LAW & ORDER
POOR LAW ADMINISTRATION 1500-1800
The parish authorities in Dartford played an increasingly important role 1500-1800 in the maintenance and administration of law and order in the town. Assizes were held at Dartford from the 1550s until 1602. Quarter Sessions and manorial courts met regularly in the interests of promoting law and order.
The list of parish constables of Dartford goes back to 1642 when Isaac Thompson was appointed to the post. The constable was responsible for the supervision of the town watch, the upkeep of the stocks and pillory, the inspection of alehouses, the apprenticeship of pauper children, the apprehension and detection of suspected criminals and the arrest of escaped criminals.
The constable was originally a manorial appointment but as parish vestries gradually became more powerful, the responsibility fell on them. From 1750 onwards many areas promoted their own acts of parliament to obtain powers to levy a rate to pay for lighting and watching the streets. The court leet [define] met annually at Dartford. The high constable of the hundred of Dartford and Wilmington and four petty constables were chosen by the court. In Tudor times, Temples Liberty in Dartford (based around Hythe Street and Waterside) had its own constable.
In 1723, single parishes were empowered to build workhouses. Small parishes could form a union with others to make them viable. By 1776, there were about 2,000 workhouses in England. Gilberts Act of 1782 further encouraged parishes to combine with others to form unions, and to appoint independent inspectors. The able-bodied poor were provided with appropriate work outside the workhouse. Work within the workhouse was only provided for those who were judged unfit to work in the community.
THE DARTFORD BRIDEWELL
In 1611 a house in the High Street was granted to six justices of the peace to be used by them as a House of Correction. It is recorded that in 1644 "...a contentious woman of most base and vile demeanour" was sent to the Dartford prison or Bridewell. By 1717, the state of the building was giving cause for concern and rebuilding on a new site was considered.
During the early years of the eighteenth century, bridewells were used almost exclusively for the accommodation of petty offenders. There was an increasing demand for local prisons where persistent petty offenders could be locked-up for a period up to six months. In response to these demands, the Dartford justices leased a plot of land in Lowfield Street and plans were drawn-up to build a new bridewell. This new brick-built structure housed prisoners from Dartford and the surrounding rural area, as well as prisoners from the Deptford Bridewell which closed in 1721. Dartford Bridewell housed both male and female prisoners; the sexes were segregated within the building. Dartford Bridewell was financed by the county authorities rather than by the local ratepayers.
John Howard, the famous eighteenth century prison reformer visited Dartford Bridewell on several occasions between 1776 and 1788. His visits were short, but the comments he wrote provide an interesting insight into conditions there.
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