The history of probation – Part One

The background

My relationship with probation lasted for almost forty-years and there was no gold clock at the end of it. The only way I can describe my relationship with probation over that time is fractured. However, this isn’t a personal history of my relationship with probation, but I, for one, am quite shocked I’m sitting here writing about the history of probation.

The Probation Service, as it is now known, originated in the late nineteenth century and it was my plan to begin there, however, the more I researched, not only was I learning more, but I was also going further and further back in time. Nineteenth, eighteenth, seventeenth, sixteenth and fifteenth before ending up in the late fourteenth century.

The year was 1388, a time when the criminal justice system looked different to the one we see today. In the Kingdom of England, local courts, known as quarter sessions, sat on four specific times of the year which coincided with religious festivals, the quarter days. Quarter days were when school terms started, servants were employed, and rents were due.

Observed since medieval days, quarter days were created to ensure that legal disputes and debts were not allowed to drag on.

In 1538, the Act of Union extended quarter sessions to Wales.

Although existing for centuries, it wasn’t until the Division of Counties Act 1828 that petty sessional divisions were enacted.

Petty sessional divisions were the areas petty sessions (magistrate’s court) had authority over.

Created at the beginning of the eighteenth century, petty sessions dealt with crimes considered minor and would also refer cases to the quarter sessions for more serious cases.

Middlesex Sessions House in 1810

Petty sessions were replaced by magistrate’s courts with The Court Act of 1971. The act also signalled the end of quarter sessions, and assizes. January 1, 1972, saw the introduction of permanent crown courts.

Although the probation service wasn’t officially formed until 1907 with the Probation of Offenders Act 1907, it was a donation from, Frederic Rainer, “a working printer” along with his idea of police court missionaries from where the probation service originated.

Police courts were formed in London, in 1792, with the Middlesex Justices Act 1792 and were serviced by constables. Magistrates heard the cases.

Rainer, born in 1836 in Windsor, just like me, was the youngest of six. Schooled at the National Schools – formed in 19th century by the National Society to promote religious education – Rainer was mentored by Reverend Henry J. Ellison (who went on to become Canon Ellison). Ellison was the founder and chairman of the Church of England Total Abstinence Society. Rainer was one of the society’s first members. The Church of England Total Abstinence Society became the Church of England Temperance Society (CETS).

On Rainer’s wedding day, April 21, 1862, his mother was in front of Windsor petty sessions charged with assault.

In 1876, Rainer wrote to the society about the absence of help for people facing police courts and donated five shillings to a fund set up to provide “practical rescue work” in police courts.

View of Manchester Police Courts, aka, Minshull Street Crown Court

“The Police Court Mission (PCM) was founded by the CETS in 1876 and began in London; offenders could avoid punishment by being placed under the supervision of court missionaries, for practical support and guidance and were also encouraged to sign the temperance pledge to abstain from drinking. These Police Court Missionaries were effectively early Probation Officers and as legislation moved on during the early part of the twentieth century, so some court missionaries were given official status as ‘Officers of the Court’, and later official Probation Officers.” (White Ribbon Association, Police Court Mission, WordPress)

It was the introduction of the Probation of Offenders Act 1907 which saw the previous missionaries become, what we now know as, probation practitioners.

1907 on will follow in part two.

3 thoughts on “The history of probation – Part One

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