"Intended as a Terror to the Idle and Profligate": Embezzlement and the Origins of Policing in the Yorkshire Worsted Industry, C. 1750-1777

By Soderlund, Richard J. | Journal of Social History, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

"Intended as a Terror to the Idle and Profligate": Embezzlement and the Origins of Policing in the Yorkshire Worsted Industry, C. 1750-1777


Soderlund, Richard J., Journal of Social History


On 3 April 1785, officials from the House of Correction in the ancient Cheshire salt-making town of Middlewich conveyed Martha Pimlott, a poor single woman, to the nearby market town of Knutsford. There, they carried out the directives of a Justice of the Peace named Samuel Finney, subjecting the prisoner to a time-tested judicial ritual of humiliation and pain: a public whipping. Stripped to the waist and in full view of neighbors and the assembled community, Pimlott received precisely thirty stripes on her bare back. Employed as a handspinner of worsted yam, a common form of wage labor for women in much of Cheshire, Pimlott's transgression was a particular form of workplace misconduct. Justice Finney had found Pimlott guilty of false and short reeling, a type of industrial embezzlement specific to handspinners. In the next eight years Cheshire magistrates convicted Pimlott at least six more times for the same offense. The materials that she abstracted, small bits of yarn and wool, were probably worth the sum total of a shilling or two. But the luckless spinner received two additional public whippings and a further six months imprisonment.(1) Few eighteenth century industrial workers appear with such frequency in the records of the criminal justice system. Nevertheless, Pimlott's experience exemplifies what several recent studies identify as a central feature of employment relationships in England's early industrial revolution: endemic strife over the control and disposition of property. An especially promising current of research concerns embezzlement and the law. Reflecting the overwhelming primacy of circulating capital in the age of manufacture, eighteenth-century parliaments enacted fourteen statutes that were devoted to governing property rights in fifteen industries.(2) Part of the expansion of what one contemporary termed "cheap and expeditious justice,"(3) individuals suspected of purloining materials faced the summary jurisdiction of local justices of the peace rather than an indictment in an assize court or court of quarter sessions. Most embezzlement laws dictated significant liabilities for offenders, punishments that generally intensified over the course of the century, including mandatory spells of imprisonment and public corporal punishment.(4)

The Yorkshire-based manufacture of worsted textiles, the industry that employed Martha Pimlott, offers an excellent vantage point to examine the origins of embezzlement law in eighteenth-century industry. In 1777, a small group of wealthy Yorkshire manufacturers gained the passage of a statute popularly known as the Worsted Act (17 Geo. III c.11). That measure established the Worsted Committee, an employers' association with the right to organize an industrial police force. The law invested the Worsted Committee's police, known as worsted inspectors, with powers to regulate virtually every aspect of the production process. But their chief function was to detect and prosecute acts of embezzlement. Recent research has broadly confirmed the reticence of eighteenth century English elites to alter the antique parish-based systems of policing communities.(5) The Worsted Committee's initiative represents a striking contrast. For several decades after its founding, the Committee supervised a sustained and vigorous campaign of industrial policing and served as a model for like-minded manufacturers in Yorkshire and elsewhere.(6) In an era that historians recall as advancing the dismantling of legal regulations over the conduct of economic life, the Worsted Committee's efforts introduced a strong coercive element to one of England's most important export industries.(7)

The Worsted Act has figured prominently in the work of social and economic historians.(8) Beginning with Herbert Heaton's well known study of 1920, historians have regularly cited the Worsted Committee's undertaking as the best example of a sustained manufacturers' campaign to challenge embezzlement. …

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