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Fri 18 April , 2014
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The Early Days of Policing in Kent Pt 2.
by Roy Ingleton
Harsh times and harsher punishments

At the beginning of the 19th century death by hanging was the punishment for over 200 felonies, including petty theft. Although it was not unusual for the death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment or transportation, many a wretched criminal met his death on Penenden Heath just outside Maidstone. A total of 37 prisoners were condemned to death at the Spring Assizes in Maidstone in 1801, having been convicted of crimes ranging from sheep stealing and burglary to highway robbery and murder. 18 of these were reprieved, 4 were hung at Shooters Hill while the remaining 15 were executed before a roisterous crowd at Penenden Heath.

The last execution on Penenden Heath took place in December 1830 when three young men were hanged for arson. By the next summer a scaffold had been erected at the new Maidstone prison.

During the 17th and 18th centuries there was a plague of footpads and highwaymen on the main roads, especially to and from London. Although not suffering quite as much as some counties, Kent had its share of these. A favourite place for these "gentlemen of the road" was where a road went uphill, such as Gads Hill, near Rochester which was an especially dangerous and notorious spot.

Although the heyday of the highwayman was fast coming to an end, hold-ups continued into the early 19th century. In 1802, the famous Drury Lane actress and mistress of the future King William IV, Mrs Dora Jordan, as held up by two highwaymen near Sittingbourne. Fortunately they were seen off by Mrs Jordan's manservant and departed empty-handed.

Parish constables and watchmen could not cope with mobile criminals like these and they were also unable to deal with any form of serious disorder. The Justices of the Peace could call upon the military in extreme cases and this is precisely what the Maidstone magistrates did in October 1830 when they went out with a troop of soldiers to meet a mob of some 400 people just outside the town.

Although much maligned, the old Parish Constables were on occasions very effective. In March 1831, 13 year old Richard Taylor walked from Rochester to Aylesford to pick up his father's Parish Relief grant of nine shillings which he collected but never returned home. The Parish Constable questioned two boys Richard had been seen speaking to - 14 year-old John Any Bird Bell and his 10 year-old brother, James.

Despite an extensive search no trace of Richard was found until some eight weeks later when a man stumbled across his body in some woods near where Rochester Airport now stands. Although badly decomposed it was clear that the boy's throat had been cut. The Bell brothers were again interrogated and the younger boy tearfully admitted that his brother had cut Richard's throat with Richard's own knife and stolen the money. James was released and John confessed to the crime, adding that he had put the knife in the dead boy's jacket pocket in which he had by now been buried.

The Constable got permission for the grave to be opened and, when the coffin lid was removed, he ordered John Bell to clamber into the grave and retrieve the knife from the coat worn by the putrefying corpse. Incredibly he did so without a murmur and was returned to Maidstone prison. There, an equally sadistic warder gave John his bread and cheese meal and told him he could use the bloodstained murder weapon to cut it. This finally proved too much for the boy who refused to eat.

There was little sympathy for this young boy who was sentenced to death and, at his public execution outside Maidstone Prison, a crowd of at least 4,000, mostly women, surrounded the gallows to witness the event.

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