060217.Monkton Combe, Ye “Olde Locke Up”

February 17, 2007 at 12:59 AM | Posted in Architecture, Chisel Marks, Jane Austen, Monkton Combe, Overcast, somerset, towns, Trees | 7 Comments

Hostess: “…and these are our holding cells. I’m sure Ünterland has much larger ones, y’know, you being a whole country and all.”
Guest Henchman: “Ünterland…has…no…prisons.”
Hostess: “Really? Oh, how progressive…”
Guest Henchman: “The master has instated the death penalty for all infractions of Ünterlaw.”
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This is not a lame title, it’s the structure’s name: the “Olde Lock-Up,” constructed around 1776 in a town three miles south of Bath. You might think how desireably quaint, the small scenic little windowless prison is and that small town life used to have small town prisons, which represented a generally more peaceful society back then, but you’d be wrong. Petty theft of an item valued (by the retailer) at five shillings or more was a capital crime! The Georgians loved to hang everybody, no age limit: babies included. (See below Jane Austen’s aunt’s trial.)
In many ways, this small prison’s date of 1776 contrast sharply to the declaration of independence (this is not really that lame a segway, I have a point:) with Thomas Jefferson’s repeated attempts to limit the use of capital punishment to only murder and treason. In this same time period, peacefully Quaker Pennsylvania went one step further by introducing “degrees of murder” with first being the only one eligible for the death sentence. And finally, one of the American rights was anyone could only bring to court any argument involving a value of 20 dollars or more.
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And also…I got nothing. Here, check this out: it’s also small.
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“Jane Austen’s maternal uncle, James Leigh Perrot, possessed two of the status symbols of the respectable Englishman, as listed by Jane in her unfinished last novel Sanditon: “symptoms of gout and a winter at Bath.” Uncle James had a touching (but unrewarded) faith in the therapeutic powers of the waters of Bath, and he and Aunt Jane Leigh Perrot spent almost as much time at that famous resort town and spa as at their home in Berkshire called Scarlets. In the winter of 1799-1800 Bath was particularly unkind to Uncle James’s ailment, because, instead of conversing with his well-born friends at the Pump Room or the Assembly Rooms or promenading on the Royal Crescent, he spent the season with his wife at the rude home of the warden of Ilchester Gaol. For Aunt Jane had been arrested in Bath in August 1799 on the inelegant charge of filching a card of white lace from the William Smith millinery shop….”
“A prima facie case of shoplifting was found to have been made out, and Aunt Jane was committed to Ilchester Gaol to await trial at the next county assizes to be held in the spring at Taunton. The offense on which Aunt Jane was to be tried was far from trivial. Shoplifting of an item valued at five shillings or more was a capital crime, and the white lace was put down in the indictment at twenty shillings. For capital punishment the price was right. Although the penalty would likely have been commuted to transportation to Botany Bay in Australia, subjection to the rigors of the penal colony could be equivalent to a death sentence for convicts whose constitutions were not hardy.
“Aunt Jane’s social position had not exempted her from commitment pending trial, but it did win her the privilege of lodging in the house of the warden, Mr. Scadding, rather than in the prison itself. She was joined by Uncle James, who bore bravely a new onslaught of gout as well as a quality of accommodations far below the most modest Michelin rating. Aunt Jane wrote of the indignities suffered by her fastidious husband: “Cleanliness has ever been his greatest delight, and yet he sees the greasy toast laid by the dirty children on his knees, and feels the small Beer trickle down his Sleeves on its way across the table unmoved.” Aunt Jane declined the kind offer of her “sister Austen” to send her daughters Jane and Cassandra to stay with them. Aunt Jane had stated that she could not procure the girls accommodations in the warden’s house with her, and that she could not let those “Elegant young Women” be inmates in a prison or be subject to the inconveniences she and her husband were obliged to put up with.” —Albert Borowitz, “Trial of Jane’s Aunt,” Legal Studies Forum, Volume 29, Number 2 (2005):724-725.
Jane’s aunt ends up being cleared, only because a jury of peers couldn’t conceive that a rich woman would shoplift. The same jury that day, however, sentenced several (poorer) others to hanging, including a few children.

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