- Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: The Police and the Public by David Churchill, and: Crime, Violence, and the Irish in the Nineteenth Century ed. by Kyle Hughes and Donald M. MacRaild
The volumes reviewed here testify to the enduring impact of E. P. Thompson, Douglas Hay, Bruce Lenman, V. A. C. Gatrell, and other social historians of crime whose pioneering scholarship explored plebeian experiences of, and resistance to, the centralization of the state’s law-and-order institutions between the late-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries. Their work modeled ways of reading against the grain of official sources to recover alternative histories, and collectively they poured the foundation for the accepted narrative of British criminal justice history: that, by mid-Victorian times, political economy had triumphed over moral economy and the professionalized policeman state had overtaken older forms of crime control.
Not so fast, says David Churchill, who, in Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City: The Police and the Public, rejects this “state monopolization thesis” and asks us to consider a longer timeline for the modernization of British criminal justice (3). Focusing on relations between police and public in Victorian Manchester, Leeds, and Liverpool, Churchill proposes instead that Victorian criminal justice resembled a “mixed economy” that empowered citizens to prevent property crime (241). Indeed, Churchill sees more continuity than change from the eighteenth century through the nineteenth. Far from being sidelined by the professional police, ordinary people continued to do much of the work of the criminal justice system: they discovered and reported crimes, confronted and apprehended wrongdoers, recovered stolen property, and concluded private, out-of-court settlements with offenders. Such popular initiative was vital, according to Churchill, to compensate for the deficiencies of the new blue-coated Bobbies. Dogged by poor recruitment and underfunding, professional police wielded little preventive impact on crime and resembled instead the old night-watch, acting as “generalists” who maintained urban order through such tedious tasks as curbing children’s games and street-corner gambling, shooing away beggars and street sellers, and removing orange peels from pavements (60). [End Page 683]
Churchill succeeds in showing the unevenness of the Victorian state’s grip on crime control, and his impressive research in provincial archives provides welcome attention beyond London. But his micro-level evidence of everyday crime-fighting is insufficient to displace the consensus narrative about the centralization of state power over criminal justice: if judge, jailer, and constable did not quite monopolize the market, they were certainly the dominant firms. What truly blunts his analysis, though, is his view of the criminal justice system through the lens of the corporate, market-driven language of contemporary social science. Churchill’s method to “re-forge dialogue between history and criminology” misfires (7). Instead of dialogue, he makes nineteenth-century facts fit twenty-first-century jargon. For example, what Churchill calls a “‘preventative mentality’—a cautionary, consequentialist approach towards the security of one’s belongings” (138) that “sought to ‘responsibilize’ the civilian public in the governance of crime” simply meant that people locked up their belongings (144). Such abstractions wash out the finer details that a true social history would reveal. One wonders whether what he calls the “vernacular culture of criminal justice” was nothing more than locking one’s doors, securing one’s purse, and yelling, “Stop thief!” (258).
The book is not, as Churchill claims, a “social history of the response to crime in the Victorian city.” His characters are one-dimensional and his categories of the social and the public are undifferentiated masses, a “largely anonymous multitude,” in his own words (257). For instance, Churchill notes in passing that police considered Irish immigrant quarters to be rough areas, but he makes no attempt to analyze how the Irish community in Britain related...