Crime and Punishment

Glamorous highwaymen and a brutal law code

The 18th century is notorious for its glamorous highwaymen and its brutal law code, which imposed the death penalty for around 200 separate and often trivial offences. Thousands of other criminals, often guilty of little more than opportunistic petty theft, were shipped in grim conditions to the American colonies and later to Australia.

During this period, Surrey’s population was growing rapidly, probably doubling in the second half of the 18th century. Parishes on the county’s river border with London, then the biggest city in Europe, were increasingly urbanised and overcrowded, notorious for ‘rookeries’ of thieves and dissolute pleasure gardens such as those at Vauxhall. Beyond the towns, the rural southern and western parts of the county offered a very different landscape. Here travellers dreaded an encounter with highwaymen on the unreliable roads and extensive heathlands, and country people considered poaching to be a right rather than an offence.

Although a small number of criminals such as Dick Turpin might enter folklore, the majority of cases concerned petty and opportunistic theft in areas of poverty. Sensational crime was, then as now, a rarity, but inspired broadsheets, ballads, and extensive reporting of murder trials and executions.

Probably the most famous cases in Surrey were the murder of the unknown sailor at Hindhead, and the Chennell and Chalcraft murder at Godalming. Both crimes became national news, and exceptionally, the criminals were executed at the places where the crimes had been committed.

‘Barbarous murder’ at Hindhead, 1786

Headstone in Thursley churchyard, commemorating the sailor murdered at Hindhead, 1786. Image: Surrey History Centre

Headstone in Thursley churchyard, commemorating the sailor murdered at Hindhead, 1786.
Image: Surrey History Centre

The crime was shocking the sailor was stripped, robbed, mutilated and nearly decapitated beside the Devil’s Punchbowl and his body rolled down the hill but the story seems to have caught the public imagination because the young man was never identified.

Witnesses at the Red Lion at Thursley recalled that the ‘generous but unfortunate’ victim bought his murderers ale, and offered them ‘his further assistance’ on their route back to their ships at Portsmouth.

The murderers were seen in the act, and pleaded guilty at the Lent Assizes in Kingston. Their bodies, preserved in tar, hung in chains on the site at Hindhead for many years as an ‘encouragement’ to others.

The Chennell and Chalcraft murder, Godalming, 1817

On 10th November 1817, assailants murdered George Chennell of Godalming and his housekeeper Bet Wilson by crushing their skulls with hammer blows and cutting their throats. On discovery of the crime, Chennell’s servant William Chalcraft and his son George, reputedly a ne’er-do-well, were soon arrested. The prosecution was unusually detailed: the Assizes trial at Guildford lasted 13 hours and included a model of the house as an exhibit, as the case against Chalcraft turned upon the visibility of Bet’s body from the doorway, which he had apparently pretended not to see. Both were found guilty but always denied the charge.

To find out how homosexuality was dealt with by Surrey Quarter Sessions in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries click here.

Prison History comprises two datasets. The first, 19th Century Prisons, is a database of institutions used to confine those accused and convicted of crime in England between 1800 and 1899. The second, Local Lock-Ups, is a public engagement project which asks members of the public to contribute details of structures that they know existed in their community which were used to restrain temporarily those accused of crime.

BlackSheepAncestors.com has genealogical prison records for the UK.

2 thoughts on “Crime and Punishment”

  1. David says:

    William Chalcraft murder 1817: Has anyone done any research on which branch of the Chalcrafts William belonged to, and if he has any descendants? My grandfather was William Joshua Chalcraft 1891 – 1971, born in Farncombe and died in Folkestone (Kent).

    1. Geoff Chalcraft says:

      Many Chalcrafts lived in Sussex and, though not many remain, some still do. My own great great grandfather, John Chalcraft, was born in Storrington, Sussex, married Amy Guile (birth registered in Poling but that could apparently mean the place of birth was almost anywhere between Arundel and Brighton). They lived in Worthing when married, and John was a builder/bricklayer. They had a few children, one of whom, George, moved to Steyning to take over the Norfolk Arms. Later, after John had died, Amy went to join George in the pub and George’s sons flourished. The local undertaker is a Chalcraft and previous builders in the town had been in the family.
      It seems unlikely that any of the Chalcrafts emanating from Storrington were descendants of William of Godalming, but possible!

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