The Mysteries of London was a long-running penny dreadful serial which ran between 1844 and 1846 and was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian era. Read the ebook here.
A version of this post was also published in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online
When I was completing my MA in Social History at Leeds Metropolitan University (now Leeds Beckett) there was an excellent module I completed entitled ‘Organised Crime in the Modern World’ run by Dr. Kelly Hignett. It was an interesting area of study which looked at why organised crime emerges in certain conditions at certain times. Of the case studies we looked at there was, obviously, the Sicilian Mafia, as well as other groups such as the Japanese Yakuza and the Russian Mafia. Whilst drawing on longer established histories, these groups have all flourished in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, and some of them have been immortalised in movies such as The Godfather (1970), Goodfellas (1990), and, my favourite, Donnie Brasco (1997). These films depicting organised crime are set in the twentieth century, and it is often assumed by law-makers, academics, and the public that organised crime is a modern phenomenon’. However, crime fiction in the early-Victorian period shows that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming sophisticated and increasingly organised. Terms such as ‘professional criminal’ signified a person whose sole living was earned through the proceeds of crime, and into this category would have fallen well-known characters like Bill Sikes and Fagin from Oliver Twist (1838). I would like to show how some of the current theories in criminology relating to organised crime can be applied to the representations of crime in the early nineteenth-century penny serial The Mysteries of London (1845) by G. W.M. Reynolds (1814-1879).
First, though, it would be useful to have a working definition of ‘organised crime’, although arriving at a single definition has proven to be a headache for academics and policy makers alike. Generally speaking, however, ‘organised crime’ can be defined as ‘a continuing enterprise, apart from traditional legal and social structures, within which a number of persons work together under their own hierarchy for their private gain through illegal activities’. Organised crime may indeed exist separately as a murky underworld alongside a society of law and order, but it cannot exist without an organised society. Hence ‘organised crime has evolved as the shadowy underside of modernisation and order’.
Most readers will be aware that London society had become increasingly organised by the early nineteenth century. The eighteenth-century system of law enforcement, with its corrupt web of thief takers, constables, and watchmen, had been abolished and replaced with a professional police force in 1829. Although limited in its scope, welfare for the most destitute members of society was provided through the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834) which expanded the workhouse system. Working life was increasingly regulated through successive Factory Acts passed in the 1830s and 1840s. The government in the early Victorian period, therefore, extended its reach into more areas of public life than before it had done previously.
Organised crime historically flourishes in places where law enforcement and social institutions are seen as weak or ineffectual, or are mistrusted by large sections of the population. As you will probably agree, despite the government’s efforts at ‘organising’ society there were still holes in its fabric which underworld figures exploited – for with the workhouse system as cruel as it was, is it any wonder that the young boys in Oliver Twist turned to Fagin? Added to this is the fact that the police force in the early Victorian period was not trusted by the working classes. They were seen as a force which protected the propertied classes only, and to working-class people they merely ‘guarded St. James by watching St. Giles’.
It was such a society that was depicted by Reynolds in his penny serial The Mysteries of London. The modern industrial city is depicted as a maze in which vice and criminal behaviour exist in both high and low life. There are four main criminal characters in the story: the Cracksman, Crankey Jem, the Buffer and the sinister Resurrection Man. They are all natives of the worst rookeries and slum districts of the metropolis. The gang is hired at one point by a bourgeois capitalist named Montague Greenwood to carry out a criminal act:
‘What’s the natur’ of the sarvice?’ demanded the Cracksman.
‘A highway robbery’ coolly answered [Eugene]…‘I will explain what I want done. Between eleven and twelve o’clock a gentleman will leave London for Richmond. He will be in his own cabriolet. His horse is bay, with silver mounted harness. This gentleman must be stopped; and everything his pockets contain must be brought to me. Whatever money there may be about him shall be yours:-but all that you find about his person, save the money, must be brought to me’.
The gentleman in question is consequently robbed and receives the butt of a pistol bashed against his head for good measure. It becomes clear that this band of criminals’ sole motivation in carrying out this crime was profit, for when Greenwood pays the Cracksman he exclaims that he hopes ‘he should have his custom in future’. Karl Marx and Frederich Engels wrote in 1848 that in a capitalist society relationships between members of society had been reduced to a ‘callous cash payment’. As the “upperworld” and the “underworld” reflected each other, it is clear that crime in the modern industrial city is driven by financial considerations.
As I have highlighted already, organised crime has to be a continuing illegal enterprise – a criminal network should still function even if one or more of its members are incarcerated or killed. Reynolds seems to have had at least some understanding of this. In the story, Crankey Jem seized by the authorities and consequently sentenced to Transportation for life. The gang still operates despite the departure of this member who had been a central figure in Reynolds’ depiction of the London underworld. At the end of the first series, the Resurrection Man appears receives his just desserts, dying by the hand of a former associate. Yet true to his name, in the second series of The Mysteries of London the Resurrection Man was resurrected for readers. It turns out that he did not die and he returns to assume his place in the labyrinthine network of the Victorian criminal underworld.
Of course, Reynolds merely represented organised crime. The next question to be asked is whether organised crime groups actually existed in this period? I will admit now that you would be unlikely to find the term ‘organised crime’ in any early-Victorian text. As I mentioned earlier, the Victorians preferred terms such as ‘professional criminal’. Kellow Chesney’s work on crime in the Victorian period is now a classic, however, and regarding the methods of men such as cracksmen he says: ‘they often spent months surveying and preparing a big robbery’. There also appears to have been a loose hierarchy among criminals in this period, as Chesney says that gangs were comprised of many different types of thieves, each of whom usually performed a different function, from the head house-breaker down to the lowly look out. Now obviously the depictions of organised crime gangs in Reynolds’ work, and their real-life nineteenth-century counterparts, did not follow modern criminologists’ definitions of organised crime to the letter. Yet Chesney’s research shows that there was at least some kind of organised and sophisticated structure to these gangs’ operations in this period.
What I have intended to show, then, is that while organised crime is often thought to be a strictly modern phenomenon. Yet the theories of criminologists relating to organised crime can be applied to the study of crime and its representation in the early Victorian period. A short glance at Reynolds’ penny blood of in the early nineteenth century illustrates that contemporaries were aware that crime was becoming increasingly sophisticated. The gradual organisation of the “upperworld” in the nineteenth century laid the groundwork for the organisation of the underworld. Crime in the modern industrial society of the nineteenth century was ruthless, cold, and driven by profit. As you can see, it had become organised. Thus an understanding of how and why organised crime emerges and flourishes in particular times and places can enhance our understanding of the history of Victorian crime.
- Mark Galeotti, a leading criminologist, has recently argued against this perspective, see: Galeotti, M. ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction’. In Organised Crime in History, ed. Mark Galeotti (London: Routledge, 2009), p.1.
- Emsley, C. Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900. (London: Harper, 1987), p.168.
- J.O. Finckenaur ‘Problems of Definition: What is Organised Crime?’ Trends in Organized Crime, 8:3, 2005, p.64.
- Galeotti ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.6
- Galeotti, ‘Criminal Histories: An Introduction,’ p.1.
- Skaperdas, S. ‘The Political Economy of Organised Crime: Providing Protection When the State Does Not’. Economics of Governance, Vol. 2 (2001), p.173.
- Storch, R. ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’ International Review of Social History 20:1, 1975, p.61.
- George W.M. Reynolds The Mysteries of London. (London: Published for the Booksellers, 1845:1890), p.81.
- Reynolds, The Mysteries of London, p.82 (Emphasis added).
- Marx, K. and Engels, F. The Communist Manifesto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1848:2005), p.5.
- Chesney, K. The Victorian Underworld (London: Penguin Books, 1970), p.196.
- Chesney, The Victorian Underworld, p.198.