Defining deviant behaviour as criminal The perceptions of class

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In 1825, 14,437 people had been charged with various crimes. Some 12,500 of them had been charged with theft. Most of the theft was petty with only a small number being large sums or objects of great monetary value, and very few were involved in violence. Most of the prosecuted came from poorer sections of society. Criminality tended to be a problem associated with the working class. Of course, it was still recognised that men and women of wealth and higher social standing also committed offences. There was a general concern about the level of white-collar crime committed during the 19th century.

Throughout 1750-1900 many experts went out of their way to deny any relationship what so ever to deny a relationship between low wages, poverty and the bulk of crime. They instead tried to put forward the explanations of poor education, parental neglect, moral weakness etc.

The Victorians had a clear idea about the relationship of gender and crime. The statistics about crime and the statements about crime suggest that much like it is today the majority of offenders were young males who were predominantly working class. Various elements which appear to be central to criminal behaviour, are in fact common traits associated with normal male behavior, such as aggressiveness, competition etc. In 1876 Pike, a very early Victorian historian, claimed that "woman are less criminal that men not only because they are physically weaker now, but because they were physically weaker "generations ago".

The use of criminal statistics in the 19th century

The Victorians had faith in progress. One element of this faith was the conviction that crime could be stopped. From the middle of the 19th century the annual publication of Judicial Statistics for England and Wales seemed to highlight their faith; almost all forms of crime appeared to be falling.

There are, of course, major problems with official statistics of crime. How far might they be edited by the police forces that collect them? We know, for example, that it was practice in the Metropolitan Police until the 1930s to list many reported thefts as lost property. How can we account those items which may never have been reported? Many in the poorer sections of the Victorian community, who had little faith in, or respect for, the police, probably did not bother to report offences at all. Nevertheless, however unreliable they may be, the statistics provide historians with a starting point for the pattern of crime.

There are some problems with the statistics in that the overall decline in theft and violence seems to fit with other social data from the nineteenth century. Assuming that theft was committed by working class members of society, the economic downsides of the second half of the nineteenth century were generally not as serious, widespread, or life-threatening as those of previous centuries. Violent behaviour was increasingly becoming frowned upon, dealt with increasingly severely by the courts, and seemed to have been brought under a greater degree of control. The new police forces, established across the whole country in the mid-1850s and subject to yearly inspections on behalf of Parliament, appear to have had some success in eliminating those forms of public behaviour that respectable Victorians considered offensive. In so doing they may well also have had an impact on reducing the amount of petty crime and opportunistic theft on the streets of England.

Crime and crime control in industrial Victorian society

While the general pattern of crime was on the decline, there were occasional panics and scares generated by particularly appalling offences. In the 1850s and early 1860s there were panics about street robbery, colloquially called 'garroting'. A virulent press campaign against garroters in 1862 developed following the robbery of an MP on his way home from a late-night sitting of parliament; and while the number of 'garrote' robberies was tiny, the press created sensations out of minor incidents. Parliament responded with ferocious legislation providing for offenders to be flogged as well as imprisoned.

The murders committed by Jack the Ripper in the autumn of 1888 were confined to a small area of London's East End, but similarly provoked a nation-wide panic whipped up by press sensationalism. Violence sold papers. However, violent crime in the form of murder and street robbery never figured significantly in the statistics or in the courts.

Most offenders were young males, but most offences were petty thefts. The most common offences committed by women were linked to prostitution and were, essentially, 'victimless' crimes - soliciting, drunkenness, drunk and disorderly, vagrancy. Domestic violence rarely came before the courts. It tended to be committed in the private sphere of the home; among some working-class communities, it continued to have a degree of tolerance.

The press also made much of big financial scandals and frauds. Although the behaviour of the corrupt businessman provoked outrage and, when caught and convicted, a hefty prison sentence, he was usually described as an exception to the rule, a 'black sheep' or a 'rotten apple' in contemporary society. He was not conceived of as a member of 'the criminal class'.

The criminal class and professional criminals

Across the nineteenth century broad shifts can be identified in the ways that 'criminals' were perceived. There were concerns about 'the dangerous classes' who were thought to lurk in the slums of nineteenth century industrial England waiting for the opportunity to cause disorder.

By the middle of the nineteenth century the term 'criminal classes' was vaguer; it was used to suggest less able social classes. Henry Mayhew often wrote of this 'class' as if its members belonged to some distinctive, exotic tribe of Africa or the Americas. Racist? I think so.

Towards the end of that century, developments in psychiatry and the popularity of a new thing called Social Darwinism had led to the criminal being identified as an individual suffering from a form of behavioural abnormality that had must been inherited. All perceptions affected the way that criminals were treated by the criminal justice system.

By the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign the Bloody Code of the eighteenth century had all but basically disappeared. Capital punishment only remained for murderers and traitors. Transportation to Australia had reached its peak in the early 1830s; to all intents and purposes it ended in the early 1850s, not least because of the increasing hostility of colonists in Australia who objected to their land being used as a "dumping ground" for prisoners.

The emergence of the prison

The early and mid 19th century, saw a spate of prison building to cope with the increasing numbers of prisoners needing confinement. Although conditions were dreadful they were an improvement on those at the start of the 19th century, when prisons were overcrowded filthy hovels.

At this time prisons were often housed in old buildings, unsuited to long-term confinement, with prisoners massed together. The buildings were damp, unhealthy, insanitary and over-crowded. There was no privacy or protection from others. All kinds of prisoners were held together: men, women, children, the insane, serious criminals, petty criminals, people awaiting trial.

In the late 18th century John Howard visited all prisons in England and Wales and his report was scathing. One major result of the Howard report was the change of emphasis from simple punishment to the idea of punishment and rehabilitation. A criminal had to be shown the value of working for a living and to have time alone to contemplate the error of their ways. In addition they should have the opportunity to benefit from moral guidance and education. 

In 1780 the late Sir George Onesiphorus Paul designed and built a model new prison at Gloucester based on the ideas of John Howard. It was a secure building, well-built and separated the men, women and children. The rules said that prisoners must wear uniform, were taught to read and write, were reasonably fed and their health monitored. This became a model for many prisons. The jail had a house of correction for minor offenders, a jail for prisoners on remand awaiting trial, and a penitentiary for those who had committed serious offences. This building design and system were copied all over the country, including Bedford.

The separation of prisoners into different categories also became mandatory. Minor offenders were placed in the House of Correction whereas those on remand awaiting trial and serious offenders were held in the in the County Goals (although overcrowding meant there was often overlap, with prisoners going where space could be made available). Prisoners awaiting transportation or serving penal servitude were sent to Convict Gaols. 

Other philosophers, such as Jeremiah Bentham also had an influence on prison design. Bentham put forward a prison design (the panopticon) based around observation and surveillance. The idea was that prisoners could be observed at all times without them knowing when they were being watched. The aim was a 'big brother' type of surveillance placing more power over the minds of the prisoners in the hands of the jailer, perhaps a more psychological approach to conviction. Another influential idea was separation. Under this separate system (based on Cherry Hill Prison in Pennsylvania, USA) prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, in order to think about their life and crimes.

New prisons incorporated these ideas. Two examples were the Convict Gaols of Millbank and Pentonville (originally built to house convicts awaiting transportation).  Millbank was based on the 'Benthamite' principles and Pentonville modelled on separation. These prisons became models for other jails, including the local county and borough prisons. The new Bedford County Gaol, finished in 1849 as an extension to the house of correction, for example, followed the pattern of Pentonville as well as Gloucester.

In most jails prisoners carried out some form of work or labour, exercised in silence and attended services in the chapel, where they were made to sit apart from each other, facing the preacher.

In 1877, prisons were further brought into line when they were all taken out of local control and put under the government control, through the Home Office. Old, small prisons were shut down. By this time, the normal sentence was a year in solitary confinement, followed by three years hard labour.