‘Toff Justice’? Crime and Punishment in the India Office Archives

For a brief period in May of last year, the news cycle was dominated by the case of Oxford university medical student, Lavinia Woodward. For those of you who may have missed this case at the time, Woodward, then 24, was charged with assaulting her boyfriend whilst intoxicated by drink and drugs; the BBC reported that having thrown a number of items at him in rage, she lunged at him with a breadknife before wounding him in the leg, an injury which later necessitated four stitches. The press interest in the case, however, was not so much a result of the events, but rather Woodward herself and the way she was treated by the UK justice system. Woodward, described as an ‘extraordinary, able young woman’ by Judge Ian Pringle QC, was given a ten-month sentence suspended for 18 months, which enabled her to avoid jail time and thus continue in her chosen career, with Pringle going on to observe that preventing her from entering the medical profession would be too severe a penalty. tumblr_owuubzwaFt1u5f06vo1_1280The decision was met with criticism across the press and public commentariat, with many suggesting the expression of evident class bias in the leniency of Woodward’s sentencing, as well as in the general demeanour of the court towards her case, especially when compared to similar cases involving those from more disadvantaged backgrounds.

Indeed, for me, having come straight from the courts martial reports and correspondence of the India Office Archives, such decisions and the loaded class politics involved seemed all too familiar. The archival reports I had been digging through then (and have returned to in the last month) often reveal surprisingly lenient decisions for cases of assault or drunken behaviour that involve officers or civil servants, actions that would be punished far more severely when committed by other ranks. I have written before on this blog about some of the badly behaved colonial officers I have encountered, such as Lieutenant Edward Routledge (who drank too much in 1819, rode his horse around his cantonment swinging his sabre, and then wounded a Sepoy in the face), or Guy Athel Weston, Superintendent of Police in the Punjab of a century later, who, amongst other things, assaulted an Indian colleague, and once allowed a suspect to die whilst in custody, it is suggested, through negligence; despite these incidents causing social embarrassment and professional difficulties, neither resulted in prosecution, and instead both were explained away, in not dissimilar fashion to the Woodward case, by mitigating medical factors of addiction.

Similarly, even if a case did not involve instances of violent behaviour as these two did, and concerned only poor performance or professional misconduct, authorities often went to great lengths to avoid any kind of overt punishment. Decisions often hinged around whether the removal of the individual involved would be detrimental not just to them or their career personally, but whether it would deprive others, the government of India, or even the Empire of their services too. For example, there was much discussion over what to do with the linguistically-gifted Peirce de Lacy Henry Johnstone of the Civil Service (retired on an incapacity pension in 1884 as a result of his drinking), or the enterprising Lieutenant Colonel G. V. Fosbury, who exceeded his furlough to England by over two years in 1878 in order to develop a new type of armoured hull for torpedo boats on behalf of the British Admiralty; when finally, and reluctantly charged by the India Office for being AWOL, he claimed to have been suffering hepatic derangement, anxiety and rheumatic gout.

When it came to other ranks or working class men charged with similar behaviour, the records tell a different story. For example, the Warley casebooks cover offences committed by soldiers of the 80th Regiment of Foot (later the Royal Indian Regiment, based in Warley when not in India) for the period 1848-62, and are organised alphabetically by the soldier’s name, providing in each instance a summary of the offence committed, the circumstances surrounding it, the accused’s plea, verdict and subsequent punishment administered. Despite numerous cases for drunk and disorderly behaviour, or drink-related violence or theft, none of the cases generate the same degree of correspondence, concern or attempts at mitigation as those of the officer classes. Instead, they follow a similar pattern, with the only real difference in sentencing the number of days of hard labour given to the prisoner (dependent on assessments of their character).


(Picture: Getty Images – taken from Metro, 16/4/15).

Such approaches seem consistent, however, with broader discourses of pathologisation and criminalisation occurring in the nineteenth century, such as with kleptomania; the distinction being that, unlike the poor, there was no need for middle class people to steal, so therefore it must be a condition. It is the same with officer ranks and middle classes in India – there is no other explanation for such excessive drinking other than a mental or physical infirmity. The poor and other ranks meanwhile, were simply revealing their essential nature.

Where does this leave us with regard to the Lavinia Woodward case? Everyone deserves a chance at reforming their behaviour, and many in the India Office Records made evident efforts to change for the better when allowed the opportunity, doing so with help, support, and understanding of networks of family, friends and colleagues. No-one should be judged necessarily by one incident or lapse of judgment, especially if the consequences are slight or limited, however, such clemency and understanding of mitigating circumstances must be seen to be afforded to everyone, and not just those privileged few.