All Suffolk Archives branches are closed. Please see here for further information

Harsh times?

Times were notoriously harsh for many people in the 19th Century and Suffolk was no exception.  Gaol Books often reflect the difficult conditions under which our ancestors were trying to live, as well as the tough penalties that were doled out for seemingly petty offences.

Some of our discoveries include: –

  • Ref: BA500/D/4/3/5 page 84 – Walter Emmanuel Drake, deserted from the Norfolk Militia and was imprisoned at Norwich Castle; he escaped but was caught stealing a donkey in Melford
  • Ref: BA500/D/4/3/3 page 32 – Sarah Bishop, aged 11, stole a lump of butter and was sentenced to 1 month in prison
  • Ref: A609/29/104 – James Wallage, aged 16, was sentenced to 14 days hard labour for playing “pitch halfpenny on the Sabbath” in May 1869.

It is particularly difficult to think of young children serving time in a Victorian prison or undertaking hard labour.  But the law did serve to protect minors as well: for example, Ref:BA500/D/4/3/6 page 576 shows a Joseph Jocelyn, chimney sweep of Sudbury, being sentenced to 2 months’ hard labour for the offence of “compelling a boy under the age of 21 to ascend a chimney at Sudbury for the purpose of sweeping” in April 1865 (see image below).

Though that punishment may in itself seem harsh, it had been illegal since 1840 to use children under 21 as chimney sweeps.  Such children, often orphans, could be treated little better than slaves, were starved to keep them slim enough to work inside the chimney, and often abandoned by their masters when they did eventually grow too big.

10 years after Joseph’s offence, the ‘Chimney Sweepers Act’ of 1875 came into force, strengthening the previous Act of 1840 and compelling sweeps to register with the police and have their work officially supervised.

Ref:BR/BA/500/D/4/3/6 Page 576

Ref:BR/BA/500/D/4/3/6 Page 576