Friday, 4 March 2011

Property and crime

The energies of law enforcement were focused on maintaining order and defending property. The late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth century saw major changes in Britain.[1] 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. For example, the last series of prosecutions for highway robbery were heard at the Old Bailey were in 1830. In the next eighty years, only three more cases were tried; in 1832, 1877 and a final case in 1897. Robbing travellers on the railways was a new crime, especially before the introduction of corridor trains.[2] Huge business venture, operating with little supervision, provided opportunities for crooked dealings and the development of white-collar crime. [3] 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. Although the behaviour of corrupt businessmen led to social outrage and often long prison sentences, they were generally seen as ‘rotten apples’ rather than as members of the ‘criminal classes’.

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 significant during these years but it was well below the increase measured in crime statistics. Moreover, the 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 coincided with years marked by economic depression and political unrest.

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The correlation suggests that victims might have been more ready to prosecute because of the general feeling of insecurity and offenders more likely to steal because of economic hardship. 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 and the effective prosecution of crime increased.

Property crimes were frequently commented on in the Victorian press. Those who owned property and who, as a result, had the vote tended to live in areas where violence was less common. Britain’s propertied classes felt themselves under attack from two directions. First, there was the potential for revolution to be export from the continent. There were revolutions in France in 1789, 1830 and 1848 and 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 Chartist and industrial agitation culminating in Newport rebellion in 1839, the Plug Plots in 1842 and the Kennington Common meeting in 1848.[4] Secondly, attacks were expected from the ‘dangerous classes’ in 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.

In the mid-nineteenth century, 60% of larceny charges were for less than five shillings. [5] Larceny statistics in the second half of the century also show some link between the peaks of offences and years of high unemployment.[6] But, after the 1840s, 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.


[1] Bailey, V., (ed.), Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth century Britain, (Croom Helm), 1981 contains several important essays and ibid, Philip, D., Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1835-60 and Jones, D., Crime, Protest, Community and Police in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Routledge), 1982 and Crime in Nineteenth Century Wales, (University of Wales Press), 1992 are useful collections of thematic and regional essays.

[2] Ireland, R.W., ‘“An increasing mass of heathens in the bosom of a Christian land”: the railway and crime in the nineteenth century’, Continuity and Change, Vol. 12, (1997), pp. 55-78 focuses on Carmarthenshire in Wales between 1850 and 1880 and Quick, Michael, ‘The Garrett Gang: luggage thefts in the 1840s’, Journal of the Railway & Canal Historical Society, Vol. 187, (2004), pp. 437-445.

[3] Robb, George, White-collar crime in modern England: financial fraud and business morality, 1845-1929, (Cambridge University Press), 1992 provides a detailed study. Sindall, R.S., ‘Middle-class crime in nineteenth century England’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 4, (1983), pp. 23-40, Barnes, Paul, ‘A Victorian financial crisis: The scandalous implications of the case of Overend Gurney’, in ibid, Rowbotham, Judith and Stevenson, Kim, (eds.), Criminal conversations: Victorian crimes, social panic, and moral outrage, pp. 55-69. See also, Locker, John P., ‘The Paradox of the ‘Respectable Offender’: Responding to the Problem of White-Collar Crime in Victorian and Edwardian England’, in Johnston, Helen, (ed.), Punishment and control in historical perspective, (Palgrave), 2008), pp. 115-134, Wilson, Gary and Wilson, Sarah, ‘“Getting away with it” or “punishment enough”?: The problem of “respectable” crime from 1830’, in Moore, James Robert and Smith, John, (eds.), Corruption in urban politics and society, Britain 1780-1950, (Ashgate), 2007, pp. 57-78 and Colley, Robert, ‘The Arabian Bird: A Study in Income Tax Evasion in Mid-Victorian Britain’, British Tax Review, (2001), pp. 207-221.

[4] Royle, Edward and Walvin, James, English Radicals and Reformers 1760-1848, (Harvester Press), 1982, Stevenson, John, Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1870, (Longman), 1979.  Hunt, E.H., British Labour History 1815-1914, (Weidenfeld), 1981 and Wright, D.G., Popular Radicalism: The Working-class Experience 1780-1880, (Longman), 1988 contain useful material on radicalism. Thomis, Malcolm and Holt, P., Threats of Revolution in Britain 1789-1848, (Macmillan), 1974 and Royle, Edward, Revolutionary Britannia?, (Manchester University Press), 2000 provide different perspectives on the threat of revolution.

[5] Gatrell, V.A.C., ‘The decline of theft and violence in Victorian and Edwardian England’, Gatrell, V. A. C. et al, (eds.), Crime and the law: a social history of crime in Western Europe since 1500, (Europa Publications), 1980, pp. 238-370 and Godfrey, Barry S. and Locker, John P., ‘The nineteenth-century decline of custom, and its impact on theories of “workplace theft” and “white collar crime”’, Northern History, Vol. 38, (2001), pp. 261-273.

[6] Ferris, Graham, ‘Larceny: Debating the “boundless region of dishonesty”‘, in ibid, Rowbotham, Judith and Stevenson, Kim, (eds.), Criminal conversations: Victorian crimes, social panic, and moral outrage, pp. 70-90.

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