18th Century England – Gardens and the law

18th Century England

I was reading through debate histories for the English Parliament for 1789. I wanted to know what was transpiring within those august halls besides the huge and ongoing debate over the English slave trade. Though my project has a central focus on that very debate, I needed to see what were the other concerns at that time that I could allude to, to give a better feel, a completeness, a well roundedness to the overall picture.

There were always things about the British navy (one such item I used earlier in the project), investigations into the conduct of public figures (an example that may, or may not be used later), committees to decide contested elections (no example for this time), but one very likely candidate for my purposes appeared in an attempt to curb depredations upon nursery owners.

These nursery owners (of the plant, shrub and tree variety) were looking for relief from Parliament. They were situated on the outskirts of London where there was land enough to grow this flora. But their wares were consequently falling afoul to thieves who would steal these plants, or to destroyers, who would maliciously uproot them.

A law had been put in place to protect the owners twenty-three years prior to this, but the unfortunate wording of the statute was now creating problems for them and opportunities for the miscreants. The law from 1766 made these depredations against the nursery owners’ property, felony offenses. However, by its choice of words, it had limited this class of offense to “the dead of night.” So the perpetrators were crawling through the loophole thus created, and carrying out their schemes in broad daylight, or in those parts of the night that they could argue before the judge were not “the dead of the night,” which could actually mean any hour as the vague definition left too much to interpretation. The most they could be charged with was trespass, which exacted a fine that amounted to a mere pittance.

The champion for the nursery owners sought to amend the statute by replacing the phrase “dead of night” with the phrase “by day or night.” A simple enough solution one would think. But then the debates began.

Though the champion had admitted a reluctance to see more additions to the penal code, his proposal was attacked on that very count. And the member of Parliament who spoke up on that tack (Mr Sheridan, the playwright) added that he did not want to see a schoolboy made a felon for purloining from an orchard.

Another put forth the suggestion that “the dead of night” be taken out and let the statute stand “generally,” that it did not matter when so much as that the depredation was committed. To which another member countered that it indeed did matter – “Burglary and stealing in the night was a capital offense whereas stealing by day was only a single felony, because people were supposed to be capable of guarding their houses in day time.”

Then Edmund Burke weighed in with the thought that it was all the fault of the magistrates for not putting the laws into execution in the first place.

And so on for two more pages and a lapse of eight days before it was finally decided upon by a vote in the affirmative.