Saturday, 31 May 2008

The context and nature of crime

During this period of a century and a half Britain underwent major changes. These are normally associated with the Industrial Revolution. It is important to keep the following points in mind when looking at this issue.

  1. In 1750 England had a total population of around 6 million people. By 1901 this had risen to over 30 million. In 1750 about a quarter of the total population lived in towns and cities. By 1901 this had risen to three out of every four people. This process of urbanisation put considerable strains on existing systems of law enforcement. It saw the gradual end of the face-to-face society of early modern England. Town life was more anonymous. By the mid-nineteenth century most people lived and worked in towns and cities. This concentrated population.
  2. The French Revolution, which began in 1789, created considerable fear among the ruling classes that a similar revolution would take place in Britain. The working classes did not have the vote and their demands were seen as ‘revolutionary’ even when they were reasonable. Activities, like food riots that in the early modern period were seen as crimes were now defined as revolutionary.  The authorities increasingly feared the working classes as a threat to public order. As a result even small crimes were punished harshly.
  3. There were important changes in attitude towards crime and punishment.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries the ground-rules of conduct and behaviour were laid down by the Law and government policy, but the actual form and contents of the game was left to the influence of voluntary associations, local communities and often custom. The matter was one of social control. This was defined in middle class terms of 'respectability' and threats to 'public order'. The aim of this module is to explore the nature of crime in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, how it was detected and prevented and how those found guilty of offences were punished.

The nature of crime

There has been an unprecedented growth of academic research and publications in the history of crime[1]. Until recently, most books dealing with crime tended to be 'popular' rather than narrowly 'academic' and concentrated on particular, notorious events or personalities and many depended on largely anecdotal and literary sources[2]. Since the 1970s historians have increasingly turned their attention to crime and how former societies understood it and sought to deal with it.

Some historians have made a distinction between 'real crime' such as murder, rape and theft and 'social crime' or offences that had a degree of community acceptance or that can be linked with social protest. John Rule has suggested that it is useful to think of two main types of social crime during the late eighteenth and first half of the nineteenth century:

  1. Crimes that drew collective legitimation from their protest nature. In this category he includes rioting over the high cost of food, over enclosures, recruiting for the army or navy or over turnpike tolls.
  2. Crime that, though actions against the law, were not regarded as criminal by those who committed them. 'Perks' or the appropriation of things from the workplace became increasingly the object of criminal prosecution by employers in the nineteenth century. Poaching fell into the same category. The poor did not look upon it as a crime[3]: 'they almost universally look upon game, when in a wild state, as not being the property of any individual.'

The degree to which the state criminalises certain types of behaviour and not others has always been a matter of debate. The traditional view is that humanitarian reformers like Sir Samuel Romilly and Sir James Mackintosh gradually created an awareness both inside and outside Parliament that England's Bloody Code needed drastic revision. While such men stressed the barbarity of the legal code, other reformers like John Howard paved the way for improvement in the prison system. This picture fitted well with the Whig idea of history as progress. This view implies a logic that neglects the economic, social and political context of change.

Eighteenth century Parliaments tended to pass laws for local problems but gradually the government saw crime in its national context. Sir Robert Peel's reorganisation of the criminal law during the 1820s was symptomatic of this change. Yet national laws still had to be implemented at local level by local people, whose perceptions were not always the same as those in Parliament. The law may have been seen as impartial. However, it had to be interpreted and enforced by local agents who had their own assumptions, interests and prejudices and who could be, on occasions, at odds with each other.

Offenders could be brought before three main kinds of court during the nineteenth century:

  1. The least serious offences or misdemeanours could be dealt with summarily by magistrates, sitting alone or in pairs on the bench, in petty sessions. The number of offences that could be tried summarily increased in the nineteenth century with the passage of the Juvenile Offenders Acts in 1847 and 1850 and the Criminal Justice Acts of 1855 and 1879. In the larger towns and cities stipendiary or paid magistrates, acting in what were increasingly referred to as 'police courts' took on more and more of the burdens of summary justice.
  2. More serious offences or felonies were prosecuted on indictment and were heard at Quarter Sessions that met four times a year in both counties and corporate towns.
  3. The most serious offences were tried before judges at Assizes. In the early nineteenth century there were two assizes per year held in the major county towns of most counties at Lent and during the summer. Emergencies, such as food riots or other types of public disorder, could lead to a special assize being called. The metropolitan equivalent of the assizes was the court at the Old Bailey that was holding eight sessions a year during the 1750s. In 1834 it was enlarged and re-housed in the new Central Criminal Court.

Magistrates and judges were not the only agents of the law who were called upon to interpret the law. The nineteenth century saw the creation of a new police force in Britain. The police had some discretion in identifying some behaviour as criminal or not and in deciding what action to take. It was largely victimless crimes that were open to such discretion: drunkenness, prostitution, street gaming and especially Sunday street selling.


[1]  C. Emsley Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, Longman, 2nd ed., 1997, 3rd ed., 2005 is the most recent general text and is worth reading in full.  It should be read in conjunction with C. Emsley Policing and its Context 1750-1870, Macmillan, 1983, his 'Crime in Nineteenth Century Britain', History Today, April 1988, V. Gattrell 'Crime, authority and the policeman-state' in F.M.L. Thompson (ed.) The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: volume 3 Social Agencies and Institutions, CUP, 1900, pp.243-310 and the older study by J.J. Tobias Crime and Industrial Society in the Nineteenth Century, Penguin, 1972.

[2] The classic case of this kind in the nineteenth century was the 'Jack the Ripper' murders in 1888.

[3] A Bedfordshire JP to the Select Committee on Criminal Commitments and Convictions, Parliamentary Papers 1826-7, vi, page 34.

No comments: