Sunday, 1 June 2008

Nineteenth century crime: sources

Victorian crime can be examined through three main sources[1]. Annual statistical returns have been published as Parliamentary Papers since 1805; a wide range of contemporary literary sources offer comment on criminal behaviour and provide valuable insights into Victorian concepts of crime; the formal records of court proceedings can often be supplemented by local newspapers.

Criminal statistics

Annual returns were significantly expanded and improved in the mid-1830s and the late 1850s. Before 1837 the figures related only to national committals for indictable offences but after that statistics at both national and county level were introduced for indictable and summary offences. The County and Borough Police Act 1856 presented the statistics by police districts, thus facilitating regional study. A number of changes occurred in 1893, the most important of which was the change from a year ending on 29 September to one coincident with the calendar year. There are certain problems in using statistics:

  1. Particular administrative districts do not necessarily provide the most useful base from which to study crime. Counties contained extremely varied social and economic characteristics that render the search for conclusive explanation difficult if not impossible
  2. There are difficulties with the categories used by compilers of statistics
  3. Changes in policing could affect the statistics of crime. The establishment of new police forces from the 1830s almost invariably produced local increases in the number of people committed for public order offences like drunk and disorderly and vagrancy. Directives to individual police forces to clamp down on one offence could produce sudden peaks in local statistics. For example in the year 1867-8 105 vagrants were apprehended in Bedfordshire but the figure the following year was 291 falling back to 117 in 1869-70
  4. Changes in the law could also affect the statistics. New laws also meant new crimes. The Education Act 1870 resulted in over 96,000 parents being brought before the courts in the first year and allegedly half a million were prosecuted in the first twenty years of the legislation.
  5. There is a difference between 'official' crime, as found in statistics, and 'total' crime or actual crimes committed

In the light of these problems, it has been argued that the annual statistics are worthless for the study of criminal activity, though a strong case for their value as a source has been made.

Literary sources

Most of the conceptions of crime in Victorian England were the 'official' and perhaps essentially middle class views of politicians, civil servants, clergymen, magistrates and law officers. Consequently, the literary sources offer a narrow and biased view of the problem. Furthermore, since law is created, and therefore crime defined, by the ruling elite, it can be argued that all law must reflect its prejudices and protect its privileges. Popular fiction and drama in, for example, the 1830s and 1840s, including Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist, highlighted and seemed to support important aspects of the factual discussion on crime:

  1. The perception that crime existed in a world of its own. This criminal ‘world’ mirrored the respectable world as a nightmare mirrors the day world. Moral issues were very clear and criminality was dramatically at war with virtue
  2. The youthfulness of the criminal world.
  3. Many of these works were characterised by a fascination with and an intense horror of violence.

This did not mean that the whole of society agreed about the law that defined crime. Legislation against trade unions and poaching are two of the more obvious examples of class law. It is, however, debatable whether laws can run too far ahead of public opinion. To argue that all law was class-based is to ignore the fact that most crime was committed against members of the working classes.

Court and police records

The principal courts involved in the prosecution of crime were the Court of Assize and the Court of Quarter Sessions. In all cases, it is normal to find registers of cases and files associated with specific prosecutions. Increasingly during the century, the Court of Petty Sessions emerged to deal with minor offences at the local level, but they were not courts of record and the survival of any materials is likely to be fortuitous.  The survival rate of local constabulary records varies, but, at their best they offer valuable insights into official attitudes to crime through chief constables' quarterly and annual reports to Quarter Sessions, the papers and minute books of Police Committees and the records of occurrence books.

Given that most, and from 1857-8, all of the statistical and official sources refer to local and regional units, much of the research has been carried out at that level[2]. Taking the various sources available the following pattern emerges[3]:

  1. The eighteenth century saw a significant ‘crime wave’. Contemporary writers all commented on the increase in theft and violence. As a result a large number of small offences were made hanging offences. This became known as the ‘Bloody Code’.
  2. The steep rise in theft and assault continued after 1825 at a steady rate until the late 1840s. For the second half of the century there was a gradual decline in theft and violence, though housebreaking and burglary remain at a constant and proportionally higher level
  3. The most common crime -- well over half and often more than three-quarters -- throughout the period was small-scale theft
  4. The great majority of offenders -- generally three in four -- were male and there was a strong concentration of young men in their teens and twenties

[1] The best introduction to statistics is V. Gattrell and T.B. Hadden 'Criminal statistics and their interpretation' in E.A. Wrigley (ed.) Nineteenth Century Society: Essays in the Use of Quantitative Methods for the Study of History, CUP, 1972 but see also the discussion in J.J. Tobias.

[2] D. Phillips Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1835-60, Croom Helm, 1977 is one of the most successful in combining the types of records from separate jurisdictions.

[3] There are parallels between the Victorian experience and the current experience and perception of crime.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I have just stumbled across this site and can't wait to get a good look at it. I am presently researching living conditions in Norfolk in the 19th century and your site does seem to offer great source material and links.

I will be back.