Researching “the Fear of Crime”

by Prof. Bob Shoemaker, University of Sheffield

Despite the recent long-term decline in crime levels in most Western countries, crime is still an emotive issue. It seems that fears of crime are disconnected from the threats people actually experience. This disjunction has a long history, but it is a subject that proved challenging to examine in the research which led to my article, ‘Worrying about crime: Experience, moral panics, and public opinion in London, 1660-1800’.

Owing to the explosion of printed literature which followed the expiration of press licensing in England in 1695, the eighteenth century witnessed major changes in the way people learned about crime, with potentially important repercussions. A significant portion of printed literature was about crime, and historians have argued that negative representations of the threats posed by violence and crime shaped public attitudes by promoting fear, which forced the government to adopt significant new measures such as improvements to the night watch, the expansion of capital statutes (the so-called ‘Bloody Code’), and the introduction of new punishments including transportation and a greater use of imprisonment. In particular, it is thought that waves of fear about crime occurred at specific times, such as the conclusions of wars when large numbers of soldiers were demobilised, which caused ‘moral panics’.

But the evidence does not support these arguments. Few changes to judicial and penal practices actually occurred in response to specific ‘panics’. This may not be surprising given the limited impact public opinion had on policymaking at this time, but it is also possible that fears of crime were not as pervasive as historians have assumed. To address this question, it is necessary to study what people actually thought about crime. To do this, the usual sources historians consult (judicial records, trial reports, and other printed representations) were not helpful.

I turned instead to diaries and correspondence, which were becoming increasing popular in the early modern period, owing to increased literacy, the Calvinist practice of spiritual introspection, and the growth of the postal service. By the eighteenth century, diaries were increasingly focused on secular issues; this is the first century when it is possible to use these sources to study everyday lives. Diaries are nonetheless hard to find, as they are scattered across numerous archives, but fortunately a very useful ‘checklist’ of London diaries has been produced. In investigating these, it quickly became clear that not all diaries are equally useful; some are solely concerned with spiritual issues, while others restricted themselves to recording the weather, or financial transactions. I looked for diaries which were sufficiently wide ranging and detailed that if the diarist or a member of his or her immediate circle had experienced a crime, or had read a significant work about crime, they would have recorded it. This required making some difficult judgement calls, and is not ideal given the fact that even the most detailed diaries don’t provide direct access to the experiences and attitudes of their creators, but there is no better evidence available.

For the period between 1690 and 1800 I uncovered eleven diaries, plus one significant collection of correspondence (that of Horace Walpole) which met these criteria, covering a cumulative total of 216.7 person years. I then analysed these diaries to find out how often diarists, or their family and friends, experienced crimes, and locate evidence of what they read about crime and what they thought about it.

The results were surprising. Experiences of crime were relatively rare, amounting on average to only one crime every three years, and most of these crimes were assaults and non-violent property crimes, such as thefts by servants. Of course, experiences varied, but the vast majority of these writers experienced very few crimes indeed. And while the number of reported crimes went up during periods of moral panic, they were still low (for serious crimes, less than one crime per person every five years). In concluding that these Londoners, and by extension Londoners as a whole, experienced low levels of crime, I am of course arguing from silence. This is always problematic, though if diarists experienced crimes which they did not report that is also significant, and there is no counter-evidence to prove otherwise; levels of prosecuted crime per capita in eighteenth-century London were even lower.

This conclusion has important implications. People did not learn about crime from their own experiences, but rather, as the diaries indicate, from what they read about crime (oral information from acquaintances was also important, but often that too was based on print). The diaries indicate that Londoners read works from a wide variety of genres, including newspapers, trial reports, biographies, polemical works, and ballads. If we look at these texts, we can see that while some presented a very negative picture of crime, others (most notably John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera [1728], the most commonly cited work by the diarists) presented criminals in a more sympathetic light.

Through print, Londoners were exposed to a very wide range of ways of thinking about crime. We also need to recognise, as reader reception theory tells us, that they did not always believe what they read: as the diary evidence confirms, readers were often sceptical. The diaries also show that when their authors found themselves in a position where they were inclined to be fearful of crime, they actually critiqued their own fears. Even during the apparent crime wave of the early 1750s, when Henry Fielding published his famous Enquiry into the Late Increase in Robbers (1751), other printed sources, and diarists, adopted a more sceptical approach. This is one of the reasons why Londoners, including Walpole, were so unwilling to prosecute crimes when they experienced or witnessed them.

The fear of crime was not unanimous, even during moral panics. This conclusion demonstrates that historians should be wary of drawing conclusions about public opinion from the most high profile and strident publications available, and that they need to be more imaginative in their use of source materials to understand what people were actually thinking. We should be wary of making assumptions that everyone shared the same point of view, even during ‘moral panics’. There are some lessons here for those attempting to gauge the state of public opinion about crime today.

William Hogarth the beggar's opera

William Hogarth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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