- Hooligans, Harlots and Hangmen: Crime and Punishment in Victorian Britain
David Taylor’s Hooligans, Harlots and Hangmen joins several recent books offering overviews of crime historiography. This trend is welcome, as crime and justice history has become very active indeed, generating not only a broad range of empirical findings but also important conceptual debates related to crime and historians’ ability (or lack thereof) to accurately reconstruct its historical reality and meanings. Taylor’s book is the first volume in a new series, “A Criminal History of Britain,” which appears aimed at offering serious academic syntheses of different periods while remaining accessible to a broad readership. While it is too early to judge the series as a whole, Taylor certainly ensures it an excellent start.
He has certainly taken on a challenge, as the nineteenth century is probably the most intensively researched era in the historiography of crime. Furthermore, the period from the Napoleonic Wars to the start of the First World War (despite the book’s title, Taylor also considers the Edwardian period) witnessed a complex mix of change and continuity that is difficult to summarize. Taylor has organized the book in sections focusing on patterns in crime (and the problematic issue of their historical reproduction), contemporary explanations of criminal behavior, the evolution of the main criminal justice institutions (the police and court system) and developments in punishment (especially the limitation—though not elimination—of the death penalty and the increasing centrality of imprisonment as a means of dealing with convicted offenders).
Taylor offers some clear conclusions: violence, overall, became less widespread and its legitimacy narrowed across Victoria’s reign; additionally, “property became less insecure” (49). However, the partial nature of even well-established historical trends (though declining, for example, violence remained common in many contexts) and the ever-present tensions—political, ideological, social, economic and cultural—that shaped crime and the justice system (such as the contentious balance between punitive and reformatory principles in Britain’s growing prison system) are never ignored. In explaining the partial retreat of the death penalty, Taylor relies upon a wide range of arguments, such as changing sensitivities and elite concerns about spectators’ reactions; however, he also emphasizes the “simple pragmatism” that derived from an awareness of capital punishment’s ineffectiveness as a deterrent and of the limits to the number of people who could be hanged without undermining the legitimacy of the justice system (153). [End Page 310]
Taylor wears his obvious erudition lightly, avoiding jargon or overly theoretical formulations without diluting the essential meanings of the perspectives he discusses. He offers insightful, even almost aphoristic, comments on several topics. “The term criminal justice system,” he observes from the outset, “is convenient shorthand for a series of institutions and organizations that had emerged at different times, for different reasons, and that did not necessarily mesh comfortably” (2). Effective policing, he notes, “depended upon carrying off a number of confidence tricks”: “Acceptance of the police depended upon a belief that the police were (by and large) irresistible, impartial, and effective” (140). He often links his historical materials to present issues, making the relevance of historical studies to current problems apparent without giving the reader the feeling that the analysis of the past is being yoked to political point-scoring in the present. As is made clear throughout, there are few easy answers to the problems of crime and punishment; however, it is equally obvious that policymaking would benefit from a greater awareness of the history of the criminal justice system.
Most of the stories told here—whether the social marginalization of violence, the interconnections among economic change, traditional customs and property crime or the rise of the police and imprisonment—have been told before by historians of crime, including by Taylor himself. However, even sections on well-worn topics skillfully combine an awareness of recent contributions to crime historiography with a thorough knowledge of the classics of the field. In a few areas, Taylor manages to strike distinctive geographical and topical accents. In particular, he has clearly striven...