Branded for life is a figure of speech; in the 18th Century, branding was a punishment dished out by judges for a range of offences.
The old saying ‘may as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb’ means most of us are aware the punishment for stealing livestock was once death.
And thanks to Guy Fawkes (and Bonfire Night), British children grow up knowing that the grisly sentence for treason in olden times was to be ‘hanged, drawn and quartered’.
But did you realise women could be burned at the stake until as recently as 1790? The Old Bailey online site has a lot of detail on punishments handed out at that court.
And did you know that courts could, and did, order branding (‘burning in the hand’) as a punishment until the early part of the 19th century?
The sheep/lamb saying could just as easily have been: “I may as well be hanged for a sheep as a handkerchief”.
‘Death’ wasn’t always fatal
Luckily for those convicted, the death sentence wasn’t always carried out.
In September 1779, at the Old Bailey, death was the sentence announced in the cases of Margaret Creamer, for robbing John Scarlet of two guineas, three shillings, and a pocket book; William Chamberlayne, a porter of letters at the General Post-office, for stealing a promisory note for £10 out of a letter; Mary Jones, alias Wood, for stealing a quantity of linen drapery goods, and: John Pears, for stealing a mare.
I don’t think this John was ‘one of ours,’ but I followed his story. In April 1780, he was ‘respited during His Majesty’s pleasure’. And in November that year, he was pardoned by the King, one of a number ‘who were under sentence of death and set at large from Newgate during the late riots, but surrendered themselves.’
The riots started out as resistance to the Catholic Relief Act of 1778, but as urban riots still do today, they spread to other targets of resentment: Newgate, King’s Bench, the Fleet and New Bridewell prisons were set on fire, and the Bank of England attacked.
But back to branding
In July 1738, in York, one Matthew Ellerton was ‘burned in the hand’ for stealing four quarters of mutton, and Mary Aughton (otherwise Joy) was burned in the hand for marrying two husbands, Peter Joy and John Aughton.
In 1754, the Derby Mercury opined that burning in the hand was an inadequate punishment for such a contempt of the law as bigamy, and the great and irreparable injury done to the second spouse.
The punishment continued to be dished out. In 1758, at Warwick, a George Reynolds was sentenced to burned in the hand for ‘robbing’ (burgling) a malt-house – with the addition that he was to be enlisted as a soldier. And in 1763, there was a case with a Cumbrian connection. A man from East Grinstead, Sussex, was branded for bigamy: his first wife having been a woman from Clifton, in Westmorland. He’d changed his name and found people to give him good character, in order to marry a woman of fortune.
In 1765, William Byron, 5th Baron Byron (great-uncle of the poet), killed his cousin and neighbour William Chaworth in a tavern, in a duel after a petty argument. Tried literally before his peers – peers of the realm – he was found guilty of ‘felony’, but not of murder. He pled privilege, under an old custom, that meant he wasn’t burned in the hand or deprived of his inheritance. It was very much ‘one law for the rich and another for the poor’.
Another ‘famous’ punishment, of course, was transportation – often used as an alternative to the death penalty. However, in 1776, it was reported that judges would have to use burning in the hand, whipping ‘etc’ instead of transportation to America, as the ‘colonists’ there didn’t want the convicts.
Burning in the hand continued to be the punishment for bigamy and manslaughter, even though a Bill before Parliament in 1779 took the opinion that that in some cases, it was ineffectual and disregarded, and in others too severe, as it was a ‘mark of infamy’ for life on people who might otherwise never offend again.
At Cockermouth four years later, a list of sentences included Joseph Carr and John Doyle, jailed for a year and branded in the hand, for manslaughter. They had originally been accused of murdering Corporal Charles Bolton: Doyle having knocked him down with an iron spit, and Carr having stabbed him. Doyle was from Ireland, Carr, aged about 18, was a native of Whitehaven.
At the same time, a conwoman called Violet Chambers was jailed for three months and ordered to stand in the pillory in Carlisle for three separate days.
Over in Ireland, the sentence for murder in 1786 was to be hanged, quartered and beheaded, if you were a man, and; to be strangled and burned, if you were a woman. One can only wonder at the thinking behind the distinction.
Branding out of favour
It would seem branding ceased to be a punishment for bigamy from 1795. However, while it crops up frequently in Irish court reports for other offences until 1822, it seems to have fallen out of favour elsewhere.
A Cardiff judge in 1806, unhappy at a man being convicted of manslaughter for what he thought was closer to murder, said while branding was generally absurd or cruel of both, in some cases one half-regretted it had been superceded. And an anonymous poem in the Westmorland Gazette in 1821 laments the lot of the branded felon, unable to get work because of the mark and so forced to resort to crime, or starve.
In 1822, the UK Parliament debated the subject of manslaughter and the fact the maximum sentence was one year in prison, plus burning in the hand. It was remarked that branding was so repugnant to judges in this enlightened age, that they never resorted to it unless the guilt was enormous.
In June 1822, an Act of Parliament determined the penalty for manslaughter would never again be burning in the hand, but instead could range from transportation for life down to a simple fine, depending on the scale of the offence.