Crime in 20th Century Britain

Victor Bailey looks at the alarming rise in British crime in the second half of the twentieth century.

The history of crime in the twentieth century is inevitably dominated by the explosion of criminality in the last thirty years. In the first half of the century the level of crime recorded by the police grew at a much more moderate rate, extending a pattern of slow growth since the 1870s. From 1900 to 1914, the crime level remained constant. Recorded crime in- creased by 5 per cent a year between 1915 and 1930; by 7 per cent between 1930 and 1948 (compared with a post-war annual growth rate of 10 per cent and more). The main increases in these early decades occurred in theft and breaking-in offences, reflecting the growing opportunity for larceny in a more affluent society. Drunkenness offences, in contrast, declined steeply, owing to tighter licensing laws and changing leisure habits, while at the other extreme, the number of murders was lower in the inter-war years than in Victorian times. It all suggests that the major economic and political crises of the period – the First and Second World Wars, the General Strike, the mass unemployment of the Depression years – had little impact on criminal activity.

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