Victorian Crime and Punishment: Crime in the 19th Century

DATED: 26.01.21

Jack the Ripper is one of the most prolific murderers in the world. His heinous acts not only left Londoners cowering in terror, they left an unshakable stain on the reputation of crime and punishment in the Victorian era, with many believing that murderers and violent criminals ran rampant in London in the 19th century, but is that true? Were crimes in Victorian times truly gruesome and bloody, or did Jack the Ripper create a stigma that has been completely overstated and severely exaggerated?

Pickpocketing: The Most Common Victorian Crime?

Violent crime attributed to only 10% of all crime in Victorian London. Around 75% of crimes were petty, with pickpocketing at the top of the list. In the 19th century, poverty was rife and the class divide in England was distinct. The working class were often desperate for money and food which saw them resort to opportunistic crimes like theft. London was becoming greatly overcrowded which gave thieves ample targets. Most thieves were young males and the contents they stole was usually so small that the crimes were rarely reported, and for the most part, the police ignored such small discrepancies. Larger and higher value thefts were taken note of, and repeat offenders were reprimanded, but pickpocketing was as much a part of London life as the rats and the workhouses. 

In rare instances, pickpocketing evolved into garrotting for those who were looking for more fruitful pickings. Garrotting involved partially strangling the victim to make them easier to rob. Like most petty crimes and theft, this was largely ignored by the police until MP Hugh Pilkington was garrotted and robbed in 1862. This made national news and saw an increased focus on the crime, but also ignited a separate issue: moral panic. 

The Media and Crime in the 19th Century

It’s a tale as old as time itself; sensationalism sells. Following the garrotting of Hugh Pilkington, newspapers began a media tirade focusing on the new plague of violent crime, despite the fact it was statistically very low. Front pages regularly featured stories of terrifying muggings and robberies, with garrotting touted as the worst-case scenario. All of these were very rare, but the media’s campaign was such that the middle and upper classes of London felt there was a terrible surge in crime that had to be dealt with. 

This lead Londoners to believe there was a spike in gruesome crimes, often referred to as “’orrible crimes”. Many lived in fear of brutal robberies and murders, but until the 1880’s when Jack the Ripper came on to the scene, murders and bloody crimes were exceptionally rare, meaning the general public was living in a reign of terror that didn’t actually pose a direct threat to the majority of the population. In fact, the Metropolitan Police was reducing the murder rate. 

Common Crime in Victorian England

Pickpocketing was by far one of the most common types of crime, but there were other issues that dogged society far more than the ruthless and savage tales being published in the papers. Women were most likely to be convicted of crimes such as prostitution and soliciting. Both men and women were frequently convicted of being drunk and disorderly, along with other ‘victimless crimes’ such as vagrancy and general drunkenness. 

Although domestic abuse was almost certainly a common crime in the Victorian era, it was rarely reported to authorities. For Victorians, reputation was everything, and having tales of what happened behind closed doors aired to the general public would almost certainly bring a family into disrepute, meaning many kept quiet and didn’t mention it. 

Punishment in the 19th Century

rime and punishment in Victorian times differed greatly to what we see now. Punishments in Victorian times were harsher than they are today. Whilst it’s common in the modern-day for those guilty of violent crimes to be imprisoned for extended periods of time, this was unusual in the 19th century. If you were found guilty of murder, you could expect to be hanged. Up until the beginning of the reign of Queen Victoria, hanging was a common punishment for many serious crimes, and public hangings could draw in huge crowds of hundreds of thousands of people. Eventually, people became unnerved by how many people were being hanged, resulting in it being used almost exclusively for murder. 

Other serious crimes had the punishment of transportation. This entailed criminals with longer sentences being shipped to Australia to serve out their sentence in a colony whilst undertaking hard labour. In the 1850s, Australia began to refute the transportations of British criminals as they thought their country was being used as a dumping ground. This brought about change and saw a reform of British gaols into prisons. Prior to this, gaols were overcrowded and men, women and children were kept together. 

Food was not provided as standard and many prisoners had to beg those passing on the street for help. Disease was part and parcel of a prison stay, and there was no focus on rehabilitation. After transportation was no longer the norm, gaols were expanded into prisons, food and water were provided, and women, children and men were kept separately. Prisoner uniforms were introduced and teaching prisoners to read and write became a priority. This is more reminiscent of prisons today.

Has Crime and Punishment in the 19th Century Changed?

There’s no denying that Victorian crime and punishment has gone down in the history books as gruesome and unpleasant, but modern day crime has definitely followed a similar pattern. Theft and robberies are still the most common forms of crime, but the punishments are far less harsh, with hanging having since been abolished altogether. One thing is for certain, Victorian crime will remain a dark and brutal period in British history.


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