Richard D North

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The Independent Online
There was a pleasing disappointment about the real-life crime show, Police Action Live, on ITV last Saturday. It seemed like a portrayal of a quite traditional Saturday night. It reinforced an impression gained from an afternoon's research into the magistrates' records for the best part of this century in Hereford: that it is well to remember the timelessness of things.

Then as now, drunkenness leads to obscene language and various sorts of assault, often against policemen. In 1913, a man and a woman get spells of hard labour for this most common of offences. They would probably have spent their time picking oakum in Hereford gaol (now defunct), or perhaps on the human wheel which pumped water. In 1915, three women get drunk and assault each other. In 1935, seven men sharing the name of Davies and two men by the name of Lewis are up for drunken assault and battery.

Much less commonly, yet routinely, men were made to pay for their abandoned children, under the blunt charge of "bastardy" (but often the beaks come to the conclusion that the charge is ill-based). A man in 1913 gets six weeks' hard labour for cruelty to his children. There are occasional cases of indecent assault by men on young girls. In 1936, a 21-year-old rapes a girl of fourteen-and-a-half. I didn't spot a buggery case till the 1970s: the old boy died before he could be brought to book for his doings with under-age boys.

Because this is a country area, people were charged with trespass in the pursuit of rabbits. In what looks like the sort of weird nastiness that spatters rural areas at any time, in 1912 seven children under the age of 11 are fined for ill-treating a horse.

Oddly, one finds rather few repeat offenders, except in the matter of failing to send children to school, which brings individuals to court again and again. A reactionary might thrill to the severity of some of the sentences (a month's hard labour for begging in the 1930s). Some offences go straight to the heart: a "lunatic found wandering" gets 14 days in the workhouse in 1935. People get a fortnight's hard labour in the 1930s for absconding from the workhouse's compulsory, and possibly bleak, welfare.

From the 1920s onward, there is a rising tide of offences with vehicles. Right on cue, youngsters in the 1950s get charged with taking and driving away motorbikes. Breaking and entering begins to feature in the 1950s and becomes far more common in the 1960s. In the mid-1970s, a 16-year- old is done for drinking, breaking into chemist shops, threatening acquaintances for money, and the underlying problem looks like an amphetamine habit.

I don't mean to say that crime didn't rise while it changed. People working in the system insist that drug-related crime is a really important modern misery. Property crime has clearly rocketed. One also gets the impression that youngsters harden earlier now. It is crimes by, rather than against, the young which seem to have increased.

But much more crime is now reported. Everyone seems to agree that more crime was dealt with informally by policemen than would be tolerated now. Who knows what sufferings were endured behind closed doors in the "good old days"?

Incest is believed always to have been commoner in north Herefordshire than in much of the country. It turns up still. But aren't its victims more likely to be helped now than then?

None of this is scientific, but we can at least say that short-fused and pleasure-seeking as many people are now, we don't have a patent on either casual violence or serious depravity. Our great-grandparents knew them. Perhaps what has changed most is that "nice" people know more about them and think they arise from social, rather than individual, wickedness.