Blind Houses and Parish Constables- upholding the Law in Regency England

Today’s guest is Elizabeth Keysian, talking about her new release. Welcome, Elizabeth!

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In my latest Regency romance, “Unmasking the Earl”, the hero, Ned, falls foul of a parish constable. Consequently he finds himself in the village lock-up, called locally a “blind house”.

Ashton Blind House. Photo credit: Tim Robey

I’d never encountered one of these miniature jails before I came to Wiltshire. There was one of these ancient structures still in existence on the village green in Steeple Ashton, where I lived. It could only accommodate a single felon. The blind house in the nearby town of Trowbridge had two cells, but then, Trowbridge was a pretty lawless place during the early part of the Industrial Revolution. Such prisons were mostly made of stone but they weren’t impregnable—an angry mob removed the roof from Trowbridge’s blind house during a riot, in order to rescue the inmates from their fate.

Back in 1821, when “Unmasking the Earl” is set, justice was a very hit-and-miss affair. There were no permanent county police forces— Wiltshire boasted the establishment of the first of these in 1840. London had its own constabulary, following on from Henry Fielding’s Bow Street Runners, but in small places like Steeple Ashton, the parish constable held sway, and it was up to him to maintain the local blind house, at his own expense.

I have discovered through recent research that the constable in my story, William Marsh, is probably quite unusual in his eagerness to adhere to the Letter of the Law. Generally the office was not a welcome one, as there was little financial recompense for time spent on official duties. If a candidate refused to take up the post after being voted in by his peers, he was liable to a fine or even imprisonment. As the strand of society from which constables were chosen was generally the working or artisan class, many of them would have already had a job. They would have tried to continue with their normal work, as it was usually more lucrative than being an officer of the law. It is not, therefore, surprising that parish constables were inclined to line their pockets with fines levied on the criminals they detained, or by selling succour to their prisoners. Even Constable Marsh crumbles when offered a hefty bribe by a member of the aristocracy—but I won’t spoil the story by going into detail.

Trowbridge Blind House. Photo credit: Tim Robey

Alternatives to the blind house were the stocks or the pillory, where a felon was restrained out-of-doors and could thus be pelted by the public with whatever came to hand. Ned, hero of “Unmasking the Earl”, had a lucky escape from these when he was thrown into the blind house for “affray”, a crime of which he was—almost completely—innocent.

Blind houses were often used for the incarceration of those guilty of drunkenness, riot, robbery and vagrancy. I can understand why the public at large might want perpetrators to be locked away for such crimes, but when I investigated further the sorts of villainy the parish constable was supposed to deal with, I found some rather puzzling ones which I’d like to share.

Butter – an unscrupulous shopkeeper might attempt to mix corrupt butter with good, which was a crime. Also, anyone opening a cask of butter after the buyer had set their mark on it was liable to a fine.

Bradford-on Avon Blind House, built into the town bridge. Photo credit: Tim Robey

Buttons – tailors were faced with penalties for making buttons of cloth or “stuff”, the latter being a cheap mix of fibres. Presumably this law was in place to keep the craft of button-making from disrepute.

Dyers – These artisans could be fined for “dyeing cloth deceitfully”. I would love to know what that entailed!

Post-letters – No person but the postmaster was allowed to receive, take, or carry letters, not even carriers or stage-coachmen, and anyone who refused to pay for the cost of their mail could find the local parish constable impounding their goods, and then selling them in order to pay off the postage costs.

Fish – Constables could levy a penalty of 10 shillings (which was meant to be used for the upkeep of the Poor) from anyone fishing in a river without the owner’s consent. There were also special rules relating to the size of fish which could be caught, and fishmongers had to adhere to these. Strictly no fishing of salmon was permitted in Wiltshire or Hampshire between 1 August and 12 November.

This is just a tiny glimpse into the parish constable’s world. The range of crimes he had to prosecute must have kept him busy all hours of the day. One can understand why he might have had a tendency to come down hard on felons, just as Constable Marsh does with the hero of “Unmasking the Earl”.

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“Unmasking the Earl” is set in 1821, in the West of England.

Devastated by the disappearance of his sister, the Earl of Stranraer has gone to extraordinary lengths to find the notorious rake responsible, and enters his household incognito to wreak his vengeance. But his enemy has an unexpected protector—the innocent but headstrong Miss Cassandra Blythe.

Cassie is determined to learn the art of seduction. But she is blindsided by her body’s thrilling response to the wrong man—a mysterious servant who shows up at the most inauspicious moments to spoil her lessons in love with warnings of her imminent ruin. When she learns the handsome servant’s identity and the reason for his deception, she resolves to help Stranraer, but only if he abandons his vow to destroy his enemy.

The earl is sorely tempted give the meddlesome beauty a lesson in seduction she’ll never forget. But she turns the tables, and he gets his own lesson in forgiveness…and love.

This book is available from Entangled Publishing. To find out more, sign up for my “Key to Romance” newsletter.

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Follow Barbara Monajem:

Barbara Monajem started writing at eight years old. She has wandered from children’s fantasy through mystery to paranormal and historical romance. She lives near Atlanta, Georgia with an ever-shifting population of relatives, friends, and feline strays.

7 Responses

  1. beppie2014

    Fascinating snippet of real life back then. I’d never heard of blind houses!

  2. barbarabettis1

    How fascinating–and the crimes one could be imprisoned for. On, and blind houses?? I don’t think it was called that or even followed a British tradition, on my first job as a reporter years ago, our small town had a tiny jail set in back of the city hall. It was big enough for one prisoner. Often when I took a shortcut down the alley from my paper to city hall where the police dept. was located, I’d pass a prisoner standing by the open door, his arms propped on the iron bars. Usually someone sleeping off a drunk or someone ‘holding’ for transport to the county jail. It closed not long after I went to work there, but your story brought back those memories.

  3. elizabethkeysian

    Trust me to choose something obscure to talk about! Trowbridge was such a lawless place during the Industrial Revolution and even Bradford-on-Avon, which looks idyllic now, was the scene of much rioting, and one protestor was even shot dead. A barracks was built to house troops in Trowbridge after the food riots and even later, when the Town Hall was built in 1889, it housed a series of cells below ground level, which are still in situ today.