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Catching the Criminal

Making an Arrest in the Early 19th Century

Silsoe 'Lock up'
Silsoe 'Lock up'

Until the mid-late 1800's, the responsibility for reporting crime and identifying and catching the culprits usually fell on the 'victim'. They would be aided by companions or a parish constable.

The local Parish Constable acted as a custodian until the accused could be brought before a magistrate. By the Victorian period the local or parish "Constables" were proving ineffective in many areas. As crime rates rose, the Office of Constable had deteriorated to such an extent that they were often depicted as figures of fun, or irresponsible drunkards, little better than those they were arresting. Even when they took their responsibilities seriously, their powers were strictly limited by their immediate superiors, the magistrates. In most cases it was up to the private individual to pursue any prosecution.

The accused would be held in the local 'lock-up' until they could be examined by a magistrate. The victim would have to produce the witnesses before a magistrate. At this time, statements would be made and signed. It was up to the magistrate to decide what to do with the accused. He had three options:

  1. If he felt there was no case to answer, he could discharge the suspect.
  2. If the case was a minor one, he could have the offence 'summarily' tried before two magistrates at Petty Sessions.
  3. If he felt it was a serious (that is 'indictable') offence, he would commit them to be tried either before a judge at the Assizes or a bench of magistrates at Quarter Sessions.

See the section on 'Types of offence'.

As the Victorian era progressed, a more regulated police force developed. After the 1856 Police Act, things began to change and more formal procedures for arresting and charging suspects came into use.

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