18th century

Review: Tim Hitchcock & Robert Shoemaker’s “London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of the Modern City” (2015)

London Lives

Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015) xvi, 461, £21.99 RRP ISBN 978-1-107-63994-2


Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, two of crime history’s leading experts, have produced an excellently written account of the ways in which poor Londoners were instrumental in shaping the social policy of the British state between 1690 and 1800 (p.4). This is not to say that the governments of the day actively sought the advice of their social inferiors, but rather to illustrate how those from precarious social backgrounds, by ‘playing the system’ and making seemingly harsh laws work in their favour, contributed to changes in governmental policy from below in the areas of social welfare and criminal justice. As such, this work sits perfectly alongside the eponymous London Lives and The Old Bailey Online databases, which Hitchcock and Shoemaker were instrumental in bringing to life.

Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s work is well grounded in the scholarship of eighteenth-century social history, particularly in the history of crime. The need for this work comes from the fact that the history of crime and the history of poor relief have hitherto tended to constitute different subjects, but as Hitchcock and Shoemaker illustrate, the history of welfare and crime in the eighteenth century are interrelated. Moreover, even where previous scholars have attempted to build a history from below, the voices and the experiences of the poor are often marginalised and discussed instead in terms of official acts passed and the rise of charitable associations (pp.13-15). To build their argument Hitchcock and Shoemaker rely on a number of sources: the digitised MS. and trial transcripts from both London Lives and the Old Bailey Online; Workhouse and Settlement Records; Repertories of the Court of Aldermen; Parliamentary Papers; criminal biographies. The innovative feature with the online ebook version of this work is that the footnotes will link straight to the digitised sources in London Lives and the Old Bailey Online.

Seven chapters follow the lengthy introduction, all of which are arranged around a theme but still broadly chronological. One of the strongest chapters is the second chapter which examines the way that ‘the poor were increasingly separated from the Parish community, and more clearly identified as a social problem’ in the two decades following the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (pp.27-69). Out of the whole book, however, my particular favourite is the fifth chapter entitled ‘Reformers and their Discontents, 1748-1763’ (pp.194-267). It deals with cheats, pickpockets, highwaymen, and thief takers. That chapter begins by discussing the zeal of religiously-minded reformists in seeking to suppress the idleness and immorality which they thought characterised the ‘lower classes’. The authors then go on to discuss how plebeian people opposed these reforms. For example, one of the aims of the reformers was to de-entice people from a life of crime, but Hitchcock and Shoemaker show how highwaymen used the press to oppose elite perceptions of plebeian morality, and publicise their genteel apprehensions (pp.263-264).

As a whole, the work is without any obvious deficiencies. Despite their aim of making plebeian Londoners speak for themselves, sometimes elite perceptions of the eighteenth-century poor do dominate. Although this is not the fault of Hitchcock and Shoemaker themselves; most of the primary sources which relate to eighteenth-century criminal justice and social policy are of course elite documents. Indeed, this is acknowledged in their introduction. As such, this work complements the already brilliant studies into eighteenth-century crime which have been published in recent years such as Andrea MacKenzie’s Tyburn’s Martyrs (2007), as well as Shoemaker’s and Hitchcock’s own research.

In conclusion, this is the first work to effectively connect the history of social policy and crime and criminal justice in the eighteenth century. Although, as scholars who are primarily eighteenth-century historians, it is perhaps outside of Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s remit (though not, of course, outside of their capability as world-leading crime historians), it would have been nice to see this study carried on until the passage of the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834. They do hint towards this in their conclusion, but carrying on Hitchcock and Shoemaker’s study to this year, when many disparate and scattered attempts at reform came to fruition, would make for an interesting research project.

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