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.

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