Crime and Industrialisation in England

John Lea 2004

The chaos of urban expansion

Urban society in the early 19th shared some features in common with the rural areas we have looked at in previous lectures. Crime was rising due to dislocation and poverty and the apparatus of criminal justice was, as we saw in the previous lecture increasingly ineffective. During the period 1805-1842 the proportion of people per 100,000 of the population committed for trial rose 7 times. This is of course what we should expect: rapid urbanisation with people uprooted from their traditional rural ways of life and forced into the intolerable poverty and overcrowding of the early factory towns. These festering conditions were exacerbated by the fluctuations in the labour market and the fact that workers were periodically thrown out of work without any social security or unemployment benefits in the modern sense. Just as levels of serious disease were increasing so was crime.

As the historian Eric Evans puts it:

"The great weight of contemporary evidence was severely critical of life in the new or massively expanded cities. Urban monsters were unleashed by the forces of industrialism which it would take decades of patient legislation and the expenditure of huge amounts of ratepayer's money to tame. Put simply, the cities grew far too fast for health and safety. Urban growth rates… far outpaced even the rapid general population growth. Some already huge cities experienced further massive, and quite unplanned, growth. Glasgow increased its population by 46 percent in the 1810s, Manchester by 44 percent in the 1820s. Previously small towns became huge manufacturing centres within a generation. Bradford's population grew by 63 percent in the 1810s, by 69 percent in the 1820s and by 52 percent in the 1830s… In consequence the early industrial cities… became overcrowded, filthy, insanitary, breeding grounds for disease, squalor and degradation…

"City dwellers had to contend with bad housing, filth and bad water. Increasingly the food they ate was suspect too. Sharks and swindlers happily filled the gaps in distribution with concoctions and supplements to defraud the purchaser. The addition of alum, a mineral salt, made impure bread look whiter so that it could fetch a higher price… both milk and beer would be watered down." (Evans 2001: 163-4)

Frederick Engels in his famous study 'The Condition of the Working Class in England' (1845) wrote of the plight of the unemployed workers, the 'reserve army of labour' as he and Marx called them.

"This reserve army, which embraces an immense multitude during the crisis and a large number during the period which may be regarded as the average between the highest prosperity and the crisis, is the 'surplus population' of England, which keeps body and soul together by begging, stealing, street-sweeping, collecting manure, pushing hard-carts, driving donkeys, peddling, or performing occasional small jobs." (Engels 1845/1975: 384)

Engels again, noting that the criminal arrest statistics for England and Wales had risen consistently from 4,605 in 1805, through 14,437 in 1825 to 31,309 in 1842, continued:

"If demoralisation and crime multiply twenty years longer in this proportion (and if English manufacture in these twenty years should be less prosperous than heretofore, the progressive multiplication of crime can only continue the more rapidly), what will the result be? Society is already in a state of visible dissolution..." [4:426]

Of course, he and Marx were hoping for a revolution, and a much more radical one than those taking place in France and Germany at the time.

read my article on Frederich Engels
views on crime in 19th century England

Urban crime in the early nineteenth century

In terms of crime control the towns were in many respects as ungovernable as the countryside. In the previous lecture we noted the various crime panics among the London middle classes during the eighteenth century and the initial moves towards a modern police force. As regards social crime we have already noted that an important elements consisted of London dock workers struggling to defend traditional forms of payment. As regards professional criminal activity; that is, groups that lived solely or mainly from criminal activities we have mentioned the professional poaching gangs active in the countryside and selling their catches to Innkeepers. Meanwhile highwaymen in the rural areas on the periphery of towns robbed the unprotected trade and money passing between urban centres. They escaped capture through sanctuary in rural areas inaccessible to the state authorities except with great difficulty and with their arrival well publicised.

The rookery as sanctuary

The towns, meanwhile, had large ungovernable areas or rookeries which were an urban equivalent of rural inaccessible areas. There had for centuries been communities of thieves who had lived by developing highly skilled routines for taking small amounts from a large number of victims. These traditional thieves were organised as crafts. They existed at least since the 16th century. The growth of towns and commerce obviously encouraged an urban underworld of thieves. The urban thief developed skills - such as those of the pickpocket rather than relying on the simple violence and surprise of the rural bandit. The skill of the urban thief lay in not taking too much - such that people would take increased measures to safeguard their property - but in making a living by taking a small amount from a large number of people. With the expansion of trade and industrialisation goods and money were of course moving in increasing amounts around the city streets just as they were moving between towns. The skill was to move quickly back into the rookeries which functioned as a place to hide, recuperate and to distribute the produce of criminal activity. It was not just thieves who hung out in these areas but a variety of other criminals and appendages of the criminal underworld - the 'fences', or receivers of stolen property, currency forgers and coiners etc. They were there precisely because these areas were relatively secure from the law. They were where the early police were reluctant to go and when they did they went in force.

Kellow Chesney (1972) in his book The Victorian Underworld talks of the old St Giles rookery:

"To venture into the passage mouths that led into the back settlements was risky; to chase a wanted man... could be really dangerous, even for a party of armed police." (1972: 124)

The difficulty of police penetrating the rookeries to take thieves is illustrated in this account of a police raid to arrest a group of coiners in St Giles in 1840. The Metropolitan Police had been founded in 1829 and were by now a major feature of the urban scene. But this example illustrates how precarious was their authority in some of the older areas during their early period

" a result of a tip-off from an informer, an inspector with more than half a dozen officers, all armed and in plain clothes, broke into a house in Carrier Street, one of the narrow thoroughfares through the rookery.... The street was a narrow and disreputable one, but even so one would think that a fairly strong party of determined policemen would have been able to bring their prisoners away without too much difficulty. But during the short time they had been in the house the news had spread and a crowd gathered. The handcuffed criminals were greeted with yells of 'Rescue! Rescue!', stones began to fly, and several of the officers were hit. This possibility had been foreseen and soon a squad of police from another division appeared on the scene and succeeded in joining up with the original party. Then the combined force, with the coiners in the middle, began to struggle out of the rookery, not toward the St Giles Station House which lay a dangerous hundred yards or so to the south but north towards the nearest open space in Bloomsbury Square. They reached the square where a section of the mob made a final rush; but the attack was driven off and its leader, who came on desperately with a knife, was tackled and disarmed by an officer called Restiaux. Some four-wheel cabs were standing by - no doubt by arrangement - and before further trouble could arise the prisoners, which now included the leader of the rescue party, were bundled in and rattled away to a lock-up." (127-8)

read a short article on the old
Clerkenwell rookery in London

The picaresque community of thieves

What sort of thieves were living there, how were they organised? Mary McIntosh (1971)in one of the all time classic accounts of criminal organisation distinguishes four types of criminal organisation: picaresque, craft, project and business. It is worth quoting her at length:

"Briefly, the picaresque organisation, which is typical of pirates and brigands, is a fairly permanent gang under one man's leadership, sometimes with a few supporting officers. Profits are shared among the members according to rank. The craft organisation, typical of people performing skilled but small-scale thefts and confidence tricks, is a small, fairly permanent team, usually of two or three men, each of whom has a specific role to play in the routinised thefts in which the team specialises. It is a team of equals and the profits are shared equally at the end of each day. The project organisation, typical of burglars, robbers, smugglers, or fraudsmen engaged in large scale crimes involving complicated techniques and advance planning, is an ad hoc team of specialists mustered, sometimes by an entrepreneur, for the specific job in hand. Profits are shared on a basis worked out beforehand, through some participants may work for an agreed flat fee. Business organisation, typical of extortionists and suppliers of illegal goods and services who have gained some degree of immunity from legal control, is the largest in scale and most permanent." (1972: 28-9)

These old picaresque criminal gangs were fairly unsophisticated - they could only evade capture by having hideouts in the rookeries where the old police-the Nightwatchmen and Parish Constables-dared not venture. They had not mastered the art of disguise nor the flexibility of the modern professional criminal. Having a permanent gang structure and a leader-a good example is Fagin in Charles Dickens's novel Oliver Twist-meant that they could only survive in areas where they were safe from the authorities.

The new stability 1850-1914

The middle of the nineteenth century marks a watershed in the development of crime and crime control. Up to the mid-century it is reasonably clear that crime rates were rising, and a good part of this was social crime. Engels could therefore see crime as evidence of sentiments of resistance in the working class that would, he conjectured, develop rapidly into revolutionary political consciousness. However, from around the mid 1840's recorded rates for most categories of offences fell steadily until well after the First World War. Crime statistics started to be published in 1810 annually and showed rapidly rising crime down until the 1840s. Towards the end of the 1850s crime began a steady fall.

falling crime

What had changed was that industrial capitalism was now entering a phase of sustained expansion. Britain was the 'workshop of the world.' Britain was far ahead of France, Germany and the United States in becoming the first industrialised nation. The expanding world market was dominated by British products, at first textiles and then a growing variety of manufactured goods. There were of course frequent economic recessions (which Marx aptly termed 'Great Thunderstorms') but overall the expansion of industrialisation and increasing wealth continued.

We need to make sense of a lot of history in a brief space. It is useful therefore to divide what was happening into three broad areas which are of course interconnected

  • the stablisation of the urban working class and the changing relatioship between the working class and crime,

  • the urban changes which weakened the power and organisation of traditional professional crime,

  • the development of the new police and criminal justice agencies and their contribution to the previous two processes

In this discussion we shall focus on the first two, leaving the third for subsequent lectures.

The stabilisation of the working class

The continued expansion of industrial capitalism throughout most of the second half of the century laid the basis for the relative stabilisation of relations between the social classes. The middle class gradually lost its fear of the working class as a whole ('the mob') and started to worry more about the rise of the Socialist movement and the trade unions. Periodically, as in the depression years of the 1880s the older fears of the working class as an unruly criminal mob returned. But it was increasingly seen as a question of the 'pollution' of the respectable working class by the 'residuum' (the very poor, what today would be termed the underclass). It was a temporary theme and by the 1890s "propertied London no longer felt threatened by the possible alliance between the residuum and the respectable working class" (Stedman-Jones 1984: 327).

The bourgeoisie is still, of course, worried about the working class but the fear shifts away from the issue of crime and concentrates on organised working class politics. The concern of the bourgeoisie is increasingly the growing power of the labour movement and the trade unions. The worry is about socialism rather than crime. This concern was of course accurate. The urban working class, in particular the skilled sections or 'aristocracy of labour' was developing a powerful and sophisticated political machine fighting for improved living standards and political advance.

The development of the stable working class community was the result of a number of factors. The expansion of employment and the progressive decasualisation of the labour market led to the reduction of population turnover in working class areas - By 1880's in many areas 80 per cent of working class marriages involved both bride and groom from the same locality (Savage and Miles 1994). Rising living standards meant also a consolidation of family life. The movement of women out of the factories and mines and into the home, consolidated a new family division of labour in the working class which was more similar to that of the middle classes with the notion of man as breadwinner and woman as housewife with the associated character structures of masculinity and femininity, concepts of privacy and male authority in the family. Some of the effects of this on crime: e.g. domestic violence we shall look at later.

Meanwhile, around the family and employment evolved new forms of leisure and entertainment, boys clubs, music halls etc. The result of these new urban institutions was that they both strengthened and solidified working class popular culture, and at the same time took it off the streets into precisely defined locations. A new urban community organisation revolved increasingly around legitimate locations - work, home, pub and entertainment, school - and legitimate times for particular categories of people to be present in each. The use of public space begins to follow predictable patterns - going to or returning from work, school, shopping, determinate places of entertainment and recreation etc., at particular times of the day and in particular areas of the city. The tendency is described by Phil Cohen as

"to move away from the moral economies of street culture, and find in the institutions of public propriety a means, not just of respectability, but of material advancement. For them, involvement in trade unionism and local labour politics has been the great pathway to these twin goals… [labour movement institutions]… not only organised the hitherto unorganised, but helped give them a stake in the new urban order that was taking shape. Unemployed men still gathered at the unofficial labour exchange… but to talk politics or racing results rather than to jeer at passing toffs or spit at the police, as was their regular habit in the 1890's…"(Cohen 1979: 125)

Urban reform

An important part of these developments is the understanding on the part of the more enlightened sections of the middle classes (the bourgeoisie of merchants and manufacturer, bankers and professionals) that the working class is not only a permanent feature of the urban scene but a very necessary one, to be regarded less as a criminal threat and more as a vital source of wealth. The bourgeoisie realised the need for a stable, socialised, working class as a source of labour and hence a minimal concern with the health and stability of that labour force would not be out of order.

This concern emerged gradually out of the earlier fear of the working class as a criminal threat. Patrick Colquhoun argued that his dock workers (see the lecture on social crime) needed 'improvement by police' In this elementary view of things, ideas of criminality, the lack of habituation to regular working hours etc., were rather blurred. There was a diffuse understanding of the need to break down the separateness and autonomy of working class habits and culture and develop one which was more oriented towards hard work and good time keeping. As we shall see in a subsequent lecture the activities of the New Police from the 1830s onwards were as much oriented towards controlling and disciplining the working class as a whole by enforcing new standards of sobriety, as they were towards crime control in the narrow sense. Gradually the concerns of the reformers developed into a more elaborate spectrum of policies including urban reform, public health, primary and secondary education. As the historian Victor Gatrell explains:

"…education, charity, religion, the regulation of leisure and domestic mores, political rhetoric and political adjustment and social imperialism, have [profitably] been shown to have been yoked to the aim of breaking down hitherto segregated working class cultures, to integrate them into the culture of those whom the economic and political system served best. Victorians had no doubt that the best guarantee for the survival of their social order resided in the socialising of the poor rather than in their too candid disciplining."

An important example of such reform was the 1870 Education Act which by providing free elementary school education, removed many juveniles from the streets - and from the position of potential recruits to the criminal labour force - and put them in school while regular work and the structured working day, awaited them in the expanding factories. There was much other social reform which we cannot go into here.

A particularly important aspect of urban reform was the physical alteration of the cities. In London from the 1840s roads began to be widened to accommodate increased traffic. In the latter part of the century the building of suburban railways increased to enable the middle classes (increasingly moving out to the suburbs) to travel to work and to the expanding shopping areas of Oxford Street and the West End. These developments cut great swathes through the old rookeries and criminal areas of London. Only remnants of them remain today. The St. Giles rookery was broken up at the end of the 1840's by road widening and the police raid described above was seen as something of a turning point in the ability of the police to penetrate these hitherto inaccessible areas.

The marginalisation of crime

As the nineteenth century progresses the concern with crime becomes, then, increasingly a concern with marginalised pathological individuals and, to a lesser extent, a new breed of professional criminals. Criminality is no longer to be seen as the defining characteristic of the working class as a whole. Thus

 "The concern of the authorities had shifted, by the 1850's from a fear of crime as part of a general social and political threat to the existing society and its institutions, to a view of crime as a normal problem inherent in industrial society, to be dealt with on a normal day to day basis by preventative, detective and penal measures." (Philips 1977: 284) There are several processes at work

There are several processes at work

The decline of social crime

The increasingly stable skilled and semi-skilled working class communities oriented to consumption and family life, becomes increasingly distanced from the old street economies of urban social crime and cheap goods of dubious origin which, as they say, 'fell off the back of a lorry'. Consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage, and from savings, assimilates the working class to definitions and attitudes to crime shared with the middle classes. The street thief, robbing workers of their pay packets as much as the middle classes of their wallets, or the stalking murderer, preying on the vulnerable of all social classes, becomes the paradigm of the criminal. In these working class communities there is much informal social control of local criminal elements and the problem of working class crime becomes concentrated more and more as the problem of juvenile delinquency: something that kids would grow out of as they got a stable job and raised a family.

In Phil Cohen's (1979) study of Islington the age and sexual composition of those involved in conflicts with the police gradually narrows around the turn of the century. Men, women and children figure in the pre-First World War reports, while by the 1920's and 1930's the accounts increasingly mention the predominance of male youths. This is also reflected in the details of those arrested, the age distribution progressively narrowing over time to the 14 to 18 year old band, with a complement of slightly older, often unemployed youth (Cohen 1979) Youthful delinquency becomes a suitable target for the growing apparatus of welfare and educational intervention with the aim of assisting 'growing out of crime.' By the 1870s an increasing number in court statistics are first offenders. This reflects the new division between a youthful petty crime, and a smaller core of professionals carrying on the traditions of the craft thief but under new circumstances and employing new techniques.

In the poorer sections of the working class much petty theft remained as matter of survival, as in the social crime of the eighteenth century. Only now it had less of a protest element. Adults would turn a blind eye to it as long as it didn't get out of hand. It is worth quoting John Benson again:

"The evidence of working class criminality remains elusive, difficult to interpret and impossible to quantify. Nevertheless some limited generalisation is possible, There seems little doubt that certain forms of popular crime declined in importance between 1850 and 1939. Poaching became less common towards the end of the nineteenth century while prostitution diminished dramatically in the years following the First World War. On the other hand there seems little doubt that other, probably more common forms of popular crime persisted virtually unabated, with scavenging, pilfering and similar activities continuing to provide work and income for a large--though unknown--number of working-class families." (Benson 1989 pp 28-9)

the decline of the rookeries and the 'criminal class'

We have already mentioned urban reconstruction as a potent force in removing the old criminal rookeries. As these old forms of sanctuary disappeared the old gangs of professional criminals were broken up. Of course, 'criminal areas', that is to say areas of the city where large numbers of people are involved in crime, or which are labelled as such by the police, do not disappear. But the professional or modern organised criminals who live there have to develop new techniques to keep the police and law enforcement agencies at bay.

But the old criminal gangs were no match for the new police and their rookeries were gradually being broken up. Evidence suggests, "that the complex criminal hierarchies of the early Victorian city, each with its own specialisms, territories, status systems and underworlds had become obsolete and that nothing comparable had replaced them." (Emsley 1996: 171) Emsley goes on to quote a commentator writing in 1864 on the work of Magistrates Courts:

"There are now no professional highwaymen; there are no professional burglars; there are no localities given over absolutely to the outcasts of society there are now no colonies of thieves who only live by thieving; no burglars or highwaymen who support existence solely by following out their penal trade. The old haunts of vice are broken up, and the old gangs of offenders have either died off or been utterly dispersed. If you see in the papers that 'burglars' have been captured, you will find, on enquiry, the culprits have mostly trades of their own; if a batch of pickpockets is taken, the chances are you will discover they have a 'calling' besides that of picking pockets" (quoted in Emsley 1996: 171)

Go to the  Victorian London website and click
on the button marked Crime to see some
interesting texts from the 19th century on crime
in London

The Emergence Of The Modern Criminal Underworld

So, to sum up:

  • crime rates continue to decline

  • Social crime declines as a working class activity

  • Petty crime become increasingly 'juvenile delinquency' which kids in the poorer sections of the working class will grow out of, rather than apprenticeship to professional crime (as in Oliver Twist)

  • The old gangs of permanent professional thieves living from crime alone, based in the rookeries, are broken up.

But professional crime does not disappear. On the contrary the expanding capitalist economy is producing massive increases in the opportunities for crime (particularly theft and fraud of various types) Although the development of safes and locks make some of the more lucrative opportunities available only the skilled expert rather than the old style thief or pickpocket. Thus a new breed of professional criminal adapts to the new situation and develops new skills. The main developments are:

Disguise replaces sanctuary

In the passage quoted above from Clive Emsley page 171 on decline of professional thieves the most significant point is that "the culprits have mostly trades of their own." That is to say that professional criminals are learning the art of disguise; getting a 'day job' as it were! Increasingly in the modern city, with a professional force of detectives, and few rookeries or 'no-go areas' in which to hide, the criminal has to use disguise, and appear as a normal citizen. The criminal has to 'melt into the crowd'. Hence most will have another, legal, occupation as a 'front'. Some very skilled criminals, as we shall see, were likely to move to the suburbs and live a 'normal life' in a respectable area of the city.

An equally important development is a gradual change in the form of criminal organisation. Large permanent 'picaresque' gangs stick out a mile. They could only survive in the rookeries. The modern professional criminal grouping develops a more flexible organisation in which groups of criminal 'experts' with various skills are assembled for a particular task, share out the proceeds and then split up to avoid discovery and usually 'lie low' for a period. We shall say more about project crime below.

corruption replaces escape

Corrupting, or attempting to corrupt, the police has always been a tactic at the disposal of the skilled craft thief. As the possibility of escape to areas of the city where the police would not follow declines, establishing some type of relationship with the police becomes important. As McIntosh explains:

"It is undoubtedly common…for some policemen making arrests or questioning suspects to accept a bribe in circumstances where there are unlikely to be repercussions. Such circumstances are when the criminal is a known professional who can be trusted not to give the policeman away and when no more than a couple of policemen, and certainly not the victim of the crime, know the criminal should have been charged. So the craft criminal, a reliable professional whose offences are minor and routine enough not to cause much stir among the police, is in an ideal position to pay for his freedom at the time of his arrest." (1971: 115)

The changing nature of the underworld

Thus the criminal 'underworld' begins to replace the rookery. For the modern criminal what is important is no longer a place of sanctuary or escape but a wider series of connections. The underworld, which may work through various pubs and bars in parts of the city, fulfils important functions for the professional criminal:

  • A network of contacts from where skills could be assembled for a particular job. As crime prevention and the security of safes etc. became more developed towards the end of the nineteenth century so 'project crime' begins to take off, in which the crime is planned in advance, and skills appropriate for that particular job need to be assembled.

  • A network through which goods could be 'fenced' This was relatively easy given the tradition of small workshops and costermongers. Pawnbrokers were especially important as fences: they provided vital financial service to working class and were also places where stolen property could be 'laundered'. On the other hand, for really big crimes, or for property that was easily distinguishable - a well known painting for example, a more professional and organised network of fences is required.

  • A source of information from people who do not engage in robbery themselves but like hotel porters, or domestic servants, may be willing to provide tip-offs such as information about the comings and goings of wealthy people etc.

Thus the underworld changes from a place of sanctuary to a network of information and connections to services and skills. Describing London in the 1960s Mary McIntosh wrote:

"Traditional criminal areas in London have declined and, increasingly, criminals live scattered about the various boroughs. The 'underworld' is no longer a residential area in which neighbours work together and children are brought up with a knowledge of crime and with possible criminal contacts. The underworld is now much more of a social network and if it has a geographical location it is in the centre of London and in the pubs and clubs that various sorts of criminals frequent." (1975: 23).


Professional burglary became distinguished from thieving by skill and patience. While burglary is an old craft, it becomes modernised in the sense it comes to rely not simply on brute force, weight of numbers and surprise, but also skill, technology, foresight and planning. While many household burglars would be one up from young pickpockets, more skilled burglars were older. They often moved from town to town, and by the 1870's many lived (in disguise) in the better off suburbs.

This was a further factor weakening a distinct criminal 'underworld'. As police detectives developed their skills, learning that the criminal fraternity itself was the best source of information and the 'coppers nark' became a key figure, many of the more skilled burglars would frequent the underworld as little as possible. A classic case study of such a professional burglar is Charles Peace who was active in the 1870s. McIntosh describes his methods and emphasises the disadvantages facing the professional criminal who distanced himself too far from the criminal networks.

"His innovative tools, now in the Black Museum at Scotland Yard, are famous. Peace always worked single-handed. It was a cardinal principle with him, to work always alone, saying that partners increased risks. His isolation enabled him to be successful in an enormous number of burglaries in wealthy houses in South London, even during two years when he was wanted for a murder he was known to have committed near Sheffield. Peace lived very well, in the guise of a gentleman of independent means. Yet it is doubtful whether he did as well out of his crime as he might have done, for when he was arrested immense quantities of stolen goods were found in various South London houses waiting to be taken piecemeal to pawnshops by woman assistants. So it seems that just as Peace was not part of the underworld occupational community, with all its risks, he was not part of the underworld occupational business community which could have offered him more profitable ways of disposing of his spoils." (1972: 25)

Read some more on Charlie Peace

Article by Heather Shore on History of the Criminal Underworld in Britain


As the amount of money and wealth to be stolen continually increased in the growing industrial city and as crime prevention developed in the form of increased sophistication of safes, locks etc. So professional theft required more advance planning. McIntosh specifies four essential components of project crime as it emerges in the nineteenth century, though, she argues, it is not until the present century that it really takes off.

"First the growth of trade, then the growth of industry and of banking and finally, in Britain, the growth of large-scale industry and commercial enterprise created the conditions for project-thieving to emerge… the various characteristics of project theft emerged gradually in the course of the nineteenth century. A few thieves were doing jobs involving elaborate technology, or advance planning, or the use of information supplied by others or the strategic use of violence to gain their ends. But seldom were all four of these combined and none was practised on a scale large enough to rival craft thieving or to affect the organization of the underworld. It was probably not until the late 1930s that project crime really began to be established in England, and it came to full flower only in the 1950s when the high jacking of lorries, pay-roll robberies, bank robberies and burglaries and smash-and-grab raids became a regular part of the English crime scene." (1971: 122)

the first great train robbery

But undoubtedly a vision of the future was provided in one of the most daring examples of project crime which occurs quite early on, just after mid century, the first Great Train Robbery of 1855. It had all the characteristics of the carefully planned modern robbery. The perpetrators would not have been out of place in any of the gold bullion robberies of modern times, and one feels, could easily have participated in the second Great Train Robbery of 1963.

The plan was to steal 12,000 (an awful lot of money at that time) in gold coin from the London to Paris express. The bullion was packed in sealed iron boxes inside steel safes but so confident were the authorities that it travelled in the ordinary guards van at the rear of the train. The gang spent over a year preparing. They succeeding in corrupting a railway guard, and getting one of their members a job in the Railway company. They obtained duplicates of the safe keys. They were even able to travel in the guards van on a dummy run and try out the keys and file them down until they fitted properly. On the actual heist they substituted lead shot for the bullion so that it was not discovered until opened by the French authorities when the train reached Paris.

The manner in which the robbers were caught is interesting. They were only caught eighteen months later when one of them was arrested for cheque forgery, and his girlfriend, who knew the details, thought the member of the gang who was holding the funds was going to cheat him out of his share and so turned informer.

There is a good Wikipedia website  on the 1855 robbery here and British Transport Police have a good history of it (the call it a "Brilliant Crime' on their website here

Racketeering and criminal business.

The final form of crime which develops towards the end of the nineteenth century is criminal racketeering, crime organised as a business. This is the fourth of McIntosh's types of criminal organisation. Racketeering is more organized than project crime, or other forms of theft because its activities - extortion (protection rackets), the supply of illegal goods and services etc., are continuous over time. The organisation takes a syndicate or business form and is generally known by the term 'organised crime'. It developed in London and British cities on the basis of two aspects of modern mass consumption economy which was in place by the end of the nineteenth century:

  • The expansion of forms of collective working class and lower middle class leisure - gaming etc. Thus the first form of activity in which organised crime protection rackets really develop are on the race courses in the period after the First World War.

  • Traditional vice and the demands for illegal services - prostitution is not new by any means, but it is joined by the expansion of gambling, recreational drugs etc.,


With criminal racketeering we have finally moved full circle from the organised criminal gangs of poachers and smugglers or urban thieves of the eighteenth century. As urban industrial society developed so the old gangs, who relied very much on sanctuary for their security survival broke up. In the context of overall decline in crime rates theft tended to differentiate into petty theft which used a minimal of skill and was essentially amateur, and a skilled professional theft which relied on skill, disguise and the mastery of technology for its success. Professional project crime becomes more organised though focussed on a particular robbery or 'job' after which the organisation broke up. With the development of criminal racketeering or 'organised crime' proper, we see a new form of criminal business organisation suited to survival in the modern mass consumption economy.


Chesney, K. (1972), The Victorian Underworld: A Fascinating Recreation, Penguin Books.
Cohen, P. (1979) 'Policing the Working Class City' in Fine, B. et al. eds. Capitalism and the Rule of Law. London: Hutchinson.
Emsley, C. (1996) Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (second edition). Longman.
Evans, E. (2001) The Forging of the Modern State: Early Industrial Britain, 1783-1870 by (3rd edition) London: Longman Pearson
McIntosh, M. (1971), 'Changes in the Organization of Thieving' in Cohen S. ed. Images of Deviance, Penguin Books.
McIntosh, M. (1975), The Organisation of Crime, Macmillan
Philips D. (1977) Crime and Authority in Victorian England: The Black Country 1836-60. London: Croom Helm
Stedman-Jones, G. (1984) Outcast London. Penguin Books