Law in the eighteenth century drew a distinction between public and private offences, the former being criminal and the latter being subject to civil suit. Private offences included assault and battery, slander, libel, malicious prosecution, false imprisonment and abduction. Adultery too was a private offence, except when prosecuted in the ecclesiastical court, where it was considered criminal.
In the secular or temporal courts, five categories of criminal offence existed:
1) Injury to God or religion, covering apostasy, heresy, blasphemy, witchcraft, Sabbath-breaking and lewdness. Nonconformity was also criminal, although its definition depended upon the prevailing state religion: sixteenth-century consciences needed to be flexible.
2) Transgression of the law of nations, included piracy, violation of safe conduct and the infringement of ambassadors’ rights.
3) Affecting the power of the state, which included felonies against the royal prerogative, counterfeiting, violation of the queen or of the sovereign’s eldest son, or of the eldest son’s wife. (Junior royals, it seemed, could be violated with impunity.) Desertion from the army or navy was also covered here.
4) Infringing the rights of the public, such as embracery, which was obstructing (by commission or omission) the maintenance of public records or property, abuse by gaolers, escape from detention (including transportation), conspiracy, rioting, bribery, extortion, unlawful hunting, sending threatening letters and unlawful assembly. This last category was the charge laid against the Tolpuddle Martyrs, not the formation of a trade union, as is often supposed. Transporting of wool or sheep out of the kingdom, smuggling, forestalling, usury and regrating also fell within this category, as did spreading plague, clandestine marriage (which though criminal was not in itself invalid), vagrancy and illegal lotteries.
5) Derogation of the rights and duties of individuals spanned various forms of homicide, suicide, mayhem (which was the forcible removal of limbs with a view to creating disability), forced marriage, abduction, rape, bestiality, kidnapping and burglary.
These many and varied crimes gave rise to much documentation for the family history researcher: newspapers and posters carried Wanted advertisements, deserters were listed in the Police Gazette and in local papers, with detailed physical descriptions (and rewards offered). Quarter sessions and assizes issued calendars of those awaiting trial and their charges. Criminal ancestors might be enumerated as gaol inmates in the censuses of 1841-1911. Parish constables’ notebooks are another source of detail. Assize jurors were also listed. Before the creation of county constabulary many towns formed their own associations for the finding and prosecutions of criminals, for which they offered rewards. All these records can be found in county record offices.