Many commentators noted a rise in crime during the Famine years and most contemporary commentators firmly expected a breakdown of law and order. Yet most of the surviving contemporary accounts from the local gentry and clergy show that they were surprised that the people had remained so docile.
Bartholomew Warburton whose report is transcribed below had, however, been warning of worsening crime statistics since the spring quarter sessions of 1847. He reported then that there had been nearly twice the number of cases as in any other sessions since he had been in the county. In July of that year, following the Summer Quarter Sessions, he reported from Bray that the number of convictions had been unprecedented. Because of the increase in crime, he claimed, the magistrates had felt obliged to meet it with exemplary punishments. At the spring quarter sessions he claimed they had tried using more lenient punishments but this had not had the desired effect. By 1849 he was again reporting an increase in crime.
Although Warburton appears in his reports to have been overreacting to the situation and certainly displays a lack of compassion, the statistics on crime during these years certainly reveal a marked pattern. The effect of the crisis in increasing crimes against property, clearly famine-related offences, as opposed to crimes against the person, is strikingly apparent. The vast majority of reported crimes in the county during the years 1846 to 1850 involved cattle and sheep stealing and these reached a peak in the worst year of actual famine, 1847. (A comprehensive table of all reported crime in the county during the years 1846 to 1850 was published in the last issue of this journal).
Nevertheless, despite the increase in crimes against property and the alarm of the resident magistrates, the often repeated fears about a more general breakdown in order did not materialise. There were no major disturbances and, despite reported cases of intimidation against farmers who attempted to take men off the public works, the overwhelming demeanour of the county remained peaceful throughout. Landlords who wrote to the Relief Commission expressed surprise at the docility of their labourers.
Bray 2nd July 1849
The summer Quarter Sessions for this county terminated here at a late hour on Saturday the 30th June.
I regret to say since I came to the county we never had so fearful a calendar. Nine cases out of ten under the head of larceny, many of them being very heavy and complicated and were it not that Mr. Rogers Sessional Solicitor finding such to be the case most kindly volunteered his valuable assistance which although he had no time to inquire into the merits of the case or direct summons to be issued for witnesses, the ends of justice were not so often frustrated as at former sessions since the change of prosecutions took place. I take leave to mention some cases which were tried at Wicklow. A large gang of men were indicted under the statute for breaking into the barns and outhouses of several respectable farmers. The principal witness Michael Bryan an approver. This gang did very considerable mischief breaking into the barns of respectable farmers and carrying away their com in quantities, in one case upwards of 3 barrels of wheat and another nearly 4 barrels of wheat. Most praise is due for the manner in which Constable Hore of the Arklow Station got up these cases by having the informer sufficiently supported by trustworthy witnesses as brought home the most satisfactory convictions. I take the liberty of most respectfully recommending that this informer should get what would enable him to leave this country as from the feeling I witnessed towards him I am sure his life would not be safe if he remained in it and I have been requested by the magistrates who heard the trials to bring the case before his Excellency the Lord Lieutenant.
In this town we had several cases of Larceny for some of which the parties have been indicted under the statute. Here as in Arklow the principal witness was an approver but unfortunately his principal supporters were also almost looked on in the light of approvers. The several cases present a most frightful amount of crime and the number of persons indicted as receivers made the cases much worse. These persons were in such a position that they were able to bring down two eminent counsel Mr. Curran and Mr. Harper who of course made every exertion for their clients and I am sorry to say were but too successful as after one or two acquittals Mr. Rogers thought it much better to abandon the cases that were only supported by the same witnesses. From the moment Mr. Rogers got directions to prosecute in these cases he made every exertion to make the best arrangement for other cases but of course was not able to enquire sufficiently for want of time into the character of those on whom he was to depend to bring home convictions.
The failure of these cases is very much to be regretted when the amount of crime they disclosed was of such magnitude as warrants me in saying there is no part of the county where there has been such a disclosure of crime.
The greater number of cases in the other divisions of the county principally arose from robberies committed in the several workhouses with a view of getting sent to gaol where they are better fed and also by persons not admitted to the workhouse that they might be sent to gaol. On this state of things being represented to our respected Assistant Barrister he recommended that the parties should not be indulged by a long confinement but that the term of imprisonment should be short accompanied by hard labour, solitary confinement and whippings as the cases might be with the strictest prison discipline all of which would we felt assured be carried out by the excellent governor of the Gaol. This arrangement has been carried out all through the sessions to the great disappointment of the prisoners who expressed their dissatisfaction at not having been transported and disclosed that as soon as they got out of gaol they would commit some offence which would ensure their being transported.
I shall return to my station this day where I shall remain until Friday on which day I must proceed to Wicklow for the assizes to meet the grand jury on vital business respecting the several malicious burnings I have inquired into.
Bartholomew Warburton RM