Clive Emsley argues that nineteenth-century perceptions owed more to media-generated panic than to criminal realities.
Criminal statistics are notorious for their unreliability. How, for example, can we have statistics for perfect murders since, by definition, the perfect murder is never discovered. Yet if the statistics of Victorian crime can be taken as telling us (and the Victorians) anything, then the message was that homicide was not particularly serious, and that its incidence was declining from the middle of the century; in the 1860s the annual rate of homicides known to the police was 1.7 per 100,000 of the population, in the 1890s it was 1 per 100,000. Moreover, if we probe into the individual homicides in the criminal statistics, we find that a majority were committed within the family or amongst acquaintances. Serial killers, like Cream, appear to have been rare though, of course, when they did appear, the newspaper press exploited the horrors to the full, and readers lapped up the grisly details: the Ratcliffe Highway murders in December 1811; Mary Ann Cotton who was executed in Durham Gaol in March 1873 after allegedly murdering perhaps as many as twenty – husbands, lovers, children and step-children; and, of course, Jack the Ripper in 1888.
Jack the Ripper was perceived as a gentleman, slumming it in the London's East End and seeking victims to butcher amongst unfortunate prostitutes. Part of this perception may have come from the publication, in 1886, of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in which the mild-mannered, respectable doctor experiments and is gradually taken over by his dark side – Hyde's evil crimes were never precisely explained to the reader which, of course, permitted imaginations to run riot. But 'criminals' were rarely perceived as coming from amongst gentlemen in either Victorian fiction or non-fiction. Charles Dickens drew a vivid portrait of a burglar and murderer with the character of Bill Sikes in Oliver Twist. 'A stoutly-built fellow of about five-and-thirty, in a black velveteen coat, very soiled drab breeches, lace-up half-boots, and grey cotton stockings, which inclosed a bulky pair of legs, with large swelling calves; – the kind of legs, which in such costume always look in an unfinished and incomplete state without a set of fetters to garnish them. He had a brown hat on his head, and a dirty belcher handkerchief round his neck; with the long frayed ends of which he smeared the beer from his face as he spoke. He disclosed, when he had done so, a broad heavy countenance with a beard of three days' growth, and two scowling eyes; one of which displayed various parti-coloured symptoms of having been recently damaged by a blow.'
The journalists like Dickens, and others, who explored the criminal classes for the vicarious delight of respectable readers, commonly set this group amongst the poorer sections of the working class. Such people were described in terms as exotic as those employed in travel literature discussing African or American 'savages'. Occasionally offences seemed to bear out the validity of such descriptions as when, for example, in the autumn of 1850 what appears to have been a gang of burglars murdered the vicar of Primley – a murder so shocking that it prompted the magistrates of the Surrey Quarter Sessions to establish a county police force under the enabling legislation of 1839 and 1840. But sometimes the perception of such offenders could colour the way offences were reported and provoke a panic as, most notably, with London's 'garotting panic' of 1862. Garotting was the popular term for street robbery – what is now called 'mugging'. The 1862 panic began when an MP was robbed on his way home from a. late sitting of the House of Commons; the press began to see garotters everywhere, and entrepreneurs with an eye for the main chance began marketing 'anti-garotte collars' and ferocious, lead-weighted 'life-preservers' for gentlemen out after dark. Yet the number of 'garottings' during the panic seems to have been relatively small – 2 in September, 12 in October, 32 in November, 14 in December and 2 in January – and probably tells us more about the pattern of the panic than any reality in the incidence of the crime. Indeed, much of the panic appears to have been generated and maintained by the press, notably the influential Times, which was seeking tougher punishment for offenders.
Of course murderers and garotters made good copy for the press and, before the use of photography in newspapers, they enabled some of the popular and sensational journals to cover their front pages with imaginative representations of crimes. Yet the overwhelming majority of the individuals who appeared before the courts of Victorian England had committed neither murder nor robbery with violence. Most offenders were young men charged with petty theft. See for example the random cases from London's Old Bailey and the Quarter Sessions of the rural county of Bedfordshire for January 1866 – and note too that these were considered to be the more serious cases since, from the middle of the century, most petty offences were tried before magistrates usually sitting in pairs and deciding cases without recourse to a jury. Some offenders were probably driven to steal because of poverty, yet there is no reason to believe every such excuse made in court. Some probably stole for a lark, perhaps under pressure from their peers. A very few probably sought to make it their career; or may have found themselves forced into a criminal life-style once they had been stigmatised by the police and the courts and found it impossible to go straight. That said, however, the largest proportion of recidivists in Victorian England were women; the implication being that it was far more difficult for a woman to shake off the stigma of criminality during the Victorian period. Overall the proportion of women to men appearing in court on criminal charges was roughly one to four; and women were generally charged with offences relating to prostitution rather than to theft or assault.
The steady flow of the poor through the courts helps to explain why the 'criminal class' was so readily perceived as being rooted in the poorer sections of the working classes. Moreover it was easy then to detect the causes of crime as relating to the problems and vices which different commentators saw as inherent among such people. Edwin Chadwick, the great Utilitarian reformer who played such a significant role in the creation of the New Poor Law and sanitary reform, believed that crime was the result of idleness; criminals were those feckless members of the working class who were tempted to a life of easy excitement rather than hard but honest labour. Temperance reformers blamed strong drink. Education reformers blamed a lack of education and poor parents. Evangelicals blamed the want of religion. The work of Charles Darwin encouraged some progressive thinkers to look to heredity; and by the encl of the century the notion that habitual criminality on the part of some individuals was a mental defect, rather than the result of evil or idleness, had gained considerable currency.
But, of course, not all offenders came from the working classes. Crime was also committed by gentlemen with claims to respectability. The growth of capitalism and the processes of industrialisation provided the unscrupulous businessman with the opportunity for fleecing the gullible and innocent. It has been estimated that as many as one in six of the company promotions floated during the nineteenth century were fraudulent. George Hudson, 'the Railway King', made a dubious fortune during the railway mania of the 1840s; but the problems did not end with his exposure. In January 1856 the crash of the Tipperary Joint-Stock Bank exposed the frauds of its director, John Sadleir, who had embezzled around £200,000 as well as profiting from issues of fictitious shares and the forgery of title deeds. Dickens transformed Sadleir into a Mr. Merdle, the fraudulent banker of Little Dorrit. A decade after Sadleir's exposure Albert Grant, MP for Kidderminster from 1865 to 1874, busily promoted companies that were largely worthless but made him a fortune. In 1874 Grant was thrown out of Parliament for election bribery, and his empire began to crumble. In the following year Anthony Trollope seems to have taken Grant as the model for Augustus Melmotte, the central character of his bleak novel of the amoral City of London, The Way We Live Now.
The periodic exposure of the frauds of men like Sadleir and Grant caused periodic outrage, but little was done to regulate or supervise behaviour in the City. A cynic could point to the fact that many politicians and civil servants were closely connected with the business community; indeed, many were company directors. But there were genuine fears that it was the freedom enjoyed by gentlemen in the City which had enabled it to become such a dominant force in the world, while stricter regulation would work to the advantage of international rivals. Also, there was simply the assumption that offenders in the City were isolated individuals, 'rotten apples', not 'real criminals'. The latter were the dangerous Bill Sikes-types. In an earlier novel, The Three Clerks, Trollope compared Sikes with Undecimus Scott, MP, son of a peer, but still a thief: '...poor Bill Sykes [sic], for whom here I would willingly say a word or two, could I, by so saying, mitigate the wrath against him, is always held as the more detestable scoundrel. Lady, you now know them both. Is it not the fact, that, knowing him as you do, you could spend a pleasant hour enough with Mr. Scott, sitting next to him at dinner; whereas your blood would creep within you, your hair would stand on end, your voice would stick in your throat, if you were suddenly told that Bill Sykes was in your presence?'
Assumptions about who were, and who were not, criminals shaped the way in which society sought to deal with them. To this end the nineteenth century witnessed considerable developments in policing and penal policy.
Policing and prisons
The new, uniformed police developed during the nineteenth century were told that their first duty was 'the prevention of crime'. To this end police districts were divided into beats each of which was patrolled by an officer on foot. Given that thieves were assumed to be more active after dark, night-time beats in the towns were generally shorter and this meant that police constables carried out a high percentage of their patrolling by night. As they patrolled they were expected to check that doors and windows were locked, and to wake owners whose property was not secure. Any constable who failed to find an open window or door was likely to be severely reprimanded and punished by his superiors.
But more than this, the new police were also charged with enforcing decorum on the streets. Street sellers could he moved on, as could the inhabitants of crowded tenements who congregated in the streets to find their entertainment. Such policing could have little or no impact on the middle class offender such as Sadleir or Grant; but then it was not designed for this. Once the assumption had been made that there was some sort of 'criminal class' amongst the lower reaches of the working class, and that drink, idleness and vice contributed to the criminality of this class, then the pattern of preventive policing was set.
Of course, the working class resented police interference with their leisure pursuits. The police were condemned as 'blue locusts' and 'blue drones' – men who did little but spoil working-class pleasures. Assaults on the police continued in disproportionate numbers to other assaults throughout the century, even allowing for an overall decline. Yet, at the same time, the police were also increasingly accepted by many working-class communities. The material benefits of industry and empire meant that the working class also increasingly acquired moveable property, and working-class victims of theft were as resentful as those from the middle class. Moreover, increasingly policemen were called by working-class parents to 'discipline' unruly children, or by working-class neighbours who considered that a violent husband or father had overstepped the limit in beating wife and/or children.
The nineteenth-century prison was also developed with the same view of the 'criminal class' in mind. The early prison reformers argued whether it was best for convicts to be separated from each other or to be forced to maintain silence, but they generally agreed that convicts should be taught the virtues of hard work, of religion, and of recognising their position in the natural order of society. The regime in Victorian prisons often swung from one in which the principal focus was on punishment to one in which the principal focus was on reform and rehabilitation. By the end of the century, however, the advocates of the latter processes appeared to have won the arguments. At the same time a shifting perception of the offender from one who was evil, feckless and/or idle to one who was, perhaps, the victim of heredity or mental illness, led to a shift in authority within the prison from the chaplain to the doctor and practitioners of the new science of psychiatry.
This essay began with a serial murderer, the kind of individual that everyone could (and can) identify as a 'criminal.' But neither Thomas Neill Cream nor his offences were typical of Victorian criminals and crime. Most crime was petty, and was committed by people much further down the social scale than Cream. Murderers made good copy for the press, and may be said to have been an important ingredient in the popular perception of criminality, but murders were relatively few and therefore relatively exceptional in the catalogue of criminal statistics. Commentators and reformers who were rather more aware, recognising the social origins of the majority of the individuals processed through the criminal justice system, defined a criminal class in the lower reaches of the working class. This in turn helped to structure the policies of the new police and the prisons. However, this definition of a criminal class cannot be accepted as the explanation for crime in Victorian society; it was a construction with some basis in the reality of who was apprehended by the police, went before the courts and was sent to prison. Like other such definitions, it is most useful for what it tells us about the anxieties and perceptions of people who made it and accepted it.
- K Chesney, The Victorian Underworld (1970)
- C Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (2nd edition 1996)
- C Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History (2nd edition 1996)
- A McLaren, A Prescription for Murder: The Victorian Serial Killings of Dr Thomas Neill Cream (1993)
- G Robb, White-Collar Crimes in Modern England: Finanical Fraud and Business Morality (1992)
- D Taylor, The New Police in 19th Century England: Crime, Conflict and Control (1997)
- J Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Desire: Narratives of Sexual Danger in Late Victorian London (1992)
- M Wiener, Reconstructing the Criminal: Culture, Law and Policy in England 1830-1914 (1990)
- L Zedner, Women, Crime and Custody in Victorian England (1990)
Clive Emsley is Professor of History at the Open University and author of Napoleonic Europe (Longman 1993).
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