Crime Control And Everyday Life In The Victorian City: The Police And The Public

Author: David Churchill
Publisher: Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2017. 290p.
Reviewer: Robert McCrie | January 2019

The creation of modern urban policing had a long gestation. Even before the time of the Norman invasion certain principles of protection of towns and cities, the law, the courts, and the means of bringing offenders to justice had been established in England. Towns needed walls, crenellated if the monarch approved. The common law would be interpreted by the local courts with judges appointed by the monarch. And felons were to be seized by the community and given to the sheriff to be held for trial.

These measures evolved without specific guidance from the monarch. In 1285 an important legislative enactment was decreed which summarized past criminal justice practices and which would have bearing for more than the next five centuries until the advent of modern policing. Edward I (reigning 1272-1307) promulgated the Statute of Winchester which began ominously: “Forasmuch as from day to day, robberies, murders, and arsons be more often…” A royal decree made clear how the people were to protect themselves and, more particularly, how protection was largely the responsibility of citizens themselves. The timing was right. Edward was preparing for overseas adventures and domestic issues like safeguarding the towns at night and responding to theft and robbery were too important for the sovereign not to leave guidance behind.

The Statute was considered so important that in 1300 it was required to be read four times a year in each county. Three knights were designated in each shire to receive complaints from the public and carry out the intents of the Statute as well as provisions of the earlier Magna Carta (The Great Charter) which established the principle of due process and property rights from the sovereign and the Forest Charter which specifically concerned rights and duties of forest owners.

Edward’s Statute of Winchester established an early form of Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design. Walled towns should close their gates from sunset to dawn. Persons not residents of the town must leave before the gates closed “unless his host will answer for him.” It was a privilege to live within a walled community that entailed obligations for security not to be taken lightly. At night the watch took over and Edward made clear what the staffing and their duties should be. For example, if the watch found an unauthorized person after the gates were closed, that person “shall be arrested until morning” and if good reason for his presence could not be found, “they shall forthwith deliver him to the sheriff.”

And about that wall. The Statute says nothing about its height or construction. Walls were the most expensive public works cost for a community but formed an essential part of protective thinking for Medieval towns until the advent of modern warfare. By the sixteenth century it was clear that gunpowder would overwhelm the wall’s daunting protection. While specifications for the wall were not provided, details for road clearances were. Public highways were to have a 200-foot clearance on either side from any forest encroachment to deter highway bandits, an acknowledged risk for travelers. This measure was taken seriously over future generations and even nobles and the crown were sanctioned at times for abetting criminogenic circumstances like not keeping roads cleared from growth that approached the highways.

Edward made the entire community “answerable for the robberies done and also the damages” if they failed to produce a felon for trial. Crime control was a community affair. The king would fine the community severely if the accused was not produced. But the sanction would not occur until perhaps months later so that ample time was available for local residents to find and arrest a suspect. Another principle established by the Statute was hue and cry. That is, if members of the watch needed help to apprehend someone or to fight a fire, they would raise a ruckus and citizens must rise from their beds and help. Security and safety were community duties.

With the growth of population, and specifically with the industrial revolution beginning about 1750, administrative strains increased. Growing cities with the proximity of strangers in their midst made crime a risk of urban life. Constables and their deputies provided order during the day. After dark that hoary institution, the night watch, took over. The watch was supervised by a watch committee but its management was being strained. Serving on the watch, or paying someone to take a resident’s place, was a non-negotiable duty for adult males. Yet complaints about how the watch actually did its job stretched back over a thousand years. Too often those supposed to be on duty at the watch were sleeping, drunk, incompetent, disinterested, or were absent from their posts for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all. It was time to modernize urban law enforcement; in fact, a veritable management transformation was an urgent need. One British politician would be inextricably linked to that process.

Robert Peel’s early and political career was characterized by his willingness to espouse difficult points of view and sometimes change his opinion on significant matters. As chief secretary for Ireland in 1913, he began the creation of a reorganized police force for Dublin; the next year he established the Royal Irish Constabulary. Returning to London, he entered Parliament and soon was named home secretary. In his first term in office, he reformed criminal law reducing capital crimes, repealing some criminal statutes, and improving jail conditions including providing education for the incarcerated. After a break in office, he returned as home secretary and saw passage of a law that transformed London security and became a model for urban law enforcement: the first Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.

In just over a few months’ time, the pattern of daytime parish constables and the nighttime watch was jettisoned. The modern police would be a quasi-military hierarchical 24-hour service centered in buildings in each parish and with a headquarters based at Scotland Yard. The new police would have an ethical mission and swear a loyalty to their office. Initially resented by many Londoners, the resistance faded as the new “peelers” or “bobbies” decreased crime and reducing the number of “loose, idle and disorderly Persons whom [they} shall find disturbing the public Peace.”

Other cities and towns similarly modernized policing, and by 1857 all British cities by statute were required to follow the lead of the capital. The early years of London’s new policing experience have been described by numerous writers. But what about other British cities? How did the new policing affect them? That’s where David Churchill’s Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: The Police and the Public,” comes in. Churchill, a lecturer at the University of Leeds, benefits from the fullness of British municipal archives to peruse and analyze. His narrative covers the beginning of modern urban crime control in three great English cities: Leeds, Liverpool, and Manchester, 1850-1900. It was a time when police (Gr. politeia citizenship, administration of government) evolved from persons who provided a variety of governmental services–including picking up orange peels off the street–to exclusively handling crime related and public order duties

With these changes, Churchill discusses how the state came to monopolize crime control, exerting even a monopoly over it. That development is well documented. But Churchill adds that civilian participation in crime control and public order remained an activity that also embodied activities of the private sector.

The available data focuses largely on property crime. During the time of historical analysis, the definition of violent crime was not settled. Violence was not necessarily considered a crime. A Manchester magistrate opined that crimes were not preventable and that property crimes were “those most dangerous to society.” These types of property crime–burglary, theft, and robbery–are also risks where the public sector is heavily invested in protecting its own interests.

The provincial cities selected by Churchill–each distinctive and interesting in its own ways– provided sufficient scale, economic activity, and diversity of employment which assured the attraction of skilled and unskilled workers from wide areas. This Victorian era was characterized by rapid urbanization in which the historic city centers would be ringed by factories and warehouses, working-class dwellings, middle-class suburbs, and outer townships that would be dependent on the economic activities of the cities. Crime was different in each sector.

The “new police” emerged from a liberal concept of criminal justice. Laws needed to be codified. Prosecutors and witnesses should be paid. The uniformed police must provide a presence, in Churchill’s words, “to serve as cautionary signal bearers…impressing upon the people the ubiquity of systematic, mechanical surveillance, and thus the certainty the law breakers would be caught.” To drive the point home, all three of the cities studied increased police presence relatively and absolutely from 1861 to 1901. Further, policing grew during this period as a desirable vocation. Resignations, “allowed to resign,” dismissals, deceased, suspended, retired, or called up for military service declined over the years. Good pay helped. Close supervision of the men at lower ranks helped assure a level of reliability that built public confidence.

Churchill discusses the importance of police and the private sector as preventers of property crime. Broken or open windows encouraged crime. Houses left empty when their owners were away represented a risk. Police executives in these cities figured out that crime was linked to place. Constables would be stationed where their services were needed the most. It paid off. From 1870 to 1900 the level of apprehensions declined in all three cities. At the same time, police were urged to work with the community and not arrest the unruly unnecessarily. Leeds police were instructed in 1886 to enter a charge of snowball throwing and not cases of “riotous conduct.” Liverpool police were instructed that offensive language to a police officer did not constitute “disorderly conduct.”

The ways in which police and the victimized public worked together also changed during this span of time. Police would systematically record offenses and advertise stolen items with the goal of making property recovery more successful. Known offenders were put under a high level of surveillance, though many successful thieves could operate extensively without detection. The burgeoning cities had lots to steal: from reins and bridals of parked carts to enamel letters from shop windows. Some of the fault was due to shoddy security practices by property owners. In the 1880s thousands of police reports of unlocked doors or open windows were documented in all three cities.

Clearly, crime prevention was not the sole duty of police. Property owners and the general public needed to share in the process, but they could work together. In Manchester, and other cities, police would secure keys for commercial, retail, and industrial proprietors for a fee. Lockable drawers, bags, and storage areas would reduce risk from servants and lodgers who might steal, as would hidden places to stash valuables.

Churchill describes security markets in which premium, branded security locks came into wide use. Wrought iron and later steel safes were available for offices, industrial workplaces, and homes. Window hardware became more secure. Private security personnel emerged, though Churchill calls its history “rather opaque.” Yet a keyword digital perusal of newspapers identified vacancies advertisements for watchmen throughout the years. In Liverpool, “Dock Gatemen” numbered over 200 by the 1850s, supplementing police to protect the waterfront.

With the passage of time some police officers came to specialize in crime deterrence through investigations of criminal incidents. Their tasks would have been easier if victims had a better description of valuables that had disappeared. Still, newly minted investigators handled cases of embezzlement and various types of property theft, tracing goods in their markets.

Churchill has provided a valuable historical analysis of a formative urban period for both the new police and how the public interacted with them. It was a period when violent crime was not a central concern for police response. Nor were the courts eager to take up the issue. Before a parliamentary committee, a magistrate was asked: “If a citizen is improperly assaulted, is not that an offense against the public?” The magistrate replied: “It is not so considered in the law.” The twentieth century and beyond would mark a period when violent crime, though less frequent than property offenses, became a preoccupation of police and the public.

Robert McCrie is Professor of Security Management at John Jay College of Criminal justice, The City University of New York.

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