The days when you could hang for stealing a horse

WITH overcrowding prisons and the strain on the legal system it s a popular argument that today s criminals are being treated far too leniently. All too often the public call for more bobbies on the beat and harsher sentences for wrongdoers, but such publ

WITH overcrowding prisons and the strain on the legal system it's a popular argument that today's criminals are being treated far too leniently.

All too often the public call for more bobbies on the beat and harsher sentences for wrongdoers, but such public outcry may not have existed a few hundred years ago.

The Old Bailey has recently opened up its criminal archive allowing members of the public to access crime proceedings right the way back to 1674.

The documents provide an insight into the court processes of older times and also the archaic and sometimes brutal punishments dealt out to those who dare break the law.


You may also want to watch:


Chief among the punishments of course is the sentence of death which could be carried out in a number of gruesome ways.

The most popular was Hanging but punishments also existed to for women to be burned at the stake. Some of the more merciful executioners may have strangled the prisoner with a cord before lighting the fire.

Most Read

There was also the infamous punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered and an even more serious sentence of Death with Dissection and Hanging in Chains.

The records from the Old Bailey show only a few Dagenham crimes resulted in death. But the punishment seems severe.

On September 12, 1804, Robert-Brown Prentice, also known as John Brown, was sentenced to death after he was found guilty of stealing a horse.

Prentice, who was only 32 when he was sentenced, had stolen a Mare and sold it on with other horses for around £40.

The mare ended up in Dagenham where it was identified by its original owner and Prentice was slung before the court.

He told the court: "I have made no confessions; if I had even had the horses, I should have been much to blame to make that confession; I know nothing at all about it."

Despite being sentenced to death it's true to say that we may not know Prentice's real fate. Many death sentences were never carried out, although Prentice may have perished it's also a strong possibility that either through benefit of clergy, use of pardons, and respited sentences in order to perform military or naval duty, he may well have lived on.

Other punishments that have been left behind include Transportation which became very popular in the eighteenth century as an alternative to the death penalty.

Transportation involved the prisoner being shipped off to the USA for a number of years.

At the time law chiefs saw it as an effective way of cleansing society and it remained in place until 1776 when war broke out with America. It was reinstated in 1787 but with a new destination: Australia.

There are many cases relating to Dagenham which involved Transportation but noticeably that of a man who slashed the throat of a Barking farmer's lamb.

Joseph Sinfield was indicted for "unlawfully, maliciously, and feloniously wounding" a calf, price 3l, on the 28th of August, 1838.

Sinfield had been working for a man named Joseph Choat on a farm in Barking. On August 28 Choat had discovered that one of his lambs had its throat cut.

Choat had fired Sinfield after finding him asleep in a field in which he should have been doing work.

The next day he found a lamb with its throat cut and confronted Sinfield about it.

He found Sinfield with blood over him which he blamed on a nosebleed. The suspect was kept at the farm while a policeman was called.

He investigated and found Sinfield was carrying a small knife and had too much blood on him to be caused by a nosebleed.

He said: "I went to the prisoner who was in charge of somebody at the house, and asked him how the blood came on his trowser and said I suspected him of cutting the calf-the blood was on the front part of his trowsers, and on examining further I found blood on his right shoe-these was also some on the right sleeve of his smock-frock

"It is impossible this blood could come from the bleeding of your nose, or it would be on the upper part of your smock-frock"-it was quite fresh-there was no appearance of his having a bloody nose."

Sinfield was arrested and found guilty. The 24 year old was transported for 10 years.

Become a Supporter

This newspaper has been a central part of community life for many years. Our industry faces testing times, which is why we're asking for your support. Every contribution will help us continue to produce local journalism that makes a measurable difference to our community.

Become a Supporter