Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City

by Mark Rowe

Author: David Churchill

ISBN No: 9780-19-879784-5

Review date: 12/07/2024

No of pages: 290

Publisher: Oxford University Press

Publisher URL:

Year of publication: 21/12/2018



£60 hardback

In A Ragged Schooling, his memoir of growing up in a slum in Salford in the 1910s, Robert Roberts told of how he and his mates rambled one day from Lancashire into Cheshire. “Our party had penetrated no more than 50 yards into the unknown when two ‘rozzers’, ‘disguised in postmen’s hats’, barred our passage,” Roberts recalled in old age. One asked, ‘where you from?’ Roberts told him. ‘And where d’yer think yer goin’?’

“We have come,” Roberts said with childish naivety, “to explore Cheshire!” Only for the policemen to say ‘Gerrout of it!’, knock Roberts into a hedge and snatch at the tent other lads were carrying. They fled minus their tent into Lancashire. Back home, Roberts’ mother, who kept a small shop, advised him to ‘stay in Lancashire next time’.

Such a story neatly fits so many common beliefs about policing and the ‘old days’ generally: local police on foot intervened against urchins, dishing out summary justice; and, while evidently unfairly harsher to small boys than men in collars and ties, kept the peace and prevented crime, unlike, according to the unspoken or spoken comparison, recent times. Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City, by the University of Leeds historian David Churchill, shows us a far more nuanced picture (including Robert Roberts as a source, though not that particular story).

Churchill concentrates on three cities – Manchester, Liverpool and most of all Leeds. Police as we know them came into being, replacing municipal night-watchmen, in the 19th century. As Churchill notes, those police were ‘tasked with a remarkably wide range of task and duties, most of which concerned the minutiae of urban order, decorum and public safety’. They met with limited success, ‘and often failed to live up to public expectations’.

Later chapters are of most interest to the private security reader, that take his argument on from the workings of the police to what he terms an ‘enforcement gap’, ‘the distance between public demand for crime prevention and police supply’, which sounds remarkably like the present. As he points out, the general theory is that the state took a monopoly of policing and crime control in the modern period, which in recent decades has been eroded by the rise of private policing. By his granular study of what actually went on in homes and businesses, through archive documents and newspaper accounts, he calls that into question.

What sounds very modern is how ordinary people were allowed or even urged to prevent, investigate and resolve crime. Not that it’s sensible to draw direct lines between the 19th and 21st centuries – for one thing, never mind the ‘broken windows’ theory of crime, Victorian working-class housing might be so decrepit that windows were left broken and doors unlocked or ajar, not necessarily because there was little or no crime. Churchill details how a building with multiple families living inside might share a key, making for an obvious lack of premises security.

Intriguingly for the 21st century private security reader, Churchill writes of ‘markets in security’, whether the bell that tingled to let a shopkeeper know someone had entered, to the guard dog, or locks and safes, and hired personnel, notably in docks. Churchill dates the very modern sounding enclosure and gating of Liverpool’s docks – making traffic come and go through a checkable manned gate – to the 1820s. Churchill found plenty of evidence of a ‘preventative mentality’, of people of all sorts taking steps to avoid being robbed of cash or valuables such as a watch; even child street sellers passing their takings to others rather than their parents who might appropriate it (Victorian cash in transit!).

Crime reports in newspapers, Churchill shows, were not only a record, useful to the historian, but ‘guided readers to preventative solutions’, such as shutting windows against petty thieves. Churchill gives a twist to the common police practice of checking doors were secure at night on their rounds; not so much, or not only, police taking responsibility for crime prevention, but (by alerting or even waking householders to examples of insecurity) impressing on the public that they ought to take precautions. As for the complaint by present police that retailers tempt theft by displaying beer near the front of a store, in 1876 a Leeds chief constable was complaining of goods exposed persistently at shop doors and in open yards, ‘temptingly exposing them’ (in other words, implying that common people and criminals couldn’t help but steal). By the 20th century, new types of crime were emerging – theft of unsecured bicycles. Did the ‘running critique’ in newspapers of the time work? Churchill is frank enough to admit that it’s hard to tell.

As for criminal investigation, Churchill points out that most crimes were found by the victims or other civilians, not the police; and victims had ways to try to trace their stolen property, or the offender or scammer. Shopkeepers or people wealthy enough to have servants (and portable, pilferable goods) routinely carried out surveillance, or even set human equivalents of mouse-traps. As an aside here, consider the famous story The Invisible Man by HG Wells (who came from a shopkeeping background), when the Invisible Man had to go to some trouble to steal clothing from a London shop from the suspicious owner. The local press, again, and second-hand traders and pawnbrokers were ways that theft victims could try to recover their property (not the same thing as collaring the thief).

More tellingly, for the most dramatic part of crime control – confronting the accused – Churchill found ‘there was no police monopoly on apprehension in the early Victorian city’, although police did take sole charge of escorting the apprehended to cells – ‘no small matter, for constables could encounter considerable violence en route’. Churchill suggests ‘a sense of civic duty to confront criminals’.

And most tellingly, Churchill points to how victims didn’t always go to court – for one thing, if they’d been robbed while drunk or had their pocket picked while with a prostitute, they were embarrassed. Besides, some victims preferred to negotiate a settlement out of court, or were satisfied if the thief gave the stolen purse or property back. As Churchill says, civilians resolving crime by themselves did not fit with the liberal reformer ideal of predictable, proportionate, bureaucratic criminal justice.

Churchill winds up by looking at police-public relations; did police get on top of crime? Did everyone welcome police enforcement of laws, and morals? Churchill notes that ‘violence was integral to Victorian police work’, partly because manpower was stretched and thus police were violent not because they were so strong on the street, but rather because they were outnumbered and weak – having to ‘get physical’ to get some control on the street and get someone arrested to the station.

The police – what they wanted to do, and how they had to do it – were only one side of the coin, as Churchill shows. Police generated expectations which they could not meet; likewise (to take a present-day comparison) police cannot possibly arrest their way out of cyber-fraud and online hate crime, nor can they hope to properly cover various new types of crime – against wildlife, ‘modern slavery’, and historic claims of sexual abuse. Likewise the Victorian police were not only trying to ‘stop thief!’ but stop run-away horses, find the missing owners of lost dogs (and fine them), make shopkeepers sweep their pavement and (to return to the start) move on urchins. It could be enough to anger the working-class into believing that police were part of ‘Them’, to be avoided. Everyday policing, in practice, Churchill suggests, was ‘pretty mediocre’.

In conclusion, Churchill suggests the sheer variety and ‘mixed economy’ of crime control in Victorian cities – which mirrors other public policy of the period such as health and education. He anticipated my question – how does the 19th century policing of urban Britain link if at all to today – by suggesting a diminished ‘sense of rupture separating the Victorian past from the present’. All that remains is for Churchill to study the era between the two; which he is doing.


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