Wednesday, 4 June 2008

Offences against property

The late eighteenth and early nineteenth century saw major changes in Britain. This was bound to have an impact on crime. Highway robbery died out as roads became less isolated with more traffic, more patrols and more turnpike gates. A new crime was robbing travellers on the railways, especially before the introduction of corridor trains. Huge business venture, operating with little supervision, provided opportunities for crooked dealings and the development of white-collar crime. Many investors lost money in the 1840s railway fraud scandal. In 1882 over a £1 million was embezzled from Jardine Matheson and in 1897 millions were embezzled from Baring Brothers Bank. Both crimes were hushed up.

The sharp increase in crime figures after 1825 that continued until mid-century is well known, though not thoroughly explained. The increase in population was enormous during these years but it was well below the increase measured in crime statistics. Moreover the crime increase seems to have been as marked in rural counties like Bedfordshire as it was overall. What is noticeable about the peaks in crime -- from 1825 to a peak in 1832, a decline followed by another upswing to a peak in 1842 and again in 1848 -- is that they coincide with years marked by economic depression and political unrest. The correlation suggests that:

  • Victims might have been more ready to prosecute because of the general feeling of insecurity.
  • Offenders were more likely to steal because of economic hardship. Peaks of committals coincided with the depths of economic depressions and suggest that some offenders stole to survive.
  • Political unrest weakened some of the usual factors that discouraged crime.
  • The number of new magistrates increased from about 300 per year in 1820 to 400 by 1830. More active JPs meant more men available to hear complaints and issue warrants. Effective prosecution of crime increased.

Britain's propertied classes felt themselves under attack from two directions.

  1. From the potential of revolution exported from the continent. The French Revolution began in 1789. There was a further revolution in France in 1830. There were revolutions across other parts of Europe in 1830 and 1848. These created considerable fear that the same thing would happen in Britain. The late 1830s and early 1840s were years of acute anxiety fed by the economic depression as well as by radical and industrial agitation culminating in the Plug Plots in 1842 and the Kennington Common meeting in 1848.
  2. Secondly from the growing slums of urban Britain. As towns grew, and the slum areas expanded the middle classes felt that they were losing control of these inner-city areas. Many people were convinced by the writings of Malthus and his pessimistic picture of the poor implying that it was their own improvidence and immorality that led to problems of over population, food shortage and, consequently, high poor rates.

Larceny statistics in the second half of the century also show some link between the peaks of offences and years of high unemployment. But, after the 'hungry forties', the working classes rarely had to contend with the coincidence of high food prices and economic depression that was so marked in the first half of the century. This was due, in part, to a rise in the export market for industrial goods that enabled firms to offset short-term contractions in the home market. At the same time stable, even declining food prices helped many section of the working class to ride out short periods of unemployment. These elements help to explain the overall decline in theft and violence: put at its simplest, during this period the poor became less habituated to theft because they were less subjected to periods of severe unemployment coinciding with serious subsistence problems. In addition the growth and professionalism of the new police force probably acted as a deterrent; the destruction of the rookeries for urban improvement removed some of the worst criminal areas; the Vagrancy Acts meant a stricter supervision of the casual poor.

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