1800s, had become known as the Court of General Sessions and Gaol Delivery, a court equivalent to a County Assizes.3 The lack of surviving records makes the early history of the court unclear, but it is likely that the mayor and jurats of Dover met in this way from before the middle of the sixteenth century, the earlier Hundreds Court gradually evolving into the Court of General Sessions.

By the eighteenth century the Justices of the Peace had become the gate keepers to the English criminal justice system. It was they who had to be informed of a suspected crime and it was they who had to decide whether a suspect should be sent for trial. If a Justice of the Peace thought that an offence was serious, especially if violence was involved, he would class the offence as a felony and would then have to ensure that a formal prosecution of the accused took place; the accused would be committed to gaol to await trial at the next session of the Assizes, or would be bound over to appear at the sessions, together with any material witnesses. For lesser, petty, crimes a Justices of the Peace had more choice about how to proceed. If he thought there was no merit in a case, he would simply reject it, but if he decided a case had merit he would follow one of three courses of action. He could try to mediate an agreement between the defendant and prosecutor and so avoid taking the case any further. This pastoral role of the Justices was considered to be particularly important. Indeed, Sir J. Eardley-Wilmot, M.P. is quoted as saying of the Justices in 1837 ‘the most important part of their duties was their residence in the various places in the county where they lived and where they were enabled to act as friends of the poor and heal disputes as arbitrators and referees. In case of assault, differences between masters and servants, and cases of trespass, their interposition was most constant and useful’.4 If a Justice thought a case was more serious and should go to court, he could bind over the defendant by recognizance to keep the peace and to appear at the next sessions to answer the charge. A recognizance was a bond which became payable to the crown if the defendant failed to appear at the sessions or failed to behave properly. It was usual for a Justice to require two sureties on a recognizance, the sureties each being bound for half the sum that bound the defendant. If a defendant was unable to find sureties, or if the alleged offence was particularly serious, he would be committed to prison to await trial. Alternatively, for some minor offences, a Justice could summarily convict a defendant without a jury trial and sentence the defendant to some punishment such as a fine, a whipping, or a period in gaol.  Some summary convictions could be made by a Justice sitting alone whereas others required two Justices to act together. From this arose the practice of Justices holding petty sessions where a group of local Justices met together to conduct business which they could not complete individually, but which did not need a full meeting of the Justices at the sessions. 

Before the court met, the Clerk of the Court would draw up indictments presenting the formal charges against the accused, using information provided by the Justices of the Peace and the victims. At the sessions the grand jury, composed of local men of some standing, would meet to decide whether there was sufficient evidence against the accused to merit a trial before a trial jury. If the grand jury decided that there was some merit in the case the defendant would be brought into court, formally charged and asked to plead guilty or not guilty, those pleading not guilty going on to trial before the trial or petty jurors. Petty jurors would be of lesser social standing than the grand jurors but still predominantly middle class.

This system failed for Margate at many levels. A Jurat of Dover, living in Dover, could not provide a good ‘pastoral’ service to the inhabitants of Margate; a Jurat would simply not have the local knowledge required to be a good arbiter of events in Margate. Then, to report a possible crime, a victim would have to travel the twenty three miles to Dover to present his case to one of the Jurats, usually the Mayor of Dover or the Deputy-Mayor. If they decided that a case should go for trial, the accuser, the accused and any witnesses would all have to travel to Dover for the trial and would probably have to stay overnight; if it was decided that the accused would need to be held in detention, it would be in Dover gaol that they would be held. Finally, although the inhabitants of Margate could not be Jurats, as they could never be Freemen of Dover, they were expected to serve on the Grand and Petty Juries, with all the inconveniences and expenses associated with travelling to, and staying in, Dover.

To alleviate some of these problems, the Mayor of Dover appointed an inhabitant of Margate to be his representative in Margate; he was known as the Deputy, and he was also made the High Constable for Margate with responsibility for overseeing law and order in the town. Until paid police forces were established in England in the second quarter of the nineteenth century there was a collective obligation on all the inhabitants to help maintain law and order in their neighbourhood. For almost 600 years the Statute of Winchester of 1285 laid down what was expected.5,6 Everyone had a duty to maintain the peace and had the right to arrest an offender. The most common crimes were likely to be simple theft or housebreaking, and, if the offender was not caught red-handed, unpaid, part-time constables, often referred to as petty constables, were expected to raise a hue and cry, and, with the help of the inhabitants, to chase the offender through the streets and arrest them. The petty constables were also responsible for presenting offenders at court for trial.

The effectiveness of the system relied on the quality of the petty constables and their willingness, or ability, to perform their duties in an efficient and conscientious manner. These duties were onerous and only someone of ‘honesty, knowledge and ability’ could be expected to perform the role well.7 It was accepted that professionals such as clergymen, lawyers, attorneys and physicians could not be expected to fill the office, and so most petty constables were appointed from amongst the tradesmen and craftsmen of a town. The constables had, of course, to earn their livelihoods at the same time as carrying out their constableship duties, and only a man of some economic and social standing would have been able to devote the necessary time to their duties.7  The petty constables were not like a modern police officer, and little proactive investigation was expected from them; the concept of crime detection was not yet established. The role of the petty constables was to watch others, both to prevent crime and to witness any crime that did occur; the petty constables were often, therefore, referred to as watchmen, and Acts of Parliament referred to ‘watching’ a town rather than ‘policing’ it.

The petty constable system, relying on local amateurs assisted by their friends and neighbours, with the army as the defence of last resort, lasted as long as it did because many saw an efficient police force as rather un-British and tyrannical. Nevertheless, there was little point in improving a town by building elegant streets and smart new squares if they were to be cluttered up with loiterers, itinerant street sellers, and vagabonds, jostling respectable citizens, or worse. The view grew that many of the problems in a town were caused by an incorrigible ‘criminal’ class lurking in the rougher parts of town. Gradually towns and cities came to be seen as dangerous and dirty places, especially those areas where the poorer sections of the community lived. For a poor family living in a single room, the courtyard, the street and the pub became the centre for leisure and recreation. The courtyards and the streets were where they hung out their clothes to dry and where they dumped their rubbish. Many streets seemed to the rich to belong to the poor and pressure built up to strengthen policing and make the streets safer for the quality, hopefully at not too great a cost to the rates.

Although the local petty constables did not constitute a police force in the modern sense there was a police force in London from whom help could be obtained, the Bow Street Police, established in the mid eighteenth century; the Principal Officers at Bow Street were often called to the provinces to investigate serious crimes such as spying or sedition, and criminal gangs.8 In 1798 five Irish men were arrested at Margate ‘on suspicion of carrying on a treasonable correspondence with the French Government’.9-12 The men ‘having been some days at Margate, and one of them offering a very considerable sum (it is said, 150 guineas) for a  boat to go over to Flushing,’ a message was sent to  London, and two Bow-street officers, Rivett and Fugion, travelled to Margate, to the King’s Head Public house in the High street, where the men were staying. The five men were arrested and ‘escorted to Canterbury, in five post chaises, guarded by a party of the 7th regiment of Light Dragoons, and accompanied by some of the Bow-street officers.’ After a night in Canterbury they were taken to Bow street and then to Maidstone for their trial for High Treason. Four were found not guilty, but one, Quigley, or O’Coigly, was found guilty  and sentenced to be hung, as described in Section 10, Margate Criminals.

Bow Street officers were also used to help deal with pickpocketing gangs coming from London. In 1799 ‘the Mayor of Dover, who presides also over Margate’ helped some Bow-street officers in their search for a band of pickpockets at Margate. The gang were caught and ‘committed to Dover Castle, for trial at the ensuing sessions’.13 Private individuals could also hire Bow Street officers.  In 1824, Richard Crofts, the landlord of the King’s Head Tavern, was robbed of £1,600.14 He was in the process of purchasing some houses on which he had paid a deposit, and was about to pay the remainder. He had put together the necessary money, mostly in sovereigns,  ‘and being a person of an extremely cautious disposition, was unwilling  to trust his cash in any Banker’s hands, but made a cupboard, which was in a small closet adjoining his bedroom, for the depositing of it.’ On Friday, 1 October Crofts and his wife counted their money and found that it had reached the required sum. They then fastened the cupboard and locked the closet door but when they came to take out the money on Monday morning ‘the cupboard was broken open and every shilling gone. The closet door must have been opened and again locked with a master key, as it had not the least appearance of being forced. There was no window to the closet by which access could have been had.’ They immediately informed Bow Street ‘and the officers have been dispatched to assist in tracing the robbers.’ The only suspect was a man who had been staying at the King’s Head and had heard Crofts and his wife discussing the money; he had left Margate on Saturday, 2 October for Dover, on the Magnet coach, and a man answering his description hired a boat at Dover for Calais on Sunday morning.  It was reported that ‘an officer has been sent in pursuit,’ but a week later ‘Mr Crofts . . .  returned from France, the person whom he suspected and went in chase of, proving not to be the depredator’.15 However, at the end of the month it was reported that ‘several individuals’ were in custody for the robbery.16 The final outcome is not known.



1. John Lewis, The history and antiquities as well ecclesiastical as civil, of the Ile of Tenet, in Kent,  2nd edition, 1736.

2. Parliamentary Papers. First report of the commissioners appointed to inquire into the municipal corporations in England and Wales, 1835.

3. William Batcheller, A new history of Dover, 1828.

4. Norman Landau, The justices of the peace, 1679-1760 , University of California Press, Berkley, 1984.

5. T. A. Critchley, A history of police in England and Wales 900-1966, Constable, London, 1967.

6. Bryan Keith-Lucas, The unreformed local government system, Croom Helm, 1980.

7. Joan Kent, The English village constable 1580-1642, Oxford, 1986.

8. David J. Cox, A certain share of low cunning. A history of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839, Willan Publishing, Devon, 2010.

9. Mirror of the Times, February 24 1798.

10. Kentish Gazette, March 2 1798.

11. The Times, May 23, 1798.

12. The trial at large of Messrs. O'Connor, O'Coigly, Binns, Allen, and Leary for high treason by a special commission, on Monday the 21st and Tuesday the 22nd of May, 1798, at Maidstone, Fergusson, James, London, 1798.

13. Kentish Chronicle, September 24 1799.

14. Kentish Gazette, October 8 1824.

15. Kentish Gazette, October 15 1824.

16. Kentish Gazette, October 22 1824.