Tuesday, 3 June 2008

A 'criminal class'?

Today we are concerned about 'organised crime'. In the nineteenth century contemporaries debated the existence of professional criminals and the rather less precise 'criminal classes', a notion given credence by the collection and publication of statistics. People believed that it was possible to identify ‘criminals’ by the way they looked. The Report of the Royal Commission on the Rural Constabulary 1839 attempted to explain crime across England and Wales. Edwin Chadwick largely drafted it. Criminality was rooted in the poorer classes, especially those who roamed the country: 'the prevalent cause of vagrancy was the impatience of steady labour'. Chadwick and his fellow commissioners were either unaware of, or simply ignored the seasonal nature of much nineteenth century employment and the need of many, even urban dwellers, to spend time moving from place to place and from job to job. Poverty and indigence did not lead to crime, the Report insisted. Criminals suffered from two vices:

  1. 'Indolence (laziness) or the pursuit of easy excitement'.
  2. They were drawn to commit crimes by 'the temptation of the profit of a career of depredation, as compared with the profits of honest and even well paid industry'.

Criminals made a rational decision to live by crime because of its attractions.

Identifying a criminal class?

Chadwick and other reformers identified a criminal group within the working class. This group possessed the worst habits of the class as a whole. These habits were then given as the causes of crime. The issue was one of 'bad' habits and vices. The 1834 Select Committee enquiring into drunkenness concluded that the 'vice' was declining among the middle and upper classes but increasing among the labouring classes with a notable impact on crime. Employment and good wages led to greater consumption of alcohol that, on occasions, contributed to a greater incidence of offences against the person. The problem, the Committee concluded, was the poor's lack of morality.

  1. 'Lack of moral training' was not a new issue in 1834, but it was taken up and emphasised by several educational reformers in the next two decades especially as concern grew about juvenile delinquency
  2. Individuals like Mary Carpenter, John Wade and James Kay-Shuttleworth argued that proper education would lead to a reduction of crime but that it was not secular education merely involving reading, writing and arithmetic that they wanted. Jelinger Symons explained that[1]: 'When the heart is depraved, and the tendencies of the child or the man are unusually vicious, there can be little doubt that instruction per se, so far from preventing crime, is accessory to it.'
  3. What was needed was Christian and moral education that would explain to the working classes their true station in life. This education had to instil in the young habits of industry. If bad parents or the efforts of ragged schools or Sunday Schools failed to do this, then reformatory schools would have to take over. Jelinger Symons again: ‘.... There must be a change of habit as well as of mind, and the change of habit mostly needed is from some kind of idleness to some kind of industry. We are dealing with a class whose vocation is labour; and whose vices and virtues are infallibly connected with indolence and industry.'

A dangerous class?

The 1830s and especially the 'hungry forties' saw ominous visions of society shared by people at opposite ends of the political spectrum. Friedrich Engels, the left wing writer wrote that 'the incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world'.  Crime was an aspect of the new social war that worsened with every passing year. In the 1840s the Chartist G.W.M. Reynolds published the fictional The Mysteries of London that gave his readers a frightening portrait of a brutalised, savage poor, a truly dangerous class. The middle classes in England readily accepted this view of their social inferiors if nothing else because the poor looked very different in physique as well as dress.

Between the 1850s and the 1870s a succession of middle class commentators, as often as not guided by local policemen penetrated the dark and teeming recesses of working class districts. They then wrote up their exploits for the delight of the reading public as journeys into criminal districts where the inhabitants were best compared with Red Indians or varieties of black 'savages'. Such literature is at its best in the writings of Henry Mayhew. He was a reporter for the Morning Chronicle, who incorporated his findings in the massive, four volume London Labour and the London Poor: A Cyclopaedia of the Conditions and Earnings of those that will work, those that cannot work and those that will not work between 1851 and 1861-2.  Mayhew noted the different physical and mental characteristics of the nomadic street people:

  1. 'There is a greater development of the animal than of the intellectual and moral nature of man.... They are more or less distinguished for their high cheek-bones and protruding jaws -- for their use of a slang language -- for their lax ideas of property -- for their general improvidence -- their repugnance to continuous labour -- their disregard of female honour -- their love of cruelty -- their pugnacity -- and their utter want of religion.'
  2. In short these 'exotic people' lacked all of the virtues that respectable middle class Victorian society held dear.
  3. Lurking among these people there was a separate 'class' of thieves who were mainly young, idle and vagrant and who enjoyed the literature that glorified pirates and robbers.
  4. In the fourth volume of London Labour, first published in 1861-2, Mayhew concentrated on 'the Non-Workers, or in other words, the Dangerous Classes of the Metropolis'. This was a work by several authors. Mayhew himself set out to define crime and the 'criminal class'. Crime, he argued, was the breaking of social laws in the same way that sin and vice broke religious and moral laws.

From the middle of the century many commentators confidently asserted that crime was being checked. There remained, however, an irredeemable, residuum that, with the end of transportation, could no longer be shipped out of the country. This group was increasingly called the criminal class: the backbone of this class was those defined by Mayhew as 'professional' and by the legislators as 'habitual' criminals. The Times commented in a leading article in 1870 that these men: 'Are more alien from the rest of the community than a hostile army, for they have no idea of joining the ranks of industrious labour either here or elsewhere. The civilised world is simply a carcass on which they prey, and London above all, is to them a place to sack.'

James Greenwood, a journalist, noted that many juveniles resorted to crime because of hunger, yet in general habitual criminals were rarely perceived as bring brought to crime by poverty. Bad, uncaring parents, drink, the corrupt literature that glamorised offenders and the general lack of moral fibre continued to be wheeled out as the causes of crime. The problem that contemporaries had was to explain the persistence of crime in spite of the advantages and opportunities provided by the advance of civilisation and the expansion of the mid-century panacea of education. The old stand-bys of corrupting literature etc. were combined with the mixing of first-time offenders with recidivists in prisons, concepts of hereditary and ideas drawn from the development of medical science:

  • Early in the century phrenologists[2] had visited prisons to make case studies of convicts in the belief that inordinate mental faculties led to crime. A visitor to Newgate prison in the 1830s said the prisoners had ‘animal faces’.
  • From 1850 doctors like James Thompson, who worked in Perth prison, began collecting biological analyses of convicts, thus providing an academic veneer to these perceptions of 'animal propensities' by the supposedly foolproof means of empirical research.
  • The work of Charles Booth[3] in the 1880s and 1890s, with its exposure of bad housing and inadequate diet, encouraged a perception of the residuum as the product of the inevitable workings of social Darwinism. Arnold White, who in the 1900s was the central figure in warning the public about the degeneration of the British race, first expressed his concerns in the 1880s.
  • The fundamental problem was not class but 'degeneracy' and hereditary and urban environment were to keys to understanding. Degeneracy was inherited or could be acquired when an individual adopts and deliberately persisted in a life of crime. The problem was made worse by the highly concentrated population of cities that led to the 'creation of a large degenerate caste'.

There are two implicit elements about the perceptions of the criminal class explored so far:

  1. The criminal class was perceived as overwhelmingly male.
  2. The perceptions were those of middle class commentators who had in mind, if not the middle classes, at least a 'respectable' audience.

There were occasional references to women committing crimes, even to them being afflicted by criminal 'diseases', but in general, they were seen as appendages to thieves. There was, however, a parallel between perceptions of the male criminal and the female prostitute. Prostitution was not in itself a criminal offence, but there was growing concern about 'the Great Social Evil' and from 1850 determined attempts at control. Dr William Acton's Prostitution, Considered in its Moral, Social and Sanitary Aspects, in London and Other Large Cities did not see prostitution as the slippery slope of damnation and noted that young women often became prostitutes only for a short while[4]. But there are significant parallels between his list of the causes of prostitution and the causes of crime among the criminal and/or dangerous classes: 'Natural desire. Natural sinfulness. The preferment of indolent ease to labour. Vicious inclinations strengthened and ingrained by early neglect, or evil training, bad associates, and an indecent mode of life. Necessity, imbued by the inability to obtain a living by honest means consequent on a fall from virtue. Extreme poverty. To this blacklist must be added love of drink, love of dress, love of amusement.'

Was there a criminal class?

There were individuals and groups – people who we would today call ‘professional criminals’ -- who made a significant part of their living from crime. However, the word 'class' implies a larger number and a more homogeneous group than actually existed. Since the great majority of offenders came from one social class it was logical to locate the causes of crime within what were generally perceived as the vices of this class. But this was a middle class view of the problem that arose as much from fear and a slanted reading of criminal statistics. There are major problems with the whole idea of a ‘criminal class’.

  1. The statistics and court records suggest that the overwhelming majority of thefts reported and prosecuted were opportunist and petty; most incidents of violence against the person involved people who were either related or who were known to each other.
  2. The working classes were more commonly the victims of crime and felt more insecure and more likely to be victims in inner city areas than members of the middle classes.
  3. As Clive Emsley commented 'The notion of a criminal class was indeed remains, a convenient one for insisting that most crime was something committed on law-abiding citizens by an alien group.' Closer examination of this concept reveals it to be spurious. Work on the Black Country and London shows that no clear distinction can be made between a dishonest criminal class and a poor, but honest, working class. The number of 'habitual criminals' in the 1870s was perhaps no more than 4,000. The scale of the problem was perhaps considerably less than the middle classes believed.

Most thefts and most crimes of violence were not the work of professional criminals. Nor is it helpful to think of these offences as committed by a group that can, in any meaningful sense, be described as a class.


[1] Jelinger C. Symons Special Report on Reformatories in Gloucestershire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Monmouthshire and in Wales, printed in the Minutes of the Parliamentary Committee on Education, Parliamentary Papers, 1857-58, page 236.

[2] Phrenology developed in the early nineteenth century. It was based on ‘feeling’ the bumps on a person’s skull. By doing this phrenologists believed they could draw conclusions about the individual’s personality.

[3] Charles Booth produced a seventeen-volume study of the London poor between 1886 and 1905.

[4] There is a growing literature on prostitution. The best starting point is Judith Walkowitz Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State, CUP, 1980 and Paul MacHugh Prostitution and Victorian Social Reform, Croom Helm, 1980 deal specifically with the debate on the Contagious Diseases Acts. Linda Mahood The Magdalenes: Prostitution in the nineteenth century, Routledge, 1990, Eric Trudgill Madonnas and Magdalens: The origin and development of Victorian sexual attitudes, Heinemann, 1976 and Frank Mort Dangerous Sexualities: Medico-moral politics in England since 1830, Routledge, 2nd ed., 1998 provide valuable background. Philippa Levine 'Rough usage: prostitution, law and the social history', in A.Wilson (ed.) Rethinking social history: English society 1570-1920 and its interpretation, Manchester University Press, 1993, pp. 266-292 provides a good synthesis. Trevor Fisher Prostitution and the Victorians, Sutton, 1997 is a useful collection of sources.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

you shoudl cite your sources - '‘The notion of a criminal class was, indeed remains, a convenient one for insisting that most crime is something committed on law-abiding citizens by an alien group.’ is direct quote from Clive Emsley

tom koch said...

A very useful blog, and introduction. I'm looking for 19th century maps of crime, criminal activity, and the causes of crime (poverty, etc.). Do you know of any sorces, especially British, that included maps with their statistics of occurrance?
Thanks for your help.
Tom Koch
reply to tomkoch@kochworks.com