Most crime is committed by young men or boys and involves petty theft and very rarely violence. The media generally acknowledges the former but it is violence that sells and excites. In the 30 years or so that historians have taken research into crime seriously there has been a considerable amount published in this area, yet it seems to have had little impact on the popular understanding, and on popular fear of crime.
Geoffrey Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears (Macmillan, 1983) worked backwards from the pre-hoodies 1980s to show how generation after generation looked back to a rosy past when gangs of violent youths were not seen as terrorising the streets.
Andrew Davies’s The Gangs of Manchester (Milo Books, 2008) describes the ferocious gangs that fought over territory in the rougher parts of the city during the generation before the First World War. Sometimes hundreds fought; the weapon of choice was the brass buckled belt, but steel-tipped clogs, and knives too were frequently used.
Violence was a way for an unskilled working-class man to acquire and maintain a reputation. John Carter Wood’s Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement (Routledge, 2004) charts the way in which, as respectable society began to stigmatise it, inter-personal violence became seen as a problem among the rough working class. Increasingly from the 18th century a gentleman’s reputation depended on his good works, respectability and probity rather than his physical prowess.
The way in which the Victorian courts sought to stigmatise violence, sometimes in the teeth of sections of the population, is explored in Martin Wiener’s Men of Blood: Violence, Manliness, and Criminal Justice in Victorian England (Cambridge UP, 2004). Some juries reasoned: if a man’s wife was a drunk, or did not have his dinner on the table when he came home from work, then why shouldn’t he chastise her?
Murder has often been taken as a benchmark for the violence within a society. Carolyn Conley’s Certain Other Countries: Homicide, Gender and National Identity in Late Nineteenth-Century England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales (Ohio State UP, 2007) is novel for unpicking Victorian Britain and revealing how the different constituent parts regarded and punished various manifestations of the offence – often quite differently.
Clive Emsley’s latest book is The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (Quercus, 2009)