London's criminal underworlds unveiled in new book
Dr Heather Shore, a reader in History at the University, has produced an original and compelling account of the concept of the criminal underworld from the early 18th century to early 20th century in her new book: London's Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720 - c. 1930 A Social and Cultural History.
By drawing on information such as court records, depositions, census records, prison records, maps, and police archives, Dr Shore has reconstructed the experiences of plebeian and working-class Londoners who encountered the criminal justice system as offenders, victims and witnesses.
The core of the book consists of three detailed reconstructions of historical criminals who had significant interactions with the criminal justice system during their lives.
Dr Shore explained: “In May 1827, William Sheen came to the attention of the authorities, when he was tried for the murder of his infant son at the Old Bailey. Through an extraordinary legal loophole, Sheen was acquitted of the murder. From this point he makes frequent appearances at the Old Bailey and other metropolitan courtrooms, as the accused, witness and victim. This chapter traces Sheen and his immediate family (and particularly his venal mother, Ann Sheen), chronicling their interactions with the criminal justice system over two decades of the 19th century. Their criminal behavior was clearly as offensive and troubling to some neighbours in their immediate community, as it was to the forces of law and order.”
This chapter, along with chapters on two other family groups – Mary Harvey and her sister, Isabella Eaton, and the Sabini brothers consider the lives of criminals who had become ‘notorious’ in their broader familial and community settings.
These case studies are complimented by accounts of Dr Shore’s research, focusing on themes including robbery, pickpocketing, swindling, street crime, youth gangs and gangsters.
Dr Shore added: “One chapter explores the world of street robbers and hustlers in the early 19th century. The focus of the research for this chapter is on a group of crimes described by victims, police and other contemporaries as ‘hustling’. This usually referred to the experience of being robbed by a large group of young men, or youths, who ‘surrounded’ their victim and ‘hustled’ them.
“In the years after the end of the French Wars in 1815, there were frequent newspaper reports of ‘hustling’ amongst the crowds and onlookers who joined demonstrations and processions in the metropolis. In this chapter, I particularly focus on the changing definition of robbery and consider how print culture and crime reporting could shape popular fears about such crime. The hustler seemed to embody elements of the traditional street robber combined with the perceived characteristics of the pickpocket. By the mid-19th century, concerns about hustling forms of robbery were increasingly giving way to a new type of robber: the swell-mobs man. According to contemporary accounts, this was a robber who could emulate the respectable, was fashionably dressed, and targeted the public spaces in which polite and plebeian society mixed.
“The book charts a number of themes over time: the changing nature of print culture, issues of urban territory and spatiality, the public nature of certain crimes and criminals; and the overlapping networks that characterised criminal lives. The aim of my book was both to explore the ‘criminal underworld’ as both a social and cultural concept; and to consider the evolving story of the underworld in print culture, in the courtroom and through the words and statements of law enforcers and other contemporary commentators.”
Dr Heather Shore is the author of Artful Dodgers: Youth and Crime in Early Nineteenth Century London (1999) and co-editor of two books: with Pamela Cox - Becoming Delinquent: British and European Youth, 1650–1950 (2002), and with Tim Hitchcock - The Streets of London: From the Great Fire to the Great Exhibition (2003).