19th Century

An English Republican’s View of Crime and its Causes

By Stephen Basdeo

George William MacArthur Reynolds (1814-79) was one of the Victorian era’ most prolific novelists. Inspired by Eugene Sue’s Mysteries of Paris (1843), Reynolds’s famous The Mysteries of London (1844-46) shined a light on the crimes committed by members of criminal upperworld and underworld.[1] Reynolds was also famous as the editor of Reynolds’s Newspaper, a radical newspaper which eventually became the leading left(ish) wing periodical of its day (sometimes our modern definitions of ‘left’ and ‘right’ are not easily translatable on to historical figures).[2] The paper was published every Saturday, and the first page would feature an editorial from the man himself, commenting upon a variety of social issues. As a man who obviously had a firm understanding of the nature and causes of crime in nineteenth-century London, evident by his Mysteries novels, in 1851 he wrote an essay entitled ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’ in Reynolds’s Newspaper, which delineated what he thought were the causes of crime.[3]

reynolds-4

Portrait of G. W. M. Reynolds on the cover of his other magazine, Reynolds’s Miscellany.

Reynolds hated the monarchy and the aristocracy with a passion, although, ever the gentleman, he had respect for Victorian herself; it was merely the institution that she represented which he abhorred. One of the reasons he campaigned for reform to Britain’s state apparatus was because, in his view, the state should exist for the betterment of the social condition of the people:

The political institutions of a country are supposed to be established to ensure the well-being of the community at large. It is consequently fair and rational to deduce an answer to the question – Whether our much-vaunted institutions be really valuable and beneficent, or whether they be inefficient and pernicious?[4]

Armed with statistics, Reynolds pointed out that, in 1851, the crime statistics compiled by the government and the police made for grim reading:

To show the amount of depraving, demoralizing, criminal and vicious influences at work in the metropolis alone, the subjoined estimate has been drawn up from official documents, by persons whose veracity can be relied upon: Children trained to crime, 1600; Receivers of stolen goods, 5,000; Gamblers by profession, 15,000; Beggars, 25,000; Thieves, &c., 50,000; Drunkards, 30,000; Habitual gin drinkers, 180,000; Persons subsisting on profligacy, 150,000.[5]

Victorian intellectuals often praised the English constitution as being one of the best in the worlds; governed by a constitutional monarch whose MPs exercised power on her behalf, resulting in a stable form of government; and this in turn, so it was thought by the political establishment, meant that Englishmen (and it was thought of in exclusively gendered terms at this point) enjoyed wonderful degree of political liberty, in spite of the fact that only the middle classes and the aristocracy could vote.

reynolds-1

The Resurrection Man from The Mysteries of London (1844-46): Punished by society simply for being poor, he has no choice but to turn to crime.

Yet Reynolds had no time for people who praised what he saw as a corrupt and undemocratic system, having declared in an earlier article that,

Nothing can be more disgusting than to hear individuals boast of English freedom. There is no real freedom in this country; and the persons who idolise a shadow are either knaves or fools. Those who fatten upon the corrupt institutions of our country will, doubtless, applaud them to the skies; and those who are too prejudiced or too ignorant to view them in their proper light, echo the praises which the selfish and interested bestow upon them.[6]

After citing his crime statistics, Reynolds asks

Who will dare boast of our “blessed institutions” and “our glorious laws” after this fearful exposure? Those stupid vaunts are annihilated by the statistics of crime in a moment.[7]

According to Reynolds, the rottenness of the English constitution was the cause of crime in nineteenth-century London. The narrow upper middle and aristocratic oligarchy which ruled Britain at the time had passed a series of laws which were deliberately designed to punish the poor for being poor. What did the establishment expect, then, but for paupers to turn to crime because they were voiceless? The poorest in society, according to Reynolds, were being systematically excluded from it due to the self-interest of the aristocracy and ‘moneyocracy’.

Reynolds Queen

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert as depicted in Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-46); frivolous and without a care for her subjects, the queen is kept in ignorance of the plight of the working classes who live a hand-to-mouth existence.

Nine-tenths of crime, according to Reynolds in the article, have as their cause the punitive and self-serving actions of the British establishment, and at the head of this system was the monarch and the royal family, too spineless to ever intervene on behalf of her subjects whom she professed to care for.

Reynolds’s attitude was articulated some years before in his Mysteries of London, in the character of the Resurrection Man. Had the establishment not enacted laws such as the Poor Law Amendment Act (1834), which expanded the workhouse system and made it incredibly harsh, or had they not pursued the cut-throat ideology of laissez-faire capitalism, then crime would be much lower than the statistics he cited.

Reynolds’s attitude raises interesting questions today about who really is to blame for crime. Ultimately, as Reynolds recognises in his article, societies get the criminals they deserve.


[1] See Stephen Basdeo, ‘That’s Business: Organised Crime in G. W. Reynolds’s The Mysteries of London (1844-48)’, Law, Crime and History, 8: 1 (2018), 53-70.

[2] For further reading see Anne Humpherys and Louis James, eds., G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2008).

[3] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 25 May 1851, p. 1. Reynolds is cited as the author.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] George W. M. Reynolds, ‘Our Boasted Freedom’, Reynolds’s Newspaper, 12 May 1850, p. 1.

[7] Reynolds, ‘The Crime and Profligacy of London’, p. 1.

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