- Crime Histories
In 1986 Joanna Innes and John Styles used the phrase "crime wave" to indicate a remarkable recent upsurge in historical studies of crime ("The Crime Wave: Recent Writing on Crime and Criminal Justice in Eighteenth-Century England," Journal of British Studies 25 , 380–435). The wave shows no signs of receding. Crime history has for some been a way of attacking power and privilege: in 1975 a group of radical historians including E. P. Thompson, Douglas Hay, and [End Page 166] Peter Linebaugh produced Albion's Fatal Tree, a contentiously political re-reading of the dispensation of justice in eighteenth-century Britain. In the same year the general view of eighteenth-century criminal history as a gradual "movement for reform," a supposedly humanitarian drive away from corporal punishments such as the pillory and toward the reformatory process of incarceration and solitary confinement, was searchingly challenged by Michel Foucault's Surveiller et Punir, an analysis of the "birth of the prison" as a new, "scientific" means of dispersing and internalizing social power and control. Others, less openly political, have used criminal history as a means of writing history "from below." Despite inevitable losses, omissions, gaps, and silences, crime has generated large and generally systematic archival evidence; transgression has made visible the lives of hundreds of thousands of individuals who would otherwise have come and gone like the villagers of Gray's Elegy, without breaking the surface of the historical record. Records of assizes, quarter-sessions, and the Old Bailey Sessions Papers (now available online) have proved a highly exploitable resource.
Peter King's Crime and Law in England, 1750–1840 comes from this latter strand of the historiography of crime. Using an impeccable range of indictment and sentencing records, King seeks out the real statistical patterns that underlie and sometimes challenge commonsense assumptions (both modern and contemporary) about criminal behavior. Number-crunching has been one of the historian's key weapons against easy generalizations, and King makes very full use of tables and graphs (over eighty of them) to illustrate his arguments. In the majority of ten chapters, individual criminals scarcely feature: this is a book about big patterns and shifts, spread over decades. He is too sophisticated a user of statistics, however, to assume that numerical patterns are the end of the matter. Aside from obvious historiographical problems (gaps in the records, a sometimes frustrating paucity of actual information, the difficulty of comparing like with like between regions and across centuries), King is concerned, once patterns of activity are established, to assess the more speculative and qualitative areas of what drives shifts in behavior, particularly in the collective and public arena of the court. In that respect he nicely balances a sense of the demonstrably typical with an imaginative sense of the kinds of power—conceived of less as a state monolith and more as a sometimes contradictory set of drives and balances—that impinged upon daily living in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
King's book is in four parts. The first presents three chapters on the advent of "juvenile delinquency" as a specific target of anxiety from ca. 1780 to 1830. Using gaol calendars from eleven English counties, King charts the proportions of property offenders aged nineteen and under across the period, finding that there was in some (especially urban) regions a pronounced shift away from dealing with youthful offenders by quiet summary measures and toward full adult-type indictments. Assize records appear to indicate that the defense of "doli incapax" for certain categories of age had been largely eroded and that many more children were being found guilty in the 1820s than in the 1790s. On the other hand, offenders under fourteen were virtually certain to escape hanging, even if...