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The History of Crime

in England, 1550-1914
Over the last twenty years or so social historians have devoted might fluctuate according to circumstance. An additional complication
considerable attention to the history of crime. Despite the intrinsic lies in the survival of sources: in general, the further back towards 1550
interest of this subject, and its obvious relevance to current debate, we go the fewer assize records survive (ironically, the middle ages are
surprisingly little of the resultant research findings has filtered much better served in this respect), and in the mid sixteenth century
through into school, or even university, economic and social history records exist in anything like a continuous form only for the counties
courses. The aim of this article is to provide a general guide to some on the Home Circuits of the assizes (Essex, Hertfordshire, Kent,
of the different approaches to the study of crime. It raises Surrey, and Sussex), and Cheshire, whose court of the Great Sessions
methodological issues and introduces a brief summary of some of the was the equivalent of the assizes in what was then a palatinate county.
main conclusions which have been reached. These complications, while inducing a proper sense of caution
among historians, have not prevented them from quantifying, and their
The statistical outline labours have yielded some interesting results. In particular, a number
of studies have concentrated on the records of the assizes, the courts
Perhaps the most obvious question to ask historians of crime is how where serious crimes (murder, manslaughter, grand larceny, burglary,
high crime levels were in the past, and what types of offence were rape, robbery, and arson) were tried. These studies allow us to gain at
most commonly committed. It is important to grasp, however, that least an outline knowledge of how patterns of prosecuted crime
the statistical approach is only one of a number of, at times fluctuated over the period with which we are concerned [1].
competing and, at times, complementary methodologies. Counting The records of these courts, along with fragments from the south
crime is an important exercise, although it is also one which is west, suggest that the indictment of serious crime rose rapidly over the
fraught with difficulties. Two other approached, have contributed last two decades of the sixteenth century, and reached particularly high
much to our understanding of crime in the past. The first consists in levels during the second half of the 1590s, when a run of bad harvests
attempting to interpret the meaning of crime within the community. created severe hardship at the base of society. The situation eased in
The second is an approach which addresses definitional problems the early seventeenth century, but again reached crisis pro - portions in
and the social meaning of deviant acts. These three approaches are, response to various problems (bad harvests, trade depressions, the
of course, by no means mutually exclusive, and it would be a poor disruption caused by plague, and the strains of keeping a war going)
historian who concentrated exclusively on any one of them. They which mounted as the 1620s progressed. Levels of indicted crime
each, however, offer a distinctive route to the subject. The main dropped in the 1630s, and declined further in the 1640s when, whatever
concern of this article will be with the years 1550-1914. Let us begin the levels of offences actually committed, sit - tings of courts became
by considering the broad statistical changes in patterns of crime over less regular and local authorities had numerous other things to concern
those three and a half centuries. them. What is surprising is that levels of prosecuted crime stayed low
An initial problem, however, must be faced: criminal statistics in over the latter part of the seventeenth century. Bad harvests in the
any period are likely to be a very imperfect indicator of crimes com- 1690s again caused levels of property offences (mainly theft and
mitted, and this imperfection might logically be expected to become burglary) to rise, but to nothing like the levels of the late 1590s and
more marked when criminal statistics rely on court records from three 1620s. And, if we restrict our- selves to the serious offences, or
or four centuries ago. Historians have borrowed from criminologists felonies, tried at the assizes, property offences predominated.
the concept of the 'dark figure', the unknown total of crimes which
The beginning of the eighteenth century, then, seems to have been
were or are committed but never brought to the attention of the something of a low crime period, with levels of indicted crime running
authorities or recorded officially. In any period, a number of factors far lower than they had a century before. Work on the Surrey and
might inhibit the reporting or prosecution of a crime. The victim of a
Sussex assizes over the period 1660-1800[2] has demonstrated how
crime might not know who did it, and hence not report it. Even if
there was a suspect, an informal settlement based on some form of
compensation might replace prosecution, or some form of official
sanction like dismissal from employment or corporal punishment
might replace formal action. And, of course, in the years before the
nineteenth century prosecuting a criminal usually involved the victim
in financial expense and loss of time, which acted as powerful
disincentives against prosecution. In any period, the crimes which
were prosecuted offered only a sample of those actually committed,
and it is impossible to gauge how large a proportion of committed
crimes they were, and how that proportion

As in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. regarded term fluctuations continued to operate within the parameters of the by British observers as essentially a paramilitary force whose main long-term trends. that other. Scattered evidence also existed of what might be interpreted as 'community action' against nuisance offenders. but now there was a new factor: Britain's rise to 'Great Power' nineteenth century norms of public service. given harvest failure continued to send indictments for property offences up. apart from wealth for the bourgeoisie.000 by 1750.vided rural areas by the eighteenth. or job opportunities. When each of these wars ended. a growth which was contributed to this.[4]. and the way was clear for a steady line of progress down to Dixon of Dock Green. normally with a recommendation to the local magistrates that they be bound over to keep the peace. as in the previous period. but how. church courts still had a limited competence in 'criminal' matters). discipline problems. during the Elizabethan and Stuart where concerns about rising levels of crime combined with periods. More systematic investigation seemed called for. But outside the London urbanising and industrialising society whose most immediate area in the period before the industrial revolution. Without doubt the establishment of very special type of police in nineteenth century Britain was a major achievement. This development coincided clearest for the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. not only this held generally true until the middle of the century. with a high proportion of constables being the demobilisation of soldiers and sailors meant that large number of dismissed for drunkenness and similar offences [6]. Rising prosperity among the The crucial point lay in the relationship between local office working class. The end product was a growing Edwardian England [5]. or by which an offence might simply be ignored by the person offended against if a formal prosecution was thought to involve too much time. more marked in some regions than others. expense. the early police forces. The first arose from overseers of the poor. believe. the fears proved groundless. between a mass of poor labourers and artisans and their families on the one Crime and the community hand. These saw the police not only as England was experiencing another major crime problem by the expensive. by which offenders might be subjected to informal sanctions at the hands of their victims as an alternative to prosecution. Until recently. Obviously the London area. Dogberry and Verges [7]. it therefore became almost discovery that local law enforcement before the advent of inevitable tha peace sent the level of property offences soaring. but also from to London. in places where the manorial courts were those filtering processes alluded to in our discussions of criminal Sharpe. statistics. but recent research has demonstrated that the process was a much more difficult and contested one than earlier generations of text books would have us Illustration 1. they were also industrial entrepreneurs. small rural and pondering upon the results of that exercise. But. in which petitions of complaint were made against known petty criminals in a village.1800- local communities were fairly well controlled without a professional 1860. experienced considerable wars o f the eighteenth century [3]. like the late Elizabethan and early Stuart eras. Work on eighteenth century crime has also shown how short- the main continental model was that of the French police. But there is every indication that many a more solid basis for social fears. the development of a ‘respectable’ working holding and social structure [8]. It must be admitted that the picture is but also potentially revolutionary. and a smaller number of men who had done well out of the Even as historians of crime set about counting criminal prosecutions economic developments of the period (yeoman farmers. with a population of demobilised after the defeat of the French in 1815 coalesced perhaps 675. A handbill recruiting Special Constables in response to the disorders of 1819. been argued that both theft not paralleled by a corresponding growth in either food production. polarisation. The starting points here were perhaps twofold. young adult males from the labouring classes were dumped in their Even more damaging for the British police myth was the homeland without adequate means. as might be expected. role was political control. in from criminals and the emergent working-class communities that response to increasing urbanisation of those parts of Surrey adjacent the police found themselves expected to control. presented unique problems. It was from this latter group that local officers were drawn: provided by the examination of how law enforcement operated in the not just constables. In the century before 1650. Source: Private collection The new police forces ran into considerable opposition. and violence experienced a decline in late Victorian and real wages. the local system product. status meant that the country mobilised large armies and navies in the not least the metropolitan police. petty gentry) on the becoming aware of the existence of an alternative perspective. and to the rise in population which set in after about 1740. but also churchwardens (vital in a period when context of the villages and small towns of pre -industrial England. It has. indeed. there has existed what might be called a 'Whig interpretation' of police history in which Sir Robert Peel founded the Metropolitan Police in 1829. and. was one police force (in the modern sense). This investigation has suggested some surprising conclusions about what might be described (if a little anachronistically) as the 'policing' of the Elizabethan and Stuart village and small town. but also as a potential threat to British liberties because 1780s. and that there are clues that the situation was perhaps more complex even in with the issuing of annual criminal statistics. Thus the period c. which pro. And. or effort. professional police forces was not in as hopeless a situation as had The effects on the crime rate of soldiers and sailors been believed. Refresh 20 (Spring 1995) six . and the emergence of a better policed society all experienced considerable population growth. notwithstanding the rather tired literary stereotypes of fear of social disintegration. was an based on justices of the peace and the parish constables seems to industrial proletariat which was held to be not only criminal. England class. the richer trades men. have operated tolerably well. while by into a new set of problems: what were regarded as traditional 1850 the newly urbanised areas of the industrial north and midlands social values were being threatened by the emergence of an demanded something like modern policing. substantial elements local élites.

The paradigm has recently begun to crime attract considerable criticism but. even the century society.all of them sight of the important connections between enforcing the criminal law illegal . Others. and evidence of the structure in certain respects. in the definitional issues. but also the people the other days of the week in the conduct of their rougher presented before their neighbours at the manorial courts for blocking the streets with their dung-hills. and the later eighteenth. bastard -getting. but an essential part of does interact with the social `policing'. so it was failing to attend church. Given the nature that different ideas on of those constables . `social crimes'. They perceived a growing rift which are not as yet totally clear. Thus the gap was century and the mid seventeenth was marked by a massive rise in not merely an economic one between rich and poor. who served a: local office-holders historians of crime before 1800 or so have to feed into their analyses not would hear preaching against sin on Sunday. and continued in their attempts to that between the ungodly and the godly. This is demonstrated by The problem of defining historians' perceptions of what happened between the later sixteenth century. And especially in of courts in which to go to law. but who also felt than it multiplicity of courts and a widespread taste for litigation. These civil litigants found a wealth cultural one between the rough and the respectable. The intrusion of central government in everyday life was much less marked in pre -industrial and early along these lines. for sexual immorality[10]. are known to be illegal but are hardly thought of turning of male homosexuality in a capital offence (in fact in 1563) are as being as serious. the unregenerate and the discipline the ungodly until well into the eighteenth century. most often by their neighbours serving as poaching. also change over time. There are obviously a core of over the defence of property. with much of their jurisdiction intact. and burglary in legislators and moral commentators alike had considerable difficulties modern Britain) which. and obligations to work at repairing rioting [11]. normally drawn: among such keeping an unlicensed alehouse. and then witness sin on only the murderers and burglars tried at the assizes. The key conscientious among them concept was that of `social constrained by local opinion -it crime'. Our defined as illegal by discussion of criminal statistics parliamentary statute of has concentrated on the felonies common law. Far more morally justifiable rather than numerous were the masses of simply criminal by the social petty crimes which reached the groups from which persons courts through the energies of committing them were local officers: drunkenness. car theft.still functioning. were regarded as tried at the assizes. And there are also groups within society who evidence of this. The continued not only illegal but `wrong'. was the notion constables[9]. church courts.local criminality existed at different amateurs. and idleness were all too readily ascribed. These sorts of definitional and the maintenance of Sharpe.as a normal part of everyday life. however. are thought to be in separating out the two categories of `sin' and `crime'. These survived the Reformation standards of Protestantism. towards it. to whom drunkenness. published in 1975. The respectable social strata. to carry out statutory smuggling. Parliament. serving for a year social levels in eighteenth without pay. and the hour on a motorway. Refresh 20 (Spring 1995) seven . on parish here. although worked as well as it did. most historians have worked on the hypothesis that there was a transition from notions of Touching on this mass of regulatory offences introduces the third criminality based on sin to notions of criminality based on concern approach to crime: that of definition. it is notable industrial England than it is that one of the pioneering today. for most of the population. or breach of historians who would feel economic regulations. The men holding these office The situation is further complicated for historians by the presence of formed a loose oligarchy whose members not only saw themselves as two phenomena which are not as marked in most modern states: a being culturally differentiated from the poor. This growing social rift coincided with the needs of a more Indeed. in the period c. but from the collections of essays on the Reformation onwards more and history of crime. petty theft. that is types of is surprising that the system behaviour which.1580-1650 offences in any society (for example murder. or smoking marijuana . put crudely. manorial jurors. For reasons was in their interests to control them. failing claimed. the period between the late fifteenth between their own standards and those of the poor. these gaps were reinforced by one another. buy also a litigation. churchwardens. unhappy about accepting the Humdrum stuff compared to the criminal law as a tool of ruling `horrible murders' already class power have to come to sensational pamphlets by grips with the notion that it 1600. or the people presented before the co-parishoners. Even those the king's highway. The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries never lost could consider violence. Certainly. and their was based mainly around enforcement depended. Thus the elect. Albion's more laws were passed by Fatal Tree. like driving a car at 75 miles per attempts by the ecclesiastical courts to control sexual morality. diligence with which at least But definition of crime. or at some parish constables carried least emphases in attitudes out their duties. wrecking. The point last resort. were poaching. although their concerns were not directed specifically aggressive government. most of it non-criminal. The secular court system was paralleled parishes where a determined minister was spreading the new religious by a system of ecclesiastical courts. rape.

1525 . while as the century progressed. Refresh 20 (Sring 1995) eight . Crime and the courts in England 1660-1800 (1986). to a set of major historical concerns. when people saw crime very much in [7] J. Both of these were periods of severe economic dislo- [2] J. Policing and its context 1750 . economic history. and survived unusually interesting avenues. in the second a similar population increase created masses of poor living in [3] D.A.1870 (1983). Beattie. Reay (ed). in V. Popular stereotyping' which we have witnessed more recently with yardies and culture in seventeenth-century England (1985). Around 1600. admittedly at the comfortable distance of a century or two. Historians familiar with the Victorian debate on crime and jury men in seventeenth-century England'.1700 (1979). Brewer and J. But its greatest significance must be to social and eighteenth-century England (1975). Bruce Lenman and economic factors (notably unemployment) affecting the poorer Geoffrey Parker (eds). alien environment of the of the English courts'. same in the past. above all. The English village constable 1580 .A. Beier. 'War. industrial city. especially in the periods c. 'The decline of theft and violence in Victorian rising crime rates we have recently experienced are connected with and Edwardian England'. Levine. Christian morality. But historians of crime have also demonstrate that in periods of social unease rising crime rates create a level of social fear which. in J.'Two concepts of order justices.A. seem very exaggerated. But as we worked fraud. sources for recreating aspects of plications of commercial life led to the development of a law of the social and economic lives of our forbears.C. Wrightson and D. The 'Bloody' code which created numerous felonies by important spin -offs from work on the history of crime is the statute over the eighteenth century was concerned mainly with realis ation that court records. how power operated in society.1642: a social terms of sin. myself included. population increase created a mass ofpoor. through some experience severe law and order problems in the past. But there were many observers who thought much the [1] J. Crime and Society in England 1750 . but there does seem to have been a change in were familiar. that we are experiencing a major law and order problem. the history of religion. both criminal and civil. and in many ways still unexploited. Similarly. the [12] A. Hay. the history of ‘Crime’ is a major subject of current social debate. dearth and theft in the eighteenth century: the record the new and. Crime in early modern England 1550 . indeed. possibly of unique References and further reading proportions. Wrightson. it remains true that one of the most emphasis. Thus the history of crime might well have some bearing on cur. Kent. Hay et al (eds). At the moment we feel. property offences. cation: in the first. Past and Present. concern had village: Terling. The exact governing ideologies. them.1750 (1984). probably correctly. In both these periods. Gatrell. rate. apparently higher levels of offences were seen as a sign and administrative study (1986). [6] C.A. it became obvious that the history of crime was leading us towards a Some implications for the present much broader set of issues: the history of the state. moved to the more familiar world of newspaper editorials calling for harsher prison regimes and tougher laws against certain types of [9] K. muggers [12]. [11] D. By the 1860s. Elizabethan and early Stuart periods have recognised in the contemporary fear of the vagrant the earliest example of that 'criminal [10] J. historians of the more distant in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (1980). and as possible evidence that the last days of confusion which were expected to presage the end of the world and the [8] K. Emsley. infrequent appearances in the history books with which we Sharpe.R. Sharpe. constables and offender. And. Gatrell. are magnificent. 'Crime' is never a simple nor a static category. Poverty and piety in an English Second Coming of Christ had arrived. 'The people and the law' in B. Thus what still seems to many Perhaps the most obvious point to be made is that society has students and teachers to be a marginal subject leads us. were attracted to the subject because it offered an important route to constructing a 'history from below': that is.1580-1650 and c.1900 (1987). This may have some bearing on current attempts to deny that the [5] V.M. 95 (1982). the history of contribution of the historian to this debate remains problematic. through the subject away from our 'history from below' beginnings. crime in western Europe since 1500 (1980). punishment will realise just how little attitudes have shifted between Styles (eds).L. the greater com. Many of those who did the early work in this field. Albion's fatal tree: crime and society in rent social debate. of mankind's sinfulness. Masterless men: the vagrancy problem in writing of history of those men and women who made only Britain 1500-1640 (1985). An ungovernable people: the English and their law that time and the present day.1800- 1860. to middle class observers. Emsley. Sharpe. a half century or so of more settled economic and social conditions was mirrored by a static crime [4] C. Crime and the law: the social history of sections of our society.C.

Sharpe. Refresh 20 (Spring 1995) seven .