Tuesday, 1 March 2011

Murder and assault: crimes against the person

Although there were several high profile crimes and criminals in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, most criminal activity was small-scale, often involved a degree of violence and, despite the fears of the middle-classes largely involved members of the working-classes both as criminals and as victims.[1] There are major problems with the official crime statistics. How the police collated information or massaged the figures is often unclear and many crimes went unreported largely because the poorer sections of Victorian society, those most vulnerable to crime, had little faith in the police and many did not bother to report crimes as a result.[2] National figures of committals on indictment began in 1805, covering fifty crimes until 1834 when they become almost complete.

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“Oliver amazed at the Dodger’s Mode of ‘going to Work’”

From the middle of the nineteenth century the annual publication of Judicial Statistics for England and Wales suggested that in general crime levels appeared to be declining in England and Wales. Indictable offences declined by 79% between 1842 and 1891 and in London they declined by 63% between the 1820s and 1870s. Much of the decline in London reflects a sharp drop in violent crime of about 68% between the 1830s and the 1860s. Larceny indictments also decreased in London, from about 220 per 100,000 in the 1830s and 1840s to about 70 per 100,000 in the 1850s. This decline, however, stems at least partially from a revision of the criminal code in 1855 that removed minor larcenies from the indictable category and permitted courts to deal with them summarily. Although this revision treated simple assaults similarly, nearly all the decline in assaults had occurred by 1855. Other property crimes, particularly burglary, fraud, and embezzlement, increased during this period or remained steady. However, some areas experienced increases in crime. For example, as the Black Country industrialised, larceny committals to trial rose from 91 per 100,000 in 1835 to about 262 in 1860, an increase of 188%, and committals to trial for offences against the person increased from about 6 per 100,000 to about 14 per 100,000, a 133% increase.[3] This study suggests that rural areas and small towns exhibited sharply higher levels of criminality as they industrialised, while in heavily urbanised areas such as London studies found declines in serious criminality as they and their surrounding communities developed.

The volume and composition of indictments were determined by various factors, particularly the legal definition of crime and the zeal of prosecutors and officials. It is clear that prosecution rates varied both between crimes and over time. As a result, criminal statistics offer a poor indication of the fluctuating level of crime. The pattern of indictments demonstrates starkly a determination to protect property and an assumption that it was endangered by the criminality of the lower orders. In contrast, the countless offences of nobles, gentry, shopkeepers, and tradesmen went largely unpunished and white-collar criminals were more familiar to readers of Charles Dickens than to officials of the criminal courts.

It was offences against the person that provided the most spectacular and terrifying images of criminality in this period although they only accounted for about 10% of all indictable crimes in the nineteenth century For example, the metropolitan garrotting panics of the mid-1850s and 1862-1863 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. [4]

At the popular level, there were newspapers devoted to crime and this helped to feed people’s interest. There were few restrictions on reporting and artists were used to draw scenes from the crime allowing them to print the kind of pictures that would not be allowed as photographs today. Madame Tussaud’s 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[5] and the Ripper murders of 1888. [6]

But these were the dramatic and well-publicised exception rather than the norm. The statistics show that the number of murders stood at about 400 a year during the nineteenth century and that, then as now, most 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.

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Homicide is regarded as a most serious offence and it is probably reported more than other forms of crime.[7] Between 1857 and 1890, there were rarely more than 400 homicides reported to the police each year, and during the 1890s the average was below 350. In Victorian England, the homicide rate reached 2 per 100,000 of the population only once, in 1865. Generally, it was 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. These figures do not take into account the significant number of infanticides that went undetected.[8] The statistics for homicide are therefore probably closer to the real level of the offence. Two points are important. First, there was a high level 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.[9] 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.[10]

A breakdown of assaults taken before Bedfordshire magistrates every five years between 1750 and 1840 shows that there were very high numbers of assaults on women of which a third were attacks by husbands on their wives. Only a third of these types of assault were prosecuted on indictment and one in ten cases failed because wives failed to given evidence in court and wife-beating rarely led to more than six-month imprisonment. There were a significant number of attacks on authority in the shape of constables or overseers of the poor. By contrast, some 85% of these attacks led to prosecution.[11]

Offences against the person made up over 10% of committals made on indictment during the period 1834 and 1914 and about 15% 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% of summary prosecutions in the 1860s rising to about 21% in the 1880s. Most assaults were for resisting or obstructing the police in their duty.

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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.

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In addition, there was the extent to which courts and the police were prepared to accept the uncorroborated word of the beaten wife. [12] Although magistrates took contrasting positions with regard to wife-abuse, increasingly brutality by husbands was seen as unmanly and cowardly and some magistrates took the view that no amount of provocation could justify any act of violence against women. However, wife-abuse remained a significant problem and was denounced especially by Frances Power Cobbe. Campaigns around marital violence pre-dated the Ripper murders by a decade and one of the most powerful arguments that campaigners against ‘wife-torture’ had was the inadequacy of the law in protecting women from reprisal. The incidence of wife-beating declined from the 1870s in part because of the increase in penalties such as the power of police magistrates to have offenders flogged and exposed in the public pillory contained in the Wife Beaters Act 1882 but also because of improved living standards and the diffusion of middle-class family values.

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Cobbe and many others were convinced that levels of male violence were made worse by the consumption of alcohol; an analysis not exclusive to feminists as long-standing temperance societies show. Drink was often a cause of violence in the family, and outside. For example, in Dundee in the 1870s, the problem with drunkenness had become problematic, and one policeman would bring in between 60 and 70 drunken men and women on a Saturday night. In the late 1870s, the crime of ‘shebeening’, selling alcohol without a licence was committed by more women than men and in 1877, fines imposed on persons selling liquor without a licence raised almost £300 in revenue for the police. Some Victorian temperance reformers gave drink as the fundamental cause of all crime; the public house was the ‘nursery of crime’.[13] 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.[14]


[1] See, Chassaigne, Philippe, ‘Popular representations of crime: the crime broadside, a subculture of violence in Victorian Britain?’, Crime, Histoire et Sociétés, Vol. 3, (1999), pp. 23-55.

[2] Williams, Chris A., ‘Counting Crimes or Counting People: Some implications of mid-nineteenth century British policing returns’, Crime, Histoire & Sociétés, Vol 4, (2), pp. 77-93 focuses on Sheffield.

[3] Ibid, Philip, D., Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1835-60, p. 143.

[4] 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; see, Davis, J. ‘The London garrotting panic of l862: a moral panic and the creation of a criminal class in mid-Victorian England’, in ibid, Gatrell V.A.C. et al., (eds.), Crime and the law: a social history of crime in Western Europe since 1500, pp. 190-213 and Sindall, R.S., ‘The London garotting panics of 1856 and 1862’, Social History, Vol. 12, (1987), pp. 351-359 and Street Violence in the Nineteenth Century: Media Panic or Real Danger?, (Leicester University Press), 1990. See also, Rudé, G., Criminal and Victim: Crime and Society in Early Nineteenth-Century England, (Oxford University Press), 1985 and Wood, J. Carter, Violence and crime in nineteenth-century England: The shadow of our refinement, (Routledge), 2004.

[5] Watson, Katherine, Poisoned Lives: English Poisoners and their Victims, (Hambledon), 2004 considers one type of homicide.

[6] Gray, Drew D., London’s Shadows: The Dark Side of the Victorian City, (Cointinuum), 2010 examines the impact of the Ripper murders.

[7] Wiener, Martin J., ‘Homicide and “Englishness”: Criminal Justice and National Identity in Victorian England’, National Identities, Vol. 6, (2003), pp. 203-214 and Conley, Carolyn A., ‘Wars among Savages: Homicide and Ethnicity in the Victorian United Kingdom’, Journal of British Studies, Vol. 44, (2005), pp. 775-795. Local studies include, Cockburn, J.S., ‘Patterns of violence in English society: homicide in Kent, 1500-1985’, Past & Present, Vol. 130, (1991), pp. 70-106, England, R.W., ‘Investigating Homicides in Northern England, 1800-24’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 6, (1985), pp. 105-123 and Conley, Carolyn A., Certain other countries: homicide, gender, and national identity in late nineteenth-century England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, (Ohio State University Press), 2007.

[8] On infanticide, see http://richardjohnbr.blogspot.com/2010/10/infanticide-case-study.html

[9] On this issue see, ibid, Wood, J. Carter, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement, pp. 1-69 who argues that violence was ‘discovered’ as a social problem in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries as a traditional customary understanding that legitimated physical confrontation was challenged by an emergent middle- and upper-class culture. Ibid, Wiener, Martin, Men of Blood argues that, while there was an increasingly sharp distinction made between the separate spheres of men and women during the Victorian period, this had the effect of criminalising male violence.

[10] Tomes, Nancy, ‘A “Torrent of Abuse”: Crimes of Violence between Working-class Men and Women in London, 1840-1875,’ Journal of Social History, Vol. 11, (1977-8), pp. 328-345.

[11] Emsley, C., Hard Men: the English and Violence since 1750, (Hambledon), 2005 and Wood, J. Carter, Violence and crime in nineteenth-century England: the shadow of our refinement, (Routledge), 2004 provide an overview. See also Stone, L., ‘Interpersonal Violence in English Society 1300-1980’, Past and Present, Vol. 101, (1983), pp. 22-33.

[12] On domestic violence, see, Hammerton, A. James, Cruelty and companionship: conflict in nineteenth-century married life, (Routledge), 1992. See also, Emmerichs, M.B.W., ‘Trials of Women for Homicide in Nineteenth-Century England’, Women & Criminal Justice, Vol. 5, (1), pp. 99-109.

[13] Burne, Peter, The Teetotaler’s Companion, (Arthur Hall and Co.), 1847, p. 31-56.

[14] Davies, A., ‘Youth Gangs, Masculinity and Violence in Late Victorian Manchester and Salford’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 32, (1998), pp. 349-369 and ‘”These viragoes are no less cruel than the lads”: young women, gangs and violence in late Victorian Manchester and Salford’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 39, (1999), pp. 72-89 and G. Pearson, G., Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears, (Leicester University Press), 1983 consider one aspect of violence.

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