by Dick Hunter
This article examines petitions arising from convictions at Yorkshire courts in the mind-nineteenth century, with a case study of events surrounding and following the conviction of Sarah Ann Hill who, in December 1851, was sentenced to death for the murder of her new-born child.
The principle of petitioning for clemency or redress was well established, sometimes to reduce a death sentence to transportation, or to lessen the term of transportation, or to allow a convict to serve a term in Britain rather than overseas.
The article draws attention to neglect of this topic by local historians even though uniquely detailed evidence may be given. The circumstances in Yorkshire are then analysed, with tables showing conviction rates at York Assizes and the nature of the sentences handed out (death, transportation for life, transportation for differing lesser terms, and imprisonment in any one of seven penal establishments in the county). There is analysis of the impact of petitioning, which ranged from free or conditional pardons to other mitigation (though it is noted that 79 per cent of petitions were unsuccessful).
The case study of Sarah Ann Hill recounts her tragic case in detail, with analysis of how and why her death sentence was commuted to transportation. The final section of the article places this in the context of the increasingly vigorous campaign against the death penalty, or at least in favour of its much-reduced use.
Dick Hunter is a member of the outreach committee of the British Association for Local History and coordinated its First World War centennial activity. He is reviews editor of the journal Family & Community History, and chair of Clements Hall Local History Group in York. His interest in criminal petitions arose from a realisation of their valuable as an under-used source for voices that may not otherwise be found in the historical record.