THIS offence [burglary] is a felony at common law; it is described to be when a person, by night, breaketh into the mansion of another, with an intent to commit a felony; whether the felonious intent be executed or not.
By the 18th. of Elizabeth, cap. 7, the benefit of clergy is taken. away from the offence; and by the 3d and 4th William and Mary, cap. 9, from accessories before the fact. By the 12th of Anne, stat. 1, cap. 7, if any person shall enter into a mansion or dwelling-house by day or by night, without breaking into the same with an intent to commit any felony; or being in such house, shall commit any felony; and shall, in the night-time, break the said house to get out of the same, he is declared guilty of the offence of burglary, and punished accordingly.
It is, without doubt, highly expedient that this offence should be punished more severely than any other species of theft; since, besides the loss of property, there is something very terrific in the mode of perpetration, which is often productive of dreadful effects.
The ancient laws made a marked distinction in the punishment, between this offence, which was called Hamsokne (and which name it retains at present, in the northern part of this kingdom) and robbing a house in the day-time.
It is impossible to reflect upon the outrages and acts of violence continually committed, more particularly in and near the metropolis, by lawless ravagers of property, and destroyers of lives, in disturbing the peaceful mansion, the castle of every Englishman, and also in abridging the liberty of travelling upon the public highways, without asking -- Why are these enormities suffered, in a country where the criminal laws are supposed to have arrived at a greater degree of perfection than any other?
This is an important inquiry, interesting, in the highest degree, to every member of the body politic.
If, in pursuing such an inquiry, the situation of Holland, Flanders, and several of the northern states on the continent, be examined, it will be found that this terrific evil had (alluding to these states previous to the present war) there scarcely an existence; and that the precaution of bolting doors and windows during the night was even seldom used; although, in these countries, from the opulence of many of the inhabitants, there were great temptations to plunder property.
This security did not proceed from severer punishments; for in very few countries are they more sanguinary than in England. It is to be attributed to a more correct and energetic system of Police, joined to an early and general attention to the employment, education, and morals, of the lower orders of the people; a habit of industry and sobriety is thus acquired, which, universally imbibed in early life, "grows with their growth, and strengthens with their strength!"
Houses, intended to be entered during the night, are previously reconnoitred and examined for days preceding. If one or more of the servants are not already associated with the gang, the most artful means are used to obtain their assistance; and when every previous arrangement is made, the mere operation of robbing a house becomes a matter of little difficulty.
By the connivance and assistance of immediate, or former servants, they are led to the places where the most valuable, as well as the most portable, articles are deposited, and the object is speedily attained. In this manner do the principal burglars and housebreakers proceed: and let this information serve as a caution to every person in the choice both of their male and female servants; since the latter as well as the former are not seldom accomplices in very atrocious robberies. It frequently happens that the burglars make their contracts with the receivers on the evening before the plunder is obtained; so as to secure a ready admittance immediately afterwards, and before daybreak, for the purpose of effectual concealment by melting plate, obliterating marks, and securing all other articles so as to place them out of the reach of discovery. This has long been reduced to a regular system which is understood and followed as a trade.
Night coaches promote, in an eminent degree, the perpetration of burglaries and other felonies: bribed by a high reward many hackney-coachmen eagerly enter into the pay of nocturnal depredators, and wait in the neighbourhood until the robbery is completed, and then draw up, at the moment the watchmen are going their round; or off their stands, for the purpose of conveying the plunder to the house of the receiver, who is generally waiting the issue of the enterprise. Nearly one-half of the hackney coachmen in London, are said to be, (in the cant phrase ) flashmen, designed to assist thieves.
[Note: On the 21st, April, 1747, two smugglers, George Kingman and Barnet Wollit, both outlaws, one of whom murdered a man on. Hurst-Green, were killed in a skirmish with the townsmen of Goodhurst in Kent, who found it necessary to arm against those desperadoes, who rob and plunder wherever they go, and live upon the spoil.
This spirited conduct of the people of this town was highly praiseworthy. They acted under the following order of council:
"In consequence of a report of the Attorney and Solicitor General, wherein they, gave their opinion, that all his Majesty's subjects, civil and military, magistrates, officers, and private persons, have, by law, without any express warrant for that purpose, authority to seize and apprehend any persons assembled, armed, and acting in such manner, as described in the laws against smuggling, and bring them before a magistrate, who may commit them to prison: and in seizing, apprehending, securing, and committing them to prison, may repel force with force, and justify any violence or hostilities which may be necessary to suppress and subdue them, to bring them to justice.
"His Majesty in council is pleased to require and command all officers, both civil and military, to use their utmost force in support of the laws, and suppressing, subduing, and bringing, all such offenders to justice."]
Joseph Rawlins was indicted at the assize held at Winchester, for the year 1748, for burglariously breaking into the dwelling-house of Mr. Wakefield, of Selborne, in the county of Hants, on the 6th of September, 1747, and therefrom stole cash, plate, and other effects, the property of the said Wakefield.
It appeared in evidence, that this fellow, at the head of thirteen more, met on the day of the robbery, at Adverse Heath, in Sussex, whence they proceeded to Woolmer. Forest, where they lay concealed till the evening. Then they mounted their horses, and arrived about eight near Mr. Wakefield's. Jeremiah Curtis, one of the villains, rode up to the house; and pretending he had lost his way; desired to be set right. The men-servants of the house having informed him, he asked for some beer, when an old maid-servant went to draw some; but he found great fault with it, and called for ale. She told him, that her master had the key, and was gone to bed. On this he rode back to his companions, who immediately came up, armed with blunderbusses and pistols; and, pretending to be officers, demanded the master of the house, insisting that he harboured outlawed smugglers. Being answered that he was in bed, they broke open the door, and going up to Mr. Wakefield's room, presented a blunderbuss to his breast, and, with horrid imprecations, demanded where he kept his money. On being told he had no money, they pulled him across the bed; yet still he persisted. They then told him to point out his plate; and, fearing to be murdered, he showed them the chest. This they immediately broke open, and stole thereout a silver tankard, a salt, porrenger; salver, and twelve spoons: from another room, fourteen guineas, a silver watch, and several other things of value. Meanwhile the prisoner at the bar, Rawlins, with another, held the horses of those plundering, fearing to enter, as they were known to the family. Another of the party kept guard over the servants, threatening them with instant death, if they stirred.
Having plundered the house of every portable valuable, they returned to Mr. Wakefield, and with dreadful oaths, demanded two hundred pounds, which they insisted he had just received from Bristol. He protested that he had received none; upon which they dragged him out of bed, and swore they would carry him off, unless he discovered his money; but finding him resolute, they let him go. The next day, the thieves divided their booty, of which the prisoner had his share.
The old servant woman who had kindly given drink to the first villain, swore, that they rifled her pockets of four shillings -- most mean and ungrateful.
The defence set up by this old offender was weak and ignorant; so that the jury, without hesitation, found him guilty; and he was accordingly executed.
We have already observed what a pest to the country were these different gangs of smugglers; for when none of the vessels employed in this illicit trade were in the harbours and creeks, with their contraband cargoes, the villains employed the time in housebreaking, highway and foot robberies; and it was long before they could be extirpated.