– – – EXPLORING THE COUNTRYSIDE AND LANES OF DORSET – – –
Another of those quirky things in Dorset relates to its bridges! The bridges themselves are normal but many of the older ones have signs on them such as the one below threatening transportation if anyone was found damaging them. This seems very harsh today but believe it or not, it was aimed at leniency in those days.
Penal Transportation was the banishment of criminals, political prisoners and prisoners of war to lands overseas. It started in the early 1600’s with boat loads being shipped to the Americas and continued until the American Revolution when the practice was suspended. It resumed again in 1787 when the first fleet departed from England bound for Australia. It is though a practice that had its foundations much earlier, dating back to Roman times when people were sent into exile.
It might seem harsh to transport someone for life for damaging a bridge but prior to its introduction, the penalty might have been death. Indeed, many who were transported for comparatively minor offences were originally sentenced to death but pardoned, their sentence being reduced to transportation. It was actually introduced as a punishment for crimes where the death penalty seemed too severe!
However, it had other benefits as well. It also had the effect of increasing the labour force in the newly set up penal colonies, so helping develop English colonies overseas. And it wasn’t limited to men either, as women and children could be transported as well. One of the problems though was that there were less destinations prepared to take women, children, or those who were infirm. Most wanted only fit young men who could work hard.
In the case of the sign below, the punishment was transportation for life, but sometimes it was just for a set number of years. The problem was that at the end of their term they had to pay for their own passage back and many could not afford this, choosing rather to stay on as free men in the country to which they had been transported. Thus, the colonies grew.
Its amazing to think how the transportation system worked – no phones, no internet, no way of contacting the colonies, so the captains (for whom this became a commercial transaction) would have had to set sail not knowing whether their human cargo would be accepted. They would have had to choose from a selection of prisoners purely on their knowledge of who would bring in the most profit for them.
I guess the lesson is, if you fancy carving your initials on a Dorset bridge, think again as you might wind up in the ‘back of beyond’ somewhere serving in a penal colony 😉 !
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