Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Matters of Conviction - Sarah Slater Respite During Pleasure

How was it that Sarah Slater (and Robert Butt, for that matter) avoided the hangman's noose after being sentenced to death?

There is a tradition in England, and now throughout the Commonwealth, known as His or Her Majesty's Pleasure. Essentially, it acknowledges that government authority derives from the Crown and that the monarch of the day may appoint, detain or pardon subjects, as he or she sees fit. In practice, such matters are granted on recommendation of officials and through petitions.

In the Georgian era, it was common for the convicted to petition the Crown for clemency.1 Everyone had the right to petition, but not everyone did or could take up this right. Success of a petition for clemency depended largely on the judge involved making a favourable report.2 Judges also had the discretion to generally recommend clemency for capital prisoners, to “demonstrate the exercise of merciful justice”.3

It was just such a report that saved Sarah and had previously saved Robert.

The Recorder at the time was John Sylvester, also known as Gallows Black Jack.4 He was a stickler for the application of law and a strong supporter of capital punishment, but also, it seems, aware of the need for justice to be seen to be tempered by mercy (there may be a petition for Sarah, but as yet one has not been located). On 4 March 1812, “Mr. Recorder” made a report to the Prince Regent, detailing the cases of a number of capital prisoners in Newgate.5

A full pardon was not granted, as that could encourage others in similar crimes. Instead, as was the common practice, the prisoners were respited, that is, they were offered relief, their sentences reduced, in this case from death to transportation for life, at the Pleasure of the Prince Regent.

The formal record appeared in the “Correspondence and Warrants", held by the Home Office.6

Respite of Thomas Kite etal, TNA, HO13, Home Office: Criminal Entry Books 1782-1871, “Correspondence and Warrants”, Piece 22, page 384-385, FindmyPast, SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016

Tho[ma]s Kite etal
Whereas Thomas Kite, George Lister, Tho[ma]s Wells, W[illia]m Fowler, Tho[ma]s Hunt, Mary Carroll, Philip Barnard, Richard Woodhatch, Charles King, Tho[ma]s Culliver, Sarah Slater & Giovanna Astarda were at a Session holden at the Old Bailey in January
last tried and Convicted, the said Tho[ma]s Kite, Geo[rge] Lister, W[illia]m Fowler, Mary Carroll of stealing in a Dwelling house the said Tho[ma]s Wells & Tho[ma]s Hunt of Highway Robbery, the said Philip Barnard and Giovanni Astarda of privately stealing in a shop, the said Rich[ar]d Woodhatch of returning from Transportation and the said Charles King and Tho[ma]s Culliver of stealing Goods on the River Thames and the said Sarah Slater of uttering Counterfeit Coin and had Sentence of death passed upon them for the same; We in Consideration of some favorable Circumstances humbly represented unto us in their behalf are graciously pleased to extend our Grace and Mercy unto them and to grant them Our Pardon for their said Crimes on Condition of their being transported to the Coast of New South Wales or some other of the Islands adjacent for and during the term of their respective natural Lives: Our Will & Pleasure therefore is that you give the necessary directions accordingly and that they be inserted for their said Crimes on the said condition in Our first & next general Pardon that shall come out for the poor Convicts. And for so doing etc Carlton House
4 March 1812
To Our Trusty & Well beloved                        }              By the Command
Our Justice of Gaol Delivery for                     }                R Ryder
the City of London & County of Middlesex     }
The High Sheriff &c                                        }
In the Name &c
George PR

1Phillips Nicola, The Profligate Son: Or a True Story of family Conflict, Fashionable Vice & Financial Ruin in Regency Britain, (New York: Basic Books, 2013), p.205
2King Peter, "Decision-Makers and Decision-Making in the English Criminal Law, 1750–1800", The Historical Journal, 27, pp 25-58 doi:10.1017/S0018246X00017672, (1984), 42-51, accessed 2 May, 2016
3Phillips Nicola, The Profligate Son, p. 205
4A prominent actor, John Kemble, was already known as Black Jack, hence the distinction of Gallows. The Monthly Mirror: Reflecting Men and Manners; with Strictures on their Epitome, the Stage (London: Vernor Hood & Sharpe, 1810), Vol VI, 364, e-book edition
5British Library Newspapers, Part I: 1800-1900 (through utas Library site), “RECORDER'S REPORT” (1812, March 5), Morning Chronicle (London, England: 1770-1865), p3 c3, accessed 13 May, 2016
6TNA, HO13, Home Office: Criminal Entry Books 1782-1871, “Correspondence and Warrants”, Piece 22, pages 384-385, FindmyPast, SARAH SLATER, accessed 12 June, 2016   

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