In the history of mankind, crime has been an integral element which man sought to eliminate and to boost justice and harmony in the social structure. Crime, however, has lasted for as long as history itself. Some argue that crime is, perhaps, the result of lack of a classless society in which all people are equal in wealth, status and prestige. The stratification of society has led to grave inequalities in distribution of resources, some of which are key to survival such as food and health, and criminals therefore emerge as persons seeking a place in a society that is aligned against them. The society structure encouraged segregation of people into groups and classes such as the rich and poor, learned and the illiterate, working and jobless, low income and high income, noble versus common among other classes.

Is it likely then, that there existed also, a class for people vulnerable to crime tendencies, which would therefore be called the ‘criminal class’?  Of primary importance is the depiction that media coverage gave to crimes publication carried in newspapers and journals, and whether there was biasness in this representation causing a misrepresented image of crime levels in society. This paper will explore the criminal history with a special focus in the United Kingdom eighteenth century, which was the period that marked the legislation of most law governing criminal behavior today. The paper will use a historiographic approach as well as a review of cases from primary data used within the period.

The Development of the Court System and Police Force

England revolutionized from the use of the old draconian code in the 19th century and, as noted in Old Bailey, 1872, to adopt a new system of justice and crime repression spearheaded by the police court and the police forces. The two institutions worked in tandem to provide justice system, but were more effectively protecting the interests of the working class majority who were their audiences (Davis, 1984). This working harmony between police forces and police courts was broken in course of the 19th century owing to the increasing unpopularity of the police among the working class, due to increased instances of violence and misrepresentation. While one may agree that cases of crime and social unrest were more likely to be evident in the low class population segment and that, therefore, it would rationally appear like the police action tended to be targeted towards the low income population, it is apparent that the progressive evolution of the police service would be seen as service to protect the rich against the poor. By 1840, capital statutes incorporated in the older systems had been removed, offences such as shop larceny, livestock stealing, burglary and housebreaking, forgery and other minor money crimes. This was a general attempt to revise the penal procedures in a way as to enhance social responsibility while at the same time offering sufficient deterrence from criminal tendencies (Rodman, 1968). The police court system was also encouraged to show representation for the common people as a way of restoring public trust in the courts, a factor which had constantly led the people to take law in their hands and therefore increase crime instances.

The Criminal Justice Act of 1855 and the Metropolitan Police Acts held together, albeit without absolute fairness, the chaotic public administration system. The streets were therefore seething with criminals, and, as History Today, 1980 reports, there were thieves in Oxford Street and Lisson Grove, as well as horse thieves in Old Kent Road. With a similar passion, the media industry especially newspapers, were eager to publicize the many murders that took place in big towns. The newspapers, such as Lyolds and Reynolds, and the Seven Dials, relied, in the absence of developed photography, on artistic depictions of horrible scenes. This later factor contributed to biasness in media portrayal of crime in the interest of increased sales. By the 1830s, grotesque images of mutilated bodies featured in crime scenes of a significant number of publications, largely boosting sales for the news print media. To meet the exaggerated crime situation, courts handed criminal convictions warranting death penalties more liberally, with street executions attracting huge crowds. The 1867 public execution of Michael Barrett, for instance saw as many as 40,000 spectators, with sitting standing and other viewing places attracting charges between £2-5 depending on location.

Juvinile Crimes

A notable element of the judicial system in London had to do with the way it handled child offenders. The system showed rigidity in the manner of separation of children from adult offenders, the detention practice as well as rehabilitative initiatives governing child offences. Developments in juvenile crime administrative procedures were realized at the same period as were changes in workplace policies especially governing women and children, changes in the Poor Law System, the Factories Act as well as the Metropolitan Police Act. Rapid urbanization, as well as the lack of a proper crime management structure was partly to blame for the proliferation of juvenile offenders, while inappropriate parenting was also seen as a source for the situation. Parents, however, were equally overwhelmed by failing social representation, unfair work practices and poverty. This combination of factors also presented a challenge to the way the judicial and police systems handled child crimes such as pick pocketing. Until 1808, for instance, petty crimes such as pick pocketing were punishable by death, even though this crime was traditionally associated with the young.  Boys were the more frequent victims of destitution, often beginning with such petty activities as stealing fruits from farms, to stealing items off a minor stall, and ultimately, to the more involving and famous act of pick-pocketing. Transportation was a way of punishment for major crimes, usually described as felonious, and sometimes robbery. In 1847, a public review of the issue allowed children under age of 14 to be tried summarily in a separate chamber. In the period 1854-1857, several Industrial as well as school legislations established a juvenile correction system with juvenile courts and probation institutions to cater for children offences.  The Penal Servitude Act of 1857 brought to a stop transportation as a way of punishment, including a review applicable to all persons serving transportation to penal servitude of the remaining term ( Chapter 3 20 and 21).

Any new convictions after this date would, where necessary, serve penal servitude. In the 19th century, especially in its first half, the streets in major cities of England were host to many street children, some orphaned, others running away from homes as a result of brutality or just indiscipline, and others immigrating from rural areas with a view to find employment. Peelers often walked the streets apprehending destitute children who often would turn to petty thieving and such other misdemeanor. The case of destitute children in England’s law reforms presents a significant area of study owing to its pivotal role in judicial systems within and out of England, because it seemed to present the first largely documented public outcry into children rights, as well as interest into the role of a crumbling social structure as a cause for increasing numbers of roaming children and the implication for the country’s future if the problem was not properly addressed. So rampant was the destitute children case that contemporary writers such as Charles Dickens in his several works such as Oliver Twist, attempted to fictitiously address the juvenile crimes situation in England, by way of reflecting upon the broken social system.

The correction system for children had several possible sentences. When a juvenile offender was taken to a magistrate, he would either receive whipping, or a fine or a time served in the corrections house for minor offences. For more serious offences such as pick-pocketing or lancer or stealing from the correction house , the child would typically be taken to a higher court in London, usually Old Bailey or Clerkenwell, where they would be sentenced to transportation, time in correction house or to death depending on the gravity of the offence. Death sentence was handed down even to 16 year olds, most of which were reduced and the offender would be transported. In 1905, the first Juvenile court was built in Birmingham, and started the modern system of children justice. Numerous amendments and new incentives have continuously changed the way the system regards juvenile offences, with the rehabilitator role of society being enhanced more than the punitive role. A point to note with regard to juvenile cases is that all offenders came from poor backgrounds, and that they were mostly driven into crime by affective backgrounds such as poverty, broken families and domestic violence. The system, however, failed to appreciate the causative reasons for child crime, and therefore handed down punishment appropriate for adults to children. In addition, very rarely was a child’s opinion heeded before sentence. This type of bias could only punish convicted cases, while it failed to focus on the cause of the social problem, which was ingrained in the society structure itself.

The Police System

Of the people who frequently sort court redress in form of court summonses, women from the working class presented a big percentage. Historical observations record that the working class men were rare complainants, while women from lower segments of the working class often complained of assault by men. In addition, while the working class male population was a common target of violence, the more prevalent complainant group were the low class or poor people. It is thought that more women than reported battery at home were victims, but that the social expectation that a women was to uphold her dignity and the dignity of her husband and therefore contain unpleasant experiences at home prevented them from reporting. A large number of cases that were taken to magistrates were drunkenness related, and some, as observed, were initiated by the police in their role to maintain law and order. There was no clear evidence, then as today, to show that a person charged with drunkenness and disorderliness was actually disorderly, a factor which left a loophole in the judicial system which the police would use to initiate biased charges on innocent people. The Westminster police court was one such court put up in the neighborhood of working class clientele. In 1860, attempts by the government to remove it from that neighborhood elicited strong objections from the magistrate, stating that it had a central role in helping the poor. Such utterances were in contrast to known truths that the area was residential for working class people who used its services for their personal gain.

The poor people were aided in a crafty way and just to buy off their grievances. The Matrimonial Causes Act 1878 extended the magistrate’s power to include separation judgments in cases where couples sort separation. It also laid out procedures for property administration due to a divorce and protection and support for women victims of separation. This was a major step forward in attaining fair justice for both genders, especially in view of the traditional system, existent in England, in which a woman’s rights were violated and she could not vote. Largely considered, the judicial system was biased towards male interests in the larger part of the 9th century.

Primary Sources

The London justice system

The police justice instrument in London was instituted in the 18th century, but did not become effective as a tool of justice until the 19th century. The Middlesex Justices Act 1792 laid the foundation for the police court system, proposing the establishment of paid court magistrates. The officers were to work with existing police force units within London to bring justice. A stipendiary magistrate had a function similar to that of a justice of the peace of the 18th century. These officers presided over cases involving the poor, and went further than the ordinary justice systems may have. The police court systems had immense powers in their jurisdictive mandate. They, however, realized that their dominance depended on gaining favor from their clientele, who were mostly working class people against the commoners. The bias of the courts towards the richer clientele made them a powerful resource for this social group. Jeniffer, 1984 reports that there were 13 police courts as well as up to 23 magistrates in London Metropolitan area with annual salary of £ 1400. 

In their most general capacity, the magistrates could listen to a case alone and decide on the offender’s fate, usually with regard to the 1839 Police Act which stipulated penalties for such offences as drunk and disorderly, possession of stolen goods, breaking and entry, assault, suspicious behavior and gambling. Towards the latter half of the century, the court rooms had become very busy and petty crimes were judged summarily. The Criminal Procedure Act 1853 established authority for sitting judges to call upon hearing any witnesses necessary for the case’s cause, except in certain legal restrictions (Chapter 30, 1853). This legislation allowed better justice for both parties, as well as limited opportunities for fair hearing in cases where bias was likely. In 1861, the Offences Against the Person Act was incorporated, which described the various crimes against a person, and prescribed different penalties for them. Among the key offences were murder, shooting with intent to do grievous harm, bigamy, assault of various types, child stealing, homicides and threats (Chapter 100, 1861). The Common Law Procedure Act of 1852 abolished the requirement that a form of action be specified in any writ, as was the case in previous law. This act had effect on such cases as those of execution and ejectment

In the Old Bailey proceedings of September 23rd, 1827, William Tobin was indicted for stealing from Timothy Morgan a watch, eight shillings and four half crowns. Timothy Morgan was a worker at a watch factory, while Tobin was jobless. In the case a night constable and a watchman both testified to the crime, helping the prosecution. The watchman admitted that Morgan was in liquor before he was robbed, and that he shouted to the effect he had four half crowns, yet the arresting officer would not have him in for drunkenness and disorder. In addition, the arresting officer states that the handkerchief Tobin had and in which the money was found was indeed his as he(officer) had seen him two nights before in the same when he detained him. This shows the anticipated criminal nature of certain individuals in that society.

In another court hearing in Old Bailey involving 19 year old John Lindsay was indicted for stealing money and other personal effects from Robert Thomas. Lindsay was transported for 14 years. The complainant did not see or feel John rob him as he was asleep in the street, while the watchman said he arrested the suspect on suspicion he has robbed Thomas. Jane Bruice was charged on September 8th 1831 with stealing from the master watches, shoes and sovereigns. The witnesses included a policeman, daughter to the complainant, and a pawn broker who confirmed her guilt. She was indicted and transported for 14 years, she was 23 years old.

In a separate incident on 20th August 1838, William Winn, a 16 year old boy, was transported for 10 years on the ground that he had pick pocketed a watch, watch ribbon and watch keys belonging to William Maddock. In the case, the suspect is said to have snatched a watch from an army officer (working class) who shouted for him to stop, a waiting police officer pursued him and the suspect threw away the watch, which the police later showed to the complainant and he confirmed to be his. The boy said he was innocent, and was just waiting for his brother when he was arrested by the policeman. The boy was just 16 when he was sentenced to 10 years transportation, even though credible evidence was not sought linking the stolen item to him. On 6th July 1840, Johanna Bland was taken before Old Bailey judge with charges of manslaughter of Mary Bland, her daughter. The circumstance of the crime was that the mother neglected her child to the point where malnourished related complications claimed her life. It was heard that the accused lived without her husband and had four children to feed, receiving only 5shillings from her husband weekly. She had turned into alcoholism and violence, often leaving the child under care of a nine year old sister, and without breastfeeding. The accused pleaded inability to give proper support to the infant, while she worked daily to feed her children. Witnesses concurred that Johanna had indeed neglected her baby to the point of death, and the judge handed a manslaughter verdict with one year confinement. This case showed the state of poverty that people experienced as a cause for destitution and street children, and also the advancement of the justice system to incorporate expert opinion in case law.In a 1800 case of deception and forgery, John Osborn- Dawson was charged with feloniously forging and counterfeiting a bill of exchange worth £650, with the intention of defrauding, three months later, Richard Fuller with others. He was also charged with falsehood, having uttered the same to be true with intention. In the case, the defrauded party, as well as others who had handled the said bills and the money notes, confessed. The accused, 23 years old, was sentenced to death by a London jury in presence on Baron Thompson. In the judicial system of 1800, crimes such as forgery and felonious acts were capital offences punishable by death, usually in public executions. The case, as well as most others, was driven by the rising inequality in wealth and a struggle for basic necessities.

In this Victorian cartoon depiction of the Bill Sykes character from Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist, a peeler apprehends the person, dubbed ‘the habitual criminal’ even without a present indication of committing a crime. The arrested states that he didn’t do anything, and that he was just walking home to his tea. In response, the peeler grabs him, saying nothing, and walks him away, possibly to detention. So rampant was social categorization of individuals based on criminal tendencies that a police officer might grab a person and lock them up owing to their crime past, even where no circumstantial evidence or indication for a criminal motive existed.

Another element that fueled the criminal categorization was the media representation of crime. There is evidence to suggest that the media, perhaps interested in big sales, often featured horrific crime illustrations in their heading pages. Unfortunately, the depictions were such that they tended to exaggerate murder scenes to look more graphic than the real situations, and the fact that there was no photography to support the truth meant that people were just as eager to see the illustrations as they might be to see the real scenes, often not discerning the exaggerated features. In the following illustration of a street newspaper vendor incident featuring street boys and a female worker, the woman asks the boy what he desires to buy, whereupon the boy answers that he wants to “buy a newspaper with an illustration of a horrid murder and a likeness in it”. A party of street children watch outside the door, waiting. A culture where children would be intrigued by the gruesome nature of crime is a culture society has failed to contain vice.


The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries marked an important period in Britain’s law system, especially with regard to how crimes were perceived and punished. It was an era of heightened force against criminal behavior, especially with regard to crimes warranting capital punishment. It was an era of great intolerance to vice, perhaps owing to the intensity of day to day offences, and much also owing to judicial system’s lack of information regarding the efficiency of its punitive processes as deterrents of crime. While it is true that the general nature of the contemporary society was less organized that subsequent ones, especially owing to the fact that the industrial revolution had not only led to huge disparities in social status but had also encouraged a mass influx of populations into urban areas in search for work, leading to overcrowding, poverty and consequently a rise in crime, it is also true to observe that the society’s judicial and legislative components were inefficient. This era therefore had led to a flourishing of a socially disoriented population with higher criminal tendencies than other generations, wrongly called the criminal class.

There is significant evidence to show that there was biasness in the way arbitration was conducted, especially with regard to cases reviewed above in the Old Bailey courts. The poor were often deprived of their rights and exploited in the 19th century court system, and the courts may more appropriately be described as having been tools for the working class to realize their objectives. In addition, the police courts had unchecked authority which led them  to form class segregation in times of  income brackets or social status, with certain social classes being arbitrarily branded as criminals in situations involving the common people versus the working class. There was marked bias against children and women, whereby women were not allowed to contribute in decision making, and were constant recipients of domestic assault. Children, too, were greatly neglected, so that there were so many destitute street children who turned to crime for a living. Lack of proper control by the society meant lack of proper rehabilitation centers for the children, with many of them receiving capital punishment or transportation for many years. Rigorous legislative initiatives have, however, turned the situation around, with the most comprehensive, accommodative and people centered law structures coming out of the century of struggle in Britain.

Price Quote


Special price: 00.00 $10.99

Save 15% OFF on your 1st order


Related essays

  1. The Boston Massacre
  2. Illegal Music File Sharing and Downloading
  3. Community Corrections
  4. Death Penalty in the United States