Wednesday, 14 December 2011

Romilly in Russell Square

In the eighteenth-century, so many offences carried the death penalty that the criminal law of the period is known as the 'Bloody Code'. The population might have been seriously depleted, were it not for important factors limiting the actual number of executions. First, many of the capital offences were awfully specific: damaging a particular bridge, for instance. Secondly, juries would convict of lesser offences (undervaluing stolen goods, for example) or leniency being granted after the death sentence was imposed.

However, the second factor introduced its own problem: convicts' lives depended upon the whim of those judging them. Sir Samuel Romilly saw that the more satisfactory solution would be to reduce the number of offences carrying the death sentence, and dedicated himself to seeking reform.

Romilly was the grandson of Huguenots; although his father was a jeweller, it was decided that he would train in the law. He qualified as a barrister, practised with some success, and was appointed solicitor-general in 1806. That was the beginning of a political career dominated by his campaign for criminal law reform.

His first success was the abolition of the death penalty for theft from the person. Unfortunately, his subsequent attempts at similar reforms to other offences were unsuccessful. (The exceptions were repeal of the death penalty for theft from bleaching grounds, and for soldiers or sailors who begged without an official pass.) His work was not in vain, though: the political atmosphere began to change so that in 1823 the death penalty became discretionary rather than mandatory for many offences, and by 1861 only five capital offences remained.

Sadly, Romilly would not see these later successes. When his wife died suddenly in 1818, he was dreadfully distressed. At his home in Russell Square, now marked by a plaque, he cut his own throat just a few days later.

7 comments:

SilverTiger said...

A worthy man and a sad end.

Coincidentally, I have been reading about 17th and 18th century justice and its - to our eyes, harsh - sanctions. The site The Proceedings of the Old Bailey Online provides valuable information, as well as insights given in the reports of the "Ordinary".

Sam Roberts said...

Is there any connection to Romilly Road in Finsbury Park (N4)? If there is then this would be an interesting link for me given I spent the first couple of years of life living on that road and at that time my name was Samuel...

HughB said...

I'm not sure we don't still need a Bloody Code - I've just read about 2 burglars who tied up an 83 year old woman and left her to die. Gosh, I feel depressed - how can people do things like that?

Amish Stories said...

Greetings from an Amish community in Pennsylvania, I'm just checking out different blogs and thought id leave a comment. Happy holidays to everyone as well. Richard from Amish Stories

CarolineLD said...

SilverTiger, that's a brilliant site, isn't it!

Hugh, that is a depressing case. The Bloody Code, though, didn't seem to do any better than our current system at deterring criminals - and the main concern of the legislators of the period seems to have been property crime.

Sam, I'm not aware of Sir Samuel having links to the Finsbury Park area, but he had two sons who were politicians (one was also a prominent lawyer and became Baron Romilly) so there's plenty of scope for a family connection.

Brooke said...

Thank you for this post!! I have walked past this peice of London history almost daily for the last year, and think, every time, that I should do some research and find out more about the man. Now I know more about the man, and have proven that being lazy sometimes (but very rarely) works in my favour.

Hels said...

Romilly was the grandson of Huguenots? I am not surprised! Huguenots were great at silver arts, silk arts, small business and the professions.

I bet his parents and grandparents told him stories of how the Protestants were subject to pretty arbitrary capital punishment back in France. So good on him for:
a] reaching the giddy heights of solicitor-general and
b] campaigning vigorously for criminal law reform.

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