The Victorian Underworld

nc4
The New Newgate Calendar, Vol. 1, No. 41 (1864).

This is the text of a public talk given at Abbey House Museum, Kirkstall, Leeds on 1 March 2015 to complement their Crime and Punishment Exhibition.


Introduction

The history of crime, in particular the history of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime, is often sensationalised in popular histories. Usually these types of history books focus upon notorious cases such as that of Jack the Ripper in the late Victorian period. It is only relatively recently that a small cohort of professional historians who have approached the subject from an academic standpoint, including Heather Shore, [1] Tim Hitchcock, Robert Shoemaker, [2] and Clive Emsley. [3] And it is the insights and research of these historians that I would like to introduce you to today, as well as some of my own research from my Masters dissertation. [4]

The Victorian period witnessed a number of changes in the nature of dealing with crime. There was the establishment of a professionalised police force with the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829, which replaced the haphazard system of part time constables, Bow Street Runners, and Thief Takers. Gaols, which previously had housed offenders only until their trial, became huge institutions which where offenders stayed for a longer term. The object of this was not only to punish the offender but also to rehabilitate him or her. Most importantly for the purposes of our talk today, the Victorian period witnessed the emergence of an idea: the idea of the criminal class, or underworld. In popular histories, terms such as ‘underworld’ have often been applied without consideration of their full meaning, and usually to sensational effect. Indeed, perhaps I am guilty of this myself in naming my talk such in order to draw people in, playing on people’s interest in the darker side of Victorian life. Sometimes the underworld is almost envisaged as a physical space. To the Victorians the idea of the existence of an underworld, or a criminal class held that there was a certain section of society, drawn from its poorest ranks, that was responsible for the majority of crime. But as I will show, this is very much an idea that was constructed in the Victorian press and popular fiction. To chart the development of the idea of a Victorian criminal, however, we need to briefly begin in the previous century, the Georgian period.

The Eighteenth Century

The image which many people will have of crime in the eighteenth century is of the romanticised highway robber. Criminals such as Dick Turpin (1705-1739) are usually portrayed in literature and television shows as gallant, noble robbers, usually mounted upon a trusty steed such as Turpin’s Black Bess. This was not always the view of people who actually lived in the eighteenth century, however, and Turpin’s modern reputation as a noble robber was an invention of the nineteenth-century novelist William Harrison Ainsworth (1805-1882) in Rookwood: A Romance (1834). The real Turpin was something of a thug.

turpin1
Romanticised 19th-century image of Dick Turpin

In reality, crime was perceived as a problem during the eighteenth century. People in England, particularly in London, believed that they were in the midst of a ‘crime wave’. One newspaper in the late seventeenth century reported that:

Even at noonday, and in the most open spaces in London, persons are stopped and robbed. [5]

Similarly, the pamphlet Newes from Newgate (Newgate was a notorious gaol in London) reported that:

Notwithstanding the severity of our wholesome laws, and vigilancy of magistrates against robbers and highwaymen, ‘tis too notorious that the roads are almost perpetually infested with them. [6]

Later in the eighteenth century, the author Horace Walpole (1717-1797) wrote to a friend that:

You will hear little news from England, but of robberies […] people are almost afraid of stirring after dark. [7]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754) would echo the same sentiments in his 1751 publication An Enquiry into the Causes of the Great Increase of Robbers, saying that:

I make no doubt, but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard, nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous rogues gangs of rogues among us, than those which the Italians call the banditti. [8]

Thus what we have in the eighteenth century is a moral panic over this perceived wave of crime that England was said to be experiencing throughout the century. It is doubtful that crime in the eighteenth century was ever as bad as people in the past thought that it might be. Certainly there were sporadic increases in the number of indictments, and these spikes generally coincided with peace treaties, when soldiers returned home and had trouble finding means of supporting themselves.

FullSizeRender(3)
Jack Sheppard (1702-1724)

However, in the eighteenth century, criminals occupy the same moral universe as law abiding people. [9] They are not inherently different from normal members of society. They are people who had allowed themselves to succumb to their own sinful inclinations. Usually the route to crime was through a love of gambling and good living, and bad associations. So the famous eighteenth-century house breaker, Jack Sheppard (1702-1724), first turned to crime when he met Edgeworth Bess, a prostitute, and began cohabiting with her. Similarly, the fictional highwayman Captain MacHeath in John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera (1728) manifests a love of good living, and it is implied that this is why he continues to rob as it is said:

Mrs. Peach. Pray, my dear, is the Captain rich?
Peach. The Captain keeps too good company ever to grow rich. Marybone and the chocolate-houses are his undoing. The man that proposes to get money by play should have the education of a fine gentleman, and be train’d up to it from his youth. [10]

Criminals are simply people with a tragic fatal flaw in their character, but they are not inherently criminal. And indeed however wrong their actions are, the English criminal in this period was credited with a certain amount of civility and politeness. They might have robbed you, but they were relatively nice about it.

The Nineteenth Century

The situation changes, however, as we move into the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The industrial revolution continued apace and concomitant with this was increasing urbanisation. The poor migrated from rural areas in search of work, and they gathered in certain districts of cities, which in time would come to be designated as slum areas. One effect of having so many people living in close proximity in dire poverty is that the areas where they live become a natural breeding ground for crime. The early socialist writer Frederich Engels painted a gloomy picture in The Condition of the Working Class in England that:

The incidence of crime has increased with the growth of the working-class population and there is more crime in Britain than in any other country in the world.[11]

What we begin to see in the Victorian press and contemporary popular culture are portrayals and references to ‘professional criminals’. This type of offender was represented, for example, by men such as Bill Sikes in Charles Dickens’ novel Oliver Twist (1838), who inhabits an ‘underworld’ peopled by other ominous creatures. He is a man whose sole existence and subsistence is based upon the proceeds of crime. Dickens’ description of the environment and the populace in Jacob’s Island, a place notorious for crime, is quite revealing. When Oliver is taken by the Artful Dodger to go and meet Fagin, a receiver of stolen goods, Oliver takes note of some of the people he encounters on the way there:

Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses, where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in filth; and from several of the door-ways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, on no very well-disposed or harmless errands. [12]

Dickens’ characters, Sikes and Fagin, operate in a relatively sophisticated manner. There’s a division of labour. Sikes and his henchmen rob people, but they rely on Fagin’s criminal network to dispose of their stolen goods.

Header - Oliver Twist

[Source: George Cruikshank, ‘Oliver’s reception by Fagin and the boys’ (1846), Eighth illustration, The Adventures of Oliver Twist; or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (Scanned image and text by Philip V. Allingham) < http://www.victorianweb.org/art/illustration/cruikshank/ot9.html>]

In a word, crime in the modern industrial city is thought to have become organised, and this is reflected in other pieces of popular literature such as George W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London, serialised between 1844 and 1845, which was the biggest selling novel of the Victorian period. Inspired by a serialised French novel by Eugene Sue entitled The Mysteries of Paris (1844), it is a tale of vice and crime in both high and low life. To see how crime is configured as something that is organised, take this example of a highway robbery:

‘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’. [13]

In this passage, the old image of the lone highwayman upon the heath in the moonlight is dead. This is not a feat likely to have been done by a ‘heroic’ highwayman. What we have here is organised crime. It is carried out with precision. Crime in the new urban society is depicted here as being cold and calculated, and it is carried through as though it was a business transaction. After Eugene relates the particulars of how the robbery is to be undertaken, he gives the Cracksman an advance of twenty guineas, to which the villain exclaims ‘that’s business!’ After the deed has been done, the Cracksman says to Eugene that he hopes ‘that he should have his custom in future’. The Cracksman, similar to Dickens’ Bill Sikes and Fagin, was a ‘professional criminal’. There was nothing ‘gentlemanly’ or ‘polite’ about the above exchange between the Cracksman and Eugene, instead the undertaking of the highway robbery was determined by financial considerations.

mysteries
Illustration from G. W. M. Reynolds’ The Mysteries of London (1844-45) [Source: http://www.victorianlondon.org]

In addition to ideas surrounding professional criminals, towards the middle of the century we start to see another term come into use: ‘criminal class’. The criminal class, it was assumed, were a class of people beneath the respectable working classes who, like professional criminals, existed solely upon the proceeds of crime. It was imagined that there were specific geographical locations that harboured members of this criminal class. It was a term which was driven by the press and also adopted by law enforcement. Perhaps the person most responsible for giving impetus to the growth of this idea was Henry Mayhew who wrote a four volume social treatise entitled London Labour and the London Poor in 1861. Mayhew travelled into some of the poorest districts of the capital and documented what he saw, often conducting interviews with paupers. Taking his cue from the eighteenth-century writer Henry Fielding, he divided the poor into three categories or groups – the Victorians loved to categorise things – and these were: those that will work (the respectable working classes), those that can’t work (the infirm, disabled, and the elderly), and those that won’t work. It is in the last category that the criminal classes could be found, according to Mayhew.

Thos Hopkinson Highway Robbery
Hopkinson, Thomas. The life and execution of Thomas Hopkinson, jun. :who suffered this day on the new drop, in front of the county gaol, Derby, for highway robbery.. [Derby] : G. Wilkins, printer, Queen Street, Derby., [1819]. HOLLIS ID: 005949713 [Reproduced with the permission of Harvard Library School of Law] http://pds.lib.harvard.edu/pds/view/4788375

The poorest class of society were accused of being many things. They were usually accused of being idle – shunning hard work. In turn this made them turn to a life of crime. Usually they indulged in certain vices: gambling, drink. They usually avoided going to Church. The broadside detailing the ‘Last Dying Speech’ of Thomas Hopkinson is typical of how many people viewed criminals:

He formed an intercourse with abandoned companions, and commenced that profligate career which brought him to his untimely end […] his whole time was spent in the perpetration of almost every species of vice. The petty pilferings in which he engaged, gradually, led him on to bolder offences: his mind became so familiarised with guilt that he seemed scarcely sensible of its depravity; and thus, in the natural progress of iniquity, he was led on till be was ‘driven away with his wickedness’. [14]

Their living conditions were assumed to be deplorable. Even a man such as G. W. M. Reynolds, who was a radical and quite friendly towards the working classes, did some investigation into working-class living conditions. He found one slum dwelling that was:

A regular pig-stye, in which they wallowed like swine: and like that of brutes was also the conduct of the boys and girls. If the other rooms of the house were used as a brothel by grown up persons, no stew could be more atrocious than this garret […] Many children of nine and ten practised the vices of their elders. But, my God! Let me draw a veil over this dreadful scene. [15]

Dickens’ description of Jacob’s Island, the area where Fagin lives, is similar in its horror:

Crazy wooden galleries common to the backs of half a dozen houses, with holes from which to look upon the slime beneath; windows, broken and patched, with poles thrust out, on which to dry the linen that is never there; rooms so small, so filthy, so confined, that the air would seem to be too tainted even for the dirt and squalor which they shelter; wooden chambers thrusting themselves out above the mud and threatening to fall into it – as some have done; dirt-besmeared walls and decaying foundations, every repulsive lineament of poverty, every loathsome indication of filth, rot, and garbage: all these ornament the banks of Jacob’s Island. [16]

In the years after Reynolds and Mayhew other social investigators would follow his lead. Andrew Mearns authored The Bitter Cry of Outcast London in 1883, subtitled as ‘An Inquiry into the Condition of the Abject Poor’. In 1885 William T. Stead, a journalist for The Pall Mall Gazette, authored a series of articles entitled ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ which purported to be ‘The story of an actual pilgrimage into a real hell’. [17] He showed readers how easy it was for somebody to ‘purchase’ a child prostitute. Similarly, Charles Booth published a monumental social study entitled Life and Labour of the People in London, which eventually ran to seventeen volumes, between 1889 and 1903. All of these publications perpetuated the myth that it was the poorer classes of society who were responsible for the majority of crime. Closer to home, W. Swift authored Leeds Slumdom in 1896, although he was relatively understanding about the problems that working-class people faced, saying that although many people thought that the poor were poor because they were idle, ‘the more I study the character and history of our slum dwellers, the less inclined I am to think that idleness is their besetting sin’. [18]

Nevertheless, so ingrained was the idea of a criminal class becoming that people in government were talking soon about it. In the minutes of evidence for the Report of the Capital Punishment Commission in 1865, for example, we find the commissioners speaking of ‘The vast criminal class that holds sway in this country’. [19] People even assumed that they could identify and quantify this dangerous criminal class. J. Thackeray Bunce, in an academic journal article from 1865, produced a graph in which he estimated the numbers of the criminal classes, as you can see here:

graph

Source: <<http://humanities.uwe.ac.uk/bhr/Main/m_crime/criminal.htm>>

The caveat here is that these were ‘estimated numbers’, and in fact it was often quite difficult to find an actual person who hailed from this seemingly elusive criminal class. To be sure, Mayhew had spoken to many criminals, but no criminal ever said: “I am a member of the criminal class and I live in the underworld”. It was very much a label applied by the elite to the poorer sections of society. And it was a convenient label too, which absolved those in higher social situations of any responsibility towards making working and living conditions better for the working classes.

For some members of the supposed criminal class, however, it was not all doom and gloom. Children especially could be redeemed through the efforts of reforming societies and a rigorous penal system, because one of the great fears of people in the early nineteenth century was that the opportunistic young pickpocket would grow into a professional criminal. Early on some reformers realised that it was sometimes counter-productive to incarcerate children with adults because of the corrupting effects it might have on a child who could be saved:

I consider that the indiscriminate confinement practised in most of our prisons, where the child committed for trial or some small offence, is locked up in the same yard, and obliged to constantly associate with the hardened offender and convicted felon, is the most certain method that can be devised of increasing the number of delinquents. [20]

The press unsurprisingly saw the work of these reformers as a good thing. In 1852, for example, The Morning Chronicle reported how:

A blue book containing evidence given before the Select Committee of the House of Commons upon juvenile destitution will comprise an account [… of how] 140 of the vagrant and criminal class [… have been] drilled into order and industry. [21]

Of course, most of the people, children included, who were indicted for robbery and/or burglary were not in reality professional criminals. But as I said earlier, it was convenient for the Victorian press and contemporary reformers to push the idea of an underworld or criminal class.

uriah heep
Uriah Heep, from Dickens’ David Copperfield (1849-50)

Surely, however, the idea of a criminal class or underworld subculture does not sufficiently explain the fact that seemingly respectable criminals turned to crime? It is a question that Victorian moralists in the press themselves struggled to explain. Why did white collar crime exist when it was supposedly only the criminal class – drawn from the poorer parts of society – who perpetrated the majority of crime? A prevalent motif in Victorian literature is that of the corrupt clerk or banker who embezzles and steals funds from respectable people. In Charles Dickens’ novel David Copperfield (serialised between 1849 and 1850), for instance, we have Uriah Heep, an almost snakelike and devious character who extorts money from the good Mr. Wickfield. Similarly, there is Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ sensation novel The Woman in White, serialised between 1859 and 1860, who plots to claim Laura Fairlee’s fortune by faking her death. Recognising that businessmen of good social standing were perfectly able to commit offences, The Illustrated London News reported that:

If we progress at the same rate for half a generation longer, commercial dishonesty will become the rule, and integrity the exception. On every side of us we see perpetually – fraud, fraud, fraud. [22]

These people, however, were viewed as exceptions: they were often seen as ‘bad apples’. They had often been led astray or been placed in a tempting situation. [23] In the case of middle- and upper-class offenders, often employers were criticised for lacking a sense of proper business management, or for paying their clerks wages that were too low. [24] As one newspaper asked:

We can’t for a moment dispute the right of merchant princes paying what salaries they deem fit to their clerks […] but we would ask, is the system of paying low salaries likely to conduce a high moral tone in the young men employed? [25]

Oddly, while low wages might encourage dishonesty in middle-class clerks, the same reasoning seems never to have been applied to the poorer classes who often lived a hand-to-mouth existence.

Conclusion

Just to conclude, I hope that what I have shown you today is that the idea of a Victorian underworld, or criminal class, is just that: an idea. There was never anything tangible about the underworld. You could not go and visit. It was a description applied by the elites in society to some of the poorest, most vulnerable members of society. Moralists in the press imagined that there were some people who were irredeemably criminal. Yet the fact that it was an invented idea should be evident by the fact that a conception of a criminal class, or underworld, did not exist prior to the nineteenth century. In the eighteenth century nobody was born a criminal; offenders and the law-abiding inhabited the same moral universe. [26] Crime was a sin, rather than something inherent.

The term ‘underworld’ is still used frequently in the press to this day. We are told in The Telegraph, for example, that the Hatton Garden Robbers ‘the busiest crooks in the underworld’. [27] Similarly, so convincing in explaining criminality was the idea of a criminal class that it is, by and large, an explanation of crime which we are stuck with today. I just want to take a recent example from The Big Issue magazine. While the magazine praised its own good work in helping to reform many offenders, it lamented the state of the prison system in the UK, saying:

Some Big Issue sellers are ex-cons but, while this organisation helps move people back to normal life, our prisons are so useless in helping men and women back permanently on to the straight and narrow that they increase rather than decrease the overall size of the criminal class. [28]

Additionally, in the Daily Mail newspaper in January of this year, the columnist Peter Hitchens in an article entitled ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ railed against the police in the following manner:

These new police are obsessed with the supposed secret sins of the middle class, and indifferent to the cruel and callous activities of the criminal class. [29]

Crime these days is often something that happens ‘out there’ in what the press calls ‘deprived areas’. Indeed, television shows such as Benefits Street, arguably the modern equivalent of Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor, encourage the myth that it is primarily people from lower social strata who turn to crime. So if there is one thing which I hope you will take away from today, it is obviously that it is not the poor who are responsible for the majority of crime; the criminal underworld is nothing more than a convenient label for the elites which they apply often to some of our most vulnerable people.


References

1. Heather Shore, Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth-Century London (Woodbridge: Boydell, 1999) & London’s Criminal Underworlds, c.1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015).
2. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker, London Lives: Poverty, Crime, and the Making of a Modern City, 1690-1800 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).
3. Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England, 1750-1900 (London: Longman, 1987)
4. Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800-c.1868 (Unpublished MA Thesis, Leeds Metropolitan University, 2014).
5. Cited in Lincoln B. Faller, Turned to Account: The Forms and Functions of Criminal Biography in Late Seventeenth- and Early Eighteenth-Century England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987), p.x.
6. Anon. Newes from Newgate: or, a True Relation of the Manner of Taking Several Persons, Very Notorious for Highway-men, in the Strand; upon Munday the 13th of this Instant November, 1677 cited in Hal Gladfelder, Criminality and Narrative in Eighteenth-Century England: Beyond the Law (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2001), 47
7. Horace Walpole, ‘To Mann, Wednesday 31 January 1750’ in The Yale Edition of Horace Walpole’s Correspondence, Eds. W. S. Lewis et al 48 Vols. (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960), 20: 111-131 (111)
8. Henry Fielding, An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of Robbers (Dublin: G. Faulkner, 1751), p.1.
9. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.59.
10. John Gay, The Beggar’s Opera (London: John Watts, 1728), p.5.
11. Frederich Engels, The Condition of the Working Class in England (1848 repr. London: Penguin, 2009)
12. Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, or, The Parish Boy’s Progress (London, 1838) [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
13. George William MacArthur Reynolds, The Mysteries of London: Containing Stories of Vice in the Modern Babylon (1845 repr. London, 1890), p.81.
14. The Life and Execution of Thomas Hopkinson (Derby: G. Wilkins, 1819).
15. G. W. M. Reynolds cited in Michael Diamond, Victorian Sensation: or, The Spectacular, the Shocking, and the Scandalous inn Nineteenth-Century Britain (London: Anthem, 2003), 193.
16. Dickens, Oliver Twist [Internet << http://www.online-literature.com/dickens/olivertwist>&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
17. W. T. Stead, ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon: A Notice to Our Readers: A Frank Warning’ The Pall Mall Gazette 4 July 1885 [Internet <http://www.attackingthedevil.co.uk/pmg/tribute/notice.php&gt; Accessed 24 February 2016].
18. W. Swift, Leeds Slumdom (Leeds, 1896), p.15.
19. Report of the Capital Punishment Commission (London: George E. Eyre, 1866), p.240.
20. Cited in Shore, Artful Dodgers, p.102.
21. Anon. The Morning Chronicle 11 August 1852, p.2.
22. Cited in Emsley, Crime and Society, p.57.
23. Emsley, Crime and Society, p.58.
24. Ibid.
25. Ibid.
26. Emsley, op cit.
27. Tom Morgan and Martin Evans ‘Revealed: How Hatton Garden’s OAP raiders were cream of criminal underworld’ The Telegraph 14 January 2016 [Internet: << http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/law-and-order/12093096/Revealed-How-Hatton-Gardens-OAP-raiders-were-cream-of-criminal-underworld.html>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
28. Dennis McShane, ‘Lord Ramsbotham Interview: There is No Accountability in Our Prisons’ The Big Issue 8 June 2015 [Internet: << http://www.bigissue.com/features/interviews/5293/lord-ramsbotham-interview-there-is-no-accountability-in-our-prisons>&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016].
29. Peter Hitchens, ‘The Great British Bobby is Dead’ Mail on Sunday 24 January 2016 [Internet: <http://www.dailymail.co.uk/debate/article-3413970/The-British-bobby-long-dead-one-chance-bring-writes-PETER-HITCHENS.html#ixzz3yvCdhsxo&gt; Accessed 01 February 2016.

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