Dark secrets of the Victorian Underworld: did hardened criminals stalk Britain’s cities?

In the eyes of many Victorians, Britain's great metropolises had a dark side – and it was one in which burglars, swindlers, pickpockets and safe-crackers ran riot. But did the stereotype of the 'criminal underclass' tally with the truth? Heather Shore investigates

Rogues' gallery: Images of criminals incarcerated in prisons including Wormwood Scrubs and Newcastle City Gaol, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Their crimes included stealing clothes, money, boots, and leather. Recent research into Victorian mugshot books – and increasing digital access to court and prison records – offers a different picture of Victorian criminality to the one painted by writers such as Charles Dickens, argues Heather Shore. (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

“London’s great underworld to many may be an undiscovered country,” wrote the police-court missionary Thomas Holmes in 1912. “Twenty-five years of my life have been spent amongst its inhabitants, and their lives and circumstances have been my deep concern. Sad and weary many of those years have been, but always full of absorbing interest.”

Thomas Holmes had spent decades working among London’s urban poor, and he clearly regarded them as objects of pity. But for Holmes – and many other Victorian commentators – to visit London’s ‘underworld’ was to take a journey into a parallel universe, distinct from the one occupied by the normal, law-abiding population. This “undiscovered country” or “great underworld”, as Holmes called it, was the realm of the professional criminal, where burglars and swindlers plied their trade and pickpockets held sway. This was certainly not a place to which most respectable Victorians dared venture.

“London’s great underworld to many may be an undiscovered country,” wrote the police-court missionary Thomas Holmes in 1912. “Twenty-five years of my life have been spent amongst its inhabitants, and their lives and circumstances have been my deep concern. Sad and weary many of those years have been, but always full of absorbing interest.”

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Thomas Holmes had spent decades working among London’s urban poor, and he clearly regarded them as objects of pity. But for Holmes – and many other Victorian commentators – to visit London’s ‘underworld’ was to take a journey into a parallel universe, distinct from the one occupied by the normal, law-abiding population. This “undiscovered country” or “great underworld”, as Holmes called it, was the realm of the professional criminal, where burglars and swindlers plied their trade and pickpockets held sway. This was certainly not a place to which most respectable Victorians dared venture.

The Victorians were far from the first to survey Britain’s criminal underworld, to describe the underbelly of the metropolitan poor. Long before Thomas Holmes immersed himself in some of London’s most deprived districts, pamphlets and broadsides had offered unsuspecting visitors advice on how to avoid the capital’s “idle and disorderly persons”, “sturdy beggars” and “notorious street-robbers”. The first half of the 19th century saw an explosion in literature dedicated to exploring street-life and poverty, and this literature abounded with references to the dives, sinks and dens apparently inhabited by hardened criminals.

It may have been the influence of a translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy, by the American poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1867, that led to contemporaries drawing parallels between the underbelly of Victorian society and Dante’s journey through hell into the underworld. Certainly, within a year or so of Longfellow’s translation, the term ‘underworld’ was increasingly being used to refer to the poorest districts of global cities such as Paris, Calcutta and Tokyo. In Britain, in growing urban centres like Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool, Glasgow and London, it would become a familiar way of describing the criminal worlds that were believed to exist in parallel with the upper-world.

Journalists, novelists and social missionaries made little attempt to differentiate between poverty and crime, and they often assumed criminality based solely on the way people dressed, the areas in which they lived and the condition of their homes. The result was that overcrowded houses of London’s poor were routinely branded as ‘nurseries of crime’.

And when members of the Victorian commentariat described the underworld, they often had specific districts in mind – places like Saffron Hill and Field Lane (home to Fagin’s ‘den’ in the fictional Oliver Twist), Whitechapel and the St Giles slum. Unsurprisingly, these were areas often associated with manufacturing and industrial development, high levels of population mobility, overcrowding, sub-standard housing and a proliferation of lodging-houses.

A company of thieves

Social investigation (as it is collectively known) from this period, published as books and articles, frequently took the form of ‘journeys’ into an unknown and dangerous London, providing glimpses into a world that was fundamentally alien to middle and upper-class readers.

In this respect, Charles Dickens’ journalism had a significant impact. In ‘On Duty With Inspector Field’ (1851), Dickens described an expedition into a thieves’ den in St Giles, just south of modern-day New Oxford Street – a journey that he undertook in the safekeeping of the Metropolitan Police detective Charles Field. “Saint Giles’s church strikes half-past ten,” Dickens wrote of his encounter with the den. “We stoop low, and creep down a precipitous flight of steps into a dark close cellar. There is a fire. There is a long deal table. There are benches. The cellar is full of company, chiefly very young men in various conditions of dirt and raggedness. Some are eating supper. There are no girls or women present. Welcome to Rats’ Castle, gentlemen, and to this company of noted thieves!”

The subterranean environment of the thieves’ den, Rats’ Castle, would help shape the metaphorical imagining of the underworld and can be detected in much of the writing of this period. On 22 October 1869, the Pall Mall Gazette reported the case of Ann Gilligan, who was summoned to the Thames Police Court for permitting thieves to assemble in her house. “It was proved that her house was a notorious thieves’ den, that she lived with a well-known thief, and that she herself had been frequently convicted,” the paper recorded.

Journalists often went on 'journeys' into an unknown and dangerous London, providing glimpses of a world that was alien to their readers

As such reports reveal, the image of the hardened, professional thief now loomed larger than ever in descriptions of the underworld. According to this view, the thief – also labelled the sneak-thief, the burglar, the swindler and the safe-cracker – was the product of a distinct ‘criminal class’. And this criminal class was every bit as alien to respectable Victorians as the ‘criminal underworld’ that it inhabited; it existed with its own customs, its own language, and specific areas in which it operated.

The exotic criminal

Over the second half of the 19th century, accounts of the ‘criminal class’ would describe a new breed of offender in its ranks, hailing from overseas. “Herds of criminal foreigners… have settled in certain districts of London,” lamented Reynolds’ Newspaper in 1898, “which they have succeeded in transforming into an Alsatia where every form of vice and blackguardism flourishes.”

Scare stories involving foreign criminals were inspired by old-fashioned xenophobia and concerns about the periodic waves of immigration that had brought new communities into some parts of London and other British cities. But fears of an exotic new threat to law and order were also triggered by the growth of modern technologies like the railway and ever more complex financial instruments. These resulted in a wave of crimes involving everything from safe-cracking and bullion robberies from banks, large houses and trains to financial swindles and frauds. One of the most noteworthy of these crimes was the Great Gold Robbery of 1855, in which £12,000 was stolen from a train bound from London to Boulogne in France. In the popular imagination, the perpetrators of such crimes were often seen to have international connections, involving criminals with foreign-sounding names.

In popular perception, the criminal class had its own customs, its own language, and specific areas in which it operated

By the 1860s, the fear of rampant criminality – whether committed by home-grown or foreign miscreants – had become so pervasive that it had begun to shape the criminal justice system. In 1869, the government passed the Habitual Criminals Act, which stated that any offender on a ticket-of-leave (an early parole system) could be summoned before a magistrate, and, if they could not prove that they were making an honest living, they could be sent back to prison. While the act was in part a response to the decline of convict transportation to Australia, it was also influenced by the desire for increasing surveillance of potential criminals and poor communities.

The real underworld

In truth, however, there is little similarity between the mythologised criminal underworld and the individual stories of criminal activity that we can now discover from mugshot books and from our increasing digital access to court and prison records, and to newspapers. These indicate that the underworld that so fascinated and appalled polite society was not a domain dominated by professional, hardened criminals but one blighted by petty crimes and random disorder – committed by people for whom crushing poverty and lack of opportunity was often a way of life.

In fact, if we’re searching for the real face of the so-called Victorian underworld, then we should perhaps look to the likes of Lydia Lloyd, whose story can be found at the Digital Panopticon website. Lloyd was first prosecuted for using obscene language in public when she was aged around 16 in 1858. She faced multiple convictions over the following years – for theft, being drunk and disorderly, and receiving stolen goods. Her life was characterised by a cycle of offending, in and out of the courtroom and the prison.

Most crimes weren't committed by professional criminals but by people afflicted by crushing poverty and lack of opportunity

Many of the convicted criminals in the Victorian mugshots available to us today in archives and museums lived lives far more redolent of Lydia Lloyd than Charles Dickens’ master criminal Fagin. That was certainly the case for 18-year-old Mary Bailey, who in 1840 was indicted for pinching a woman’s purse in a butcher’s shop. The Old Bailey’s records tell us that Bailey denied all knowledge of her crime and cited her eight-week-old child in her defence. That wasn’t enough to prevent her from being transported for 10 years.

A similar fate awaited Elizabeth Jones, a “nurse girl” from St Pancras, who in 1842 was convicted of stealing a shawl, a bonnet and some money from her employer. Jones was just 15 years old when she went before the judge for her crimes, but her youthfulness wasn’t enough to elicit pity from him. According to the Digital Panopticon website, Jones was sentenced to seven years’ transportation to Australia, where she lived out her life, dying at the age of 77.

The Victorian underworld is hard to pin down. As the examples on page 24 prove, repeat offenders undoubtedly existed but they were far from the norm. The rich seam of literature and journalism that described the seedy, criminal underbelly of the city, lurking alongside respectable society, was just that – a literary construction. And it spoke to the growing fears about urban society and social change in the Victorian era.

Heather Shore is professor in history at Leeds Beckett University. She is the author of London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720 to c. 1930: A Social & Cultural History (2015) and co-investigator on the project: https://ourcriminalancestors.org


Criminal sensations of the Victorian era

Fears that Britain’s great cities were blighted by rampant lawlessness were stoked by high-profile villains

The one-man crimewave

Charles Frederick Peace (1832–79) was a Sheffield burglar whose escapades included the fatal shooting of a policeman in Manchester (two local villains were arrested for the crime: one was convicted and sentenced to death), the shooting of an acquaintance in 1876, and a series of burglaries in London.

Peace’s one-man crimewave made him one of the most infamous offenders of the century. “It certainly is marvellous to find how many London people know about Peace,” declared the Illustrated Police News in 1878. “Never before has any country scamp jumped so suddenly and completely into metropolitan conversation.”

Peace was arrested in Blackheath during a burglary and tried at the Old Bailey. On being taken to Sheffield to be tried for murder, he attempted escape by jumping from the train. He was executed at Armley Gaol in 1879.

The press sensation

Ikey Solomon (c1787–1850) was a London-based thief and receiver of stolen goods. His first brush with celebrity came when he escaped from custody in 1827. He went on the run, making his way to Van Diemen’s Land to where his wife Ann had been transported. Solomon was the subject of a legal battle that ended with his being shipped back to England to stand trial in 1830 in a case that made him a press sensation. He is often cited as the model for Charles Dickens’ Fagin. However, this has been largely discredited.

The inveterate forger

James Townsend Saward (born 1799) – also known as ‘Jim the Penman’ – was a barrister who played a key role in the Great Gold Robbery of 1855. Saward’s signature crime was forgery; he specialised in signing blank cheques which he bought from pickpockets and thieves. He also copied signatures on used cheques. He was caught when banks became suspicious about his activities and he made a series of mistakes that resulted in the arrest of his accomplices. He was sentenced to be transported to Australia in March 1857.

A criminal of ill-repute

William Sheen (c1800–51) was a notorious offender who lived on the borders of Whitechapel and Spitalfields in the early 19th century. He originally came to the attention of the authorities when he was prosecuted, but later acquitted, for the murder of his baby son in 1827. He was imprisoned in Clerkenwell Gaol in 1837 when he was found running a house of ill-repute, where “the boys were encouraged in picking pockets and the wretched girls were made victims of the greatest depravity”.

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This article was first published in the March 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine