Thursday, 5 June 2008

Offences against the person

It was offences against the person that provided the most spectacular and terrifying images of criminality in this period. For example, the metropolitan garrotting panics[1] of the mid 1850s and 1862-3, that set a trend for describing a variety of robberies in London and the provinces, as 'garrotting' and the butchery of Jack the Ripper in East London in the autumn of 1888 reverberated outside London.

At the popular level there were newspapers devoted to crime and this helped to feed people’s interest. There were few restrictions on reporting. Artists were used to draw scenes from the crime. This allowed them to print the kind of pictures we are not allowed to show as photographs today. Madame Tussauds opened in 1802 and had popular waxworks of criminals, especially murderers. Murder featured a great deal perhaps because it was, from the 1860s, the only capital offence. There was huge public interest in celebrated nineteenth century horror crimes, like the Radcliffe Highway murders of 1811 when two families were battered to death, the activities of the poisoner William Palmer in the mid-1850s and the Ripper murders of 1888.

But these were the dramatic exception rather than the norm. The statistics show that the number of murders was static at about 400 a year. Then, as now, most murders took place in the family. A breakdown of assaults taken before Bedfordshire magistrates every five years between 1750 and 1840 shows that

  1. There were very high numbers of assaults on women of which a third were attacks by husbands on their wives. Only a third of this type of assault were prosecuted on indictment.
  2. There were a significant number of attacks on authority in the shape of constables or overseers of the poor. By contrast, some 85 per cent of these attacks led to prosecution.

Offences against the person made up over 10 per cent of committals made on indictment during the period 1834 and 1914 and about 15 per cent of summary committals in the second half of the century. Assaults on authority, in the shape of policemen formed a significant percentage of nineteenth century assaults and declined at a slower rate than common assault: 15 per cent of summary prosecutions in the 1860s rising to about 21 per cent in the 1880s. Most assaults were for resisting or obstructing the police in their duty.

  1. In Victorian England the homicide rate reached 2 per 100,000 of the population only once [in 1865]. Generally, it hovered about 1.5 per 100,000 falling to rarely more than 1 per 100,000 at the end of the 1880s and declining even further after 1900. This meant that between 1857 and 1890 there were rarely more than 400 homicide reported to the police each year, and during the 1890s the average was below 350.
  2. These figures do not take into account the significant number of infanticides that went undetected.
  3. Murders were normally committed by either relatives or by persons known to the victim. Murders by strangers or by burglars were exceptional though they were widely and luridly reported in newspapers.

Homicide is regarded as a most serious offence and it is probably reported more than other forms of crime. The statistics for homicide are therefore probably closer to the real level of the offence.

Two points are worth further discussion.  First, the incidence of violence within the family. Physical punishment seems to have been accepted or at least tolerated across social groups until well into the nineteenth century. Yet there were limits. Ill-treatment leading to death was exceptional but even here courts could find mitigating circumstances: Frederick Gilbert was acquitted of the manslaughter of his wife after the court noted that he was a good, sober man and his wife a drunkard. There appears to have been a decline in violence between working class men and women in the third quarter of the century, possibly because of growing respectability and rising living standards that reduced stress on the male as the principal economic provider. Perhaps also the cult of respectability made wives even less likely to complain since such assaults were shameful and in the growing suburbs they were less public, less likely to disturb the neighbours, while the bruising was less visible than on the crowded stair of a tenement. In addition there was the extent to which courts and the police were prepared to accept the uncorroborated word of the beaten wife.

Secondly, the link between drink and violence. Drink was often a cause of violence in the family, and outside. Some Victorian temperance reformers gave drink as the fundamental cause of all crime[2]. Others were less zealous and suggested only a connection between crimes of violence and drink. There is some evidence to suggest that there were slight increases in figures for assault and drunkenness during years of prosperity: high wages and high employment led to a greater consumption of alcohol that, in turn, contributed to more violent crime. However, in the last quarter of the century the overall trend is markedly downwards. This may be explained, in part, by which contemporaries perceived as the civilisation or moralisation of the population. Perhaps also there was a decrease in anxiety about small-scale, drink-related violence.

There seems to be an interplay between criminal statistics and periodic fears of crime and disorder and it is probable that the collection and publication of national crime figures led to the perception of crime as a national and impersonal problem. Statistics made crime national and made the criminal a national figure. Crime could be shown to be offences perpetrated on a large scale against respectable people by a group that, by being measured statistically, could be defined collectively as criminals or as the 'criminal class'.


[1] In July 1863 Hugh Pilkington, an MP was garrotted and robbed in central London. This led to a ‘garrotting scare’. There were 12 more recorded cases in October and 32 in November. Maybe the press reports of the original case led criminals to copy the tactic. Maybe the police or the public labelled certain kinds of robbery ‘garrottings’ that they would not previously have done.

[2] On the issue of drink and the temperance movement see Brian Harrison Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England 1815-1872, Faber, 1971, revised edition, Keele University Press, 1994 and W.R. Lambert Drink and Sobriety in Victorian Wales, University of Wales Press, 1984. V. Berridge and G. Edwards Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth Century England, Yale, 1987 is the best study of the impact of drugs.

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