Charles Humphreys was a one-off, one-time offender. After serving four years' penal servitude for robbery, there is no evidence that he offended again. Charles might have been seen by contemporaries as a successfully "reformed" product of the justice system.
Little is known of Charles’ early life except that he was born in 1841 (or possibly 1842) and worked as a labourer. Testimony at his trial implies that he lived in Hounslow, London, or nearby. We know that he was married by the age of 21, when his trial took place.
Charles was brought before the Old Bailey’s Central Criminal Court on 15 December 1862, on a charge of robbery. The victim, James Hill, had been attacked as he left Hounslow with his horse and cart, on the evening of 28 November. Charles, together with a man named Clark, surrounded Hill’s cart. While Clark "put a handfull [sic] of mud over my mouth, and held me down", Charles stole Hill’s money, to the value of 21l. 8s. 9d.
A greengrocer in Hounslow testified that he had seen the men pursue Hill, and had overheard Charles saying, "I will give it to the old b---". The moon had been bright that evening, and Hill confidently identified Humphreys, whom he claimed to have known for three years and who had actually helped Hill to load his cart that morning.
The case for the prosecution was supported by other evidence against the two defendants, and both were found guilty.
Charles was sentenced to four years of penal servitude. (His accomplice, Clark, was sentenced to six years.)
Prison registers suggest that, like many other prisoners convicted at the Old Bailey, Charles was held at Newgate in the weeks immediately following his trial. He was moved briefly to Millbank Prison in February 1863, before being transferred to Pentonville. In December, he left Pentonville for Dorset’s Portland Prison.
This seems to have been a fairly typical trajectory for a convict sentenced to penal servitude at this time. Clive Emsley explains: "After nine months of solitary confinement in Millbank or Pentonville, where they generally picked oakum or sewed, long-term penal servitude convicts were removed to the public works prisons of Chatham, Dartmoor, Portland or Portsmouth where, often at great risk to life and limb, they generally quarried stone or constructed fortifications and dockyard facilities" (Emsley, p.290).
Charles stayed at Portland until February 1866, when he was released on licence, some months ahead of his full term. This meant that he would be free for the rest of his sentence, unless convicted of another indictable offence before the expiration of the licence. There is no evidence that this happened, and Charles appears to have remained at liberty.
Charles was married at the time of the robbery, and his wife was pregnant. The police sergeant who searched their house had found a sovereign concealed in a tobacco box, and Charles’ wife suggested that could be the money she had set aside to pay the doctor for her confinement. Prison registers confirmed that Charles had one child.
Charles could neither read nor write. His health in prison was described as good. His character, too, was reported as "good" and "very good" (although in one report, "indifferent"), and he was documented as having been only "once convicted". It seems that Charles was a one-time, one-off offender.
Nothing is known of Charles’ later years or death. A Charles Humphreys was involved in some cases of larceny in Middlesex in the early 1870s, but there is nothing (such as an age) to link them to this prisoner.
It is reasonable to assume, then, that Charles did not commit any further offences after the robbery of 1862.
Charles' spell in prison was characterised by good behaviour and early release, and his subsequent years were free from further offending. In this regard, contemporaries might have considered him a successful product of the justice system, which, from the late eighteenth century onwards, had increasingly sought to effect moral reform among its charges through imprisonment. Over the course of the nineteenth century, imprisonment rapidly became the most common punishment, overtaking capital punishment and transportation. Charles spent time at Millbank and Pentonville Prisons, both of which were built in the first half of the nineteenth century to accommodate the growing demand for prisons. (Both were built with space for prisoners' solitary confinement, a practice believed to encourage personal reflection and remorse.)
By the time Charles was imprisoned, however, the penal system had become notably more harsh. Charles was sentenced to penal servitude, which usually meant hard labour inside a prison. This was a common punishment of the later nineteenth century, having first been introduced during the 1850s as an alternative to transportation. It was typical of the late Victorian emphasis on retribution and deterrence in dealing with crime.
Robbery, Imprisonment, Penal Servitude, Prison Licence
This page was written by Fiona Milne with additional contributions by other members of the Digital Panopticon project team.