Zoe Alker and Lucy Williams
This chapter provides information about how to use primary sources when writing histories of Victorian crime. Crime history is the historical investigation of crime, criminals, policing, and punishment. A field in its own right, the subject is nestled between the disciplines of history and criminology. Traditionally situated within the canon of social and economic history, the study of Victorian crime exposes wider social issues including gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality.
Students of crime history have a wealth of primary sources that they can explore including newspapers, statistics, trials, legislation, and even ballads and gallows confessions. This chapter focuses specifically on source material from the nineteenth century. Crime history is dominated by this period, largely due to the wealth of material produced as a result of industrialisation and the increased centralisation of justice. This chapter draws upon evidence from England and Wales in particular. It is important to note, however, that global histories of crime and punishment are emerging through projects such as the Digital Panopticon.
This chapter examines three different sources commonly used by crime historians: a newspaper account, a transcript from a court trial, and a Select Committee Report regarding a legal bill. These sources feature widely in histories of crime, and contain evidence of the ways in which vulnerable social groups, including women and the poor, were marginalised by the criminal justice system. However, the examples shown here do not tell the full story. Students should develop their research skills and piece together crime history through a combination of primary sources always underpinned by wider historiographical research.
The social, cultural, and economic study of crime and criminal justice is part of a ‘grass roots’ approach to include narratives and events concerning ordinary (non-elite) men and women into history. Since the first histories of crime several decades ago, historians have used crime, William Meier suggests, as a ‘nexus for issues of identity, deprivation, rights, justice, and power’ (Meier, 2011, p.12). Researchers in this field often have the opportunity to consider crime in relation to issues of gender, race, age, and ethnicity. Such studies might focus on particular people and events, or stretch across vast areas and long periods of time.
Crime historians are able to draw on large amounts of diverse source material from the early modern period well into the twentieth century. In particular, the nineteenth century has left us with a great number of rich and varied sources, which allow us to explore all manner of historical and criminological questions about the processes and pattern of crime and the development of the law. This section gives a sense of a few key questions and approaches that have dominated crime history scholarship.
Most crime history fits into one of two broad categories. Firstly, there are those studies that rely predominantly on quantitative methods, for example using sources that record the number of convictions for a certain type of crime. This kind of work can produce ‘big picture’ histories of the trends in crime and criminal justice covering large periods or geographic areas. Such studies usually compile particular kinds of material in order to answer a specific set of questions. Secondly, there are studies that draw mostly from qualitative evidence such as case studies, oral histories, diaries, and newspapers. Qualitative research produces narrative-rich histories of a particular time or place, a kind of offence, or a small subset of individuals. Works of this nature tend to be in-depth, small-scale studies aiming to provide a more holistic history of certain people or events.
Criminal statistics have proved an invaluable resource to historians for measuring long-term trends in crime and criminal justice. They are also useful in investigating how the elite and powerful measured and conceptualized crime (Morris, 2001; Walliss, 2012). Yet, as a key facet of social and cultural history, crime history has, from its earliest inception to the present day, returned time and again to examine issues beyond the remit of statistics alone. Qualitative histories of crime investigate a broad range of issues. Some, for example, have charted attitudes towards crime and those who commit it by exploring the relationship between crime and the popular press (Pearson, 1983; Sindall, 1990). Others have charted the development in law or the structure and function of courts and punishments. Qualitative crime histories often combine a number of different kinds of record, such as newspapers, registers, and contemporary investigative reports, in order to engage directly with the stories of those affected by the criminal justice system. In particular, large numbers of historians from the 1980s onwards have made concerted efforts to tell the history of crime from a working-class level. Drawing from sources rich in personal and qualitative information, historians have offered biographies of notable offenders and also assembled group histories of police officers, street gangs, prison inmates, and juvenile delinquents (Davies, 1998, 2008; Samuel, 1981; Shore, 1999).
Researchers have responded to the diversity of records available for the history of crime by finding ways of mixing quantitative and qualitative methodologies together. Early attempts to do this effectively drew together statistical context with narrative case studies in order to produce histories that both recounted the broad trends of crime and gave detailed examples of the individuals those statistics represented (Finnegan, 1979).
Undoubtedly, digitisation has made one of the biggest changes in how historians research and write histories of crime. Changes in how we can access and analyse evidence of crime across almost three centuries has revolutionised how many historians and students work. Mass digitisation of sources like newspapers, prison registers, and trial accounts has allowed researchers to amass data on crime, offenders, and punishment much more quickly. Evidence that may once have taken years to collect, through painstaking manual searches and visits to distant archives, can now be accessed with a keyword search from the comfort of a computer. This has radically altered the scale and scope of the research historians of crime are able to carry out. Digitisation has made it much easier to bring together all kinds of different material relating to the same topic, event, or individual and to tackle more questions than ever before about the causes and patterns of crime, and the experience of offenders, victims, and agents of the law. One of the most notable examples of this kind of intensive multiple-record approach in the last decade has been the work of Godfrey, Cox, and Farrall in their study Criminal Lives (2007). The study profiled in great depth the criminal careers and personal lives of offenders in nineteenth-century Crewe. Since the publication of Criminal Lives almost a decade ago, there have been several studies directly influenced by this work that consider different locations, institutions and types of individual (Turner, 2012; Williams and Godfrey, 2015). Others have further developed this methodology and used new record sets to provide rich biographical detail on previously underrepresented groups in crime history, such transported convicts (Rogers, 2015), and juveniles (Godfrey, Cox, Shore and Alker, 2017).
Crime historians have not only benefited from digital records. They have also been responsible for creating some of the greatest resources in the field. Websites such as Old Bailey Online and Founders and Survivors have produced permanent collections of material which have shaped the way in which historians and students are able to design and answer research questions in the history of crime. One of the largest and most recent efforts in this area is the Digital Panopticon project. This project traces the lives of more than 60,000 men, women, and children from London imprisoned in England or transported to Australia between 1780 and 1925. The efforts of researchers on the Digital Panopticon will produce the largest comparative history of imprisonment and transportation to date by utilising many of the sources discussed below. It will also provide a lasting resource for future researchers, bringing together an extensive online collection of material relating to crime, offenders, and punishment. Furthermore, the project will provide the tools for researchers to analyse, at the click of a button, what information records contain and how they can be used to answer epistemological as well as practical questions in crime history. The Digital Panopticon is just one of the latest projects that will encourage students to engage with an ever-increasing source base to investigate wide-ranging and continually evolving questions to do with crime and justice in the past.
This section has provided a short overview of the common questions and approaches historians have taken in the study of crime. In particular it has highlighted the important role that digitisation has played in this ever expanding area of social history. Now we will introduce key sources regularly used for such studies in crime history.
Selecting and interpreting sources
This section focuses on two major source types that are used for researching crime history. The discussion considers the availability of each kind of source and their potential uses for researchers. Here, we have chosen to focus on a small number of digitised sources, and students should remember that these sources are only part of a wide variety of material that can help answer questions about the history of crime.
Courts, legal, and punishment
These sources represent perhaps the biggest and most diverse category of material which deals with crime and criminal justice. Sources in this category can be used for both quantitative and qualitative studies, and offer researchers information on everything from the practicalities of policing and the formation of laws, to details of individual criminal convictions or prison routines.
There are two levels of trial for which records survive in England: petty sessions and quarter sessions (also known as Assize sessions), and two kinds of material available: registers and transcripts. Petty sessions took place at local venues (commonly referred to as police courts) across England and Wales on a weekly, if not daily, basis. At these courts trials would be held for ‘summary’ offences like fighting, drunkenness, or prostitution, which resulted in small fines, corporal punishments, or short prison sentences. Sadly, many records relating to petty sessions have been lost over time and only exist sporadically throughout England and Wales. The second kind of trial was those that took place at higher courts every few months in major cities or strategic county locations. At these courts more serious ‘indictable’ crimes – resulting in more serious punishments – would be tried. Much greater detail of these court proceedings has survived. Between 1791 and 1892, criminal registers covering the entirety of England and Wales provide a record of the name, charge, verdict, and sentence of every trial held at a higher court. These registers can be used to examine the frequency of crimes being tried, the sex of those on trial, verdicts returned, and sentences given in a particular time or place. They can also be used to find a specific individual or group of individuals passing through the criminal justice system. However, registers do not contain the evidence presented at trial or any information about victims.
For students interested in more detailed accounts of crime, the digitised Old Bailey Proceedings Online (pamphlets that gave details of every trial at the court between 1674 and 1913) provide fully searchable trial transcripts. The Proceedings can be filtered by offence, punishment, defendant name, age, gender, date, and even keyword. This source enables researchers to explore the rich details of a variety or crimes, to read testimony from defendants, prosecutors, and witnesses, or to explore how the courtroom operated.
Execution, imprisonment, and transportation were the dominant punishments in operation in England from the eighteenth to the twentieth centuries. Sources which record punishment show us how these systems functioned, and help us understand the experience of individuals undergoing sentence. Alongside trial proceedings, the Old Bailey Proceedings Online also contains the accounts of the Newgate Prison Ordinary (prison chaplain) which detail the confession and last dying moments of those sentenced to death. The Ordinary’s Accounts (1676–1772), much like the Harvard Law School’s collection of Criminal Broadsides (1707–1891), give details on the crimes, trials, and executions of those sentenced to death in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. They contain particularly interesting narratives for those interested in the final days of the condemned and the spectacle of public execution.
From the mid-nineteenth century the state began keeping detailed records of those sentenced to imprisonment. Records of those sentenced to penal servitude and later released on licence contain incredibly rich information covering everything from criminal histories to medical, behavioural, and correspondence records. Prison licences offer unparalleled insight into the minutia of prison life. Records of local imprisonment tend to lack the depth of convict prison records. Nevertheless, registers do exist which provide details of the individual, offence, sentence and conduct of those serving shorter sentences.
The biggest and most diverse collection of punishment records are those for convict transportation to Australia. These include the British Transportation Register which gives basic details of convict voyages to each Australian penal colony. These sources can be used by students in much the same way as court registers to investigate what kinds of individual were sent to different parts of Australia and for how long. Fully digitised records such as the Convict Indents provide supplementary information on individuals who arrived in New South Wales in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. A range of extensive digitised sources available through the TAHO site follow those transported to Van Diemen’s Land (now modern-day Tasmania), offering students the opportunity to consider the impact of transportation as a punishment.
Parliamentary papers provide one of the best avenues into ‘official’ perspectives on law and order. Collections such as the House of Commons Parliamentary Papers (HCPP) are fully digitised and offer the option to keyword and title search and to restrict findings by date. The HCPP contain sources relating to law, parliamentary debates, special commissions, and committee reports on a wide range of crime and criminal justice issues over more than 200 years.
Parliamentary sources provide a range of perspectives from those who constructed, evaluated, and operated the criminal justice system. For example, the 1812 Report from the Select Committee on Transportation presents not only an overview of the system by a specially selected committee from within parliament, but also evidence from various individuals involved in the process of transportation. These include Australian Governors, the Superintendent of convict hulks, and medical officers who sailed on convict vessels. Parliamentary documents can also be a useful place for students to find information on how a particular facet of criminal justice evolved both ideologically and in practice. For example, parliamentary papers show the construction of particular legislation, such as the Contagious Diseases Acts (1864, 1866, 1869), and the development of ideas surrounding certain kinds of offenders like juvenile delinquents or inebriates.
Newspapers are the most commonly used resource in histories of nineteenth-century crime. For Victorians, ‘media’ meant newspapers and periodicals, and the press market boomed in the nineteenth century. Technological innovations and political reforms lowered the cost of production, the railways enabled rapid circulation across the country, and improving literacy rates meant that circulation widened exponentially. Much, but certainly not all, eighteenth-and nineteenth-century media has now been digitised.
Many respected broadsheets, including The Times, Manchester Guardian, and The Observer, are available online via many university libraries, and students can also access local and national news through Eighteenth Century Collections Online, the British Library’s 19th Century Newspapers Online, and The British Newspaper Archive. Word-searchable data sets allow students to scan the local and national press for the whole of the nineteenth century, and use this to interrogate research questions and develop critical arguments. For example, students may wish to explore how certain towns and cities responded to prostitution around the passing of the Contagious Diseases Acts (1866, 1869), consider how cultural groups such as the Irish were represented, or assess what type of crimes women were involved in. The digitisation of local and national news means that it is possible to draw upon a large sample of data, although students need to ensure that primary evidence is gathered selectively so their work answers research questions concisely.
Crime reportage was delivered by lawyers who wrote up the events of the courts, or from journalists who sat in the gallery along with the (mainly) working-class audience, and such reports had always been an integral feature of newspaper columns. Court records and criminal registers often only listed the name, age, and, occasionally, the occupation of offenders, alongside the offence and sentence. The press, however, filled in the gaps that were missing from court records and witness transcripts including detailed descriptions of the offenders and their communities and neighbourhoods.
Historians have used newspapers to explore how stereotypes of offenders were constructed in the popular press (Davies, 1999; Swift & Gilley, 2011). These stereotypes reveal dominant attitudes about gender, class, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, and demonstrate how processes of ‘Otherness’ operated within crime reportage. The perception of crime and deviance was filtered through the elite voices of the press and located criminality predominantly within the ‘dangerous’ or ‘criminal’ classes who lived and resided in the city slums. Through the repetition of particular words and phrases such as ‘rough’, ‘low’, ‘brutish’, and ‘unrespectable’, press narratives reflected and shaped readers’ perceptions about offenders.
Students of crime history must be cautious of reading newspapers at face value. Newspapers were polyphonic and subject to a multitude of voices from editors, journalists, correspondents, publishers, and advertisers. The need to produce and disseminate issues daily meant that newspapers were under pressure to reduce crime into easily digestible narratives that inevitably distorted real events.
It is also important to remember that the ideas presented within newspapers were indicative of the values of the readership. The press undoubtedly played a part in forming popular attitudes towards crime, but readers did not simply absorb this kind of information uncritically. It was through audience engagement with news coverage of criminal events that general opinions were formed on the state of crime and punishment, as well as the offender and victim. Of course, for stereotypes to operate effectively they must dovetail, to some degree, with existing preconceptions. Media representations of crime may have simplified and distorted reality, but they provide essential evidence for historians as they often convey dominant ideas, values, and beliefs.
This section presents three samples of source material relating to aspects of nineteenth-century crime. We have chosen examples from the categories of primary sources discussed above: a newspaper report, a trial transcript, and a parliamentary report. For each of these case studies we offer practical advice on how students might approach and analyse these sources. We also suggest how the information they contain can be used to shape and answer research questions.
This case study examines how newspapers can be used to develop arguments about crime and criminals in the Victorian period. The section uses a newspaper article from the Liverpool Mercury, a local paper. The article ‘Garrotte Robbery at Liverpool’ [A], published on 25 March 1865, discusses the robbery, or ‘garrotting’, of Patrick Hand by Daniel McKeown in Collingwood Street, Liverpool. Hand, a plasterer living in Birchfield Street, had spent the evening at a friend’s house and was returning home when he stumbled across a row in the street and intervened. Hand had stopped to see what the row had been about when he was robbed by McKeown and another offender.
Students can use sources like newspapers to extrapolate evidence about how offenders have been represented and consider what this tells us about wider social relations based upon class, gender, and ethnicity. When looking at the representations in the article, students can examine various signifiers of meaning including the setting, the offenders, and their behaviour.
Firstly, students can look at the place or setting of the offence. The way in which the setting is represented can be used to develop arguments about how the offenders are represented. The newspaper mentions the victim’s address, Birchfield Street, and the place of the offence, Collingwood Street. The newspapers don’t always make the ethnicity of offenders explicit, so students need to look to relevant secondary sources to understand the meaning and context of the newspaper descriptions. For example, Roger Swift and Sheridan Gilley’s work on the Irish in Liverpool suggests that both Birchfield and Collingwood Street were areas characterised by their heavy Irish presence (Swift and Gilley, 2011). Collingwood, positioned to the north of the city, was an Irish Protestant area, whereas Birchfield Street was positioned near to Scotland Road and was dominated by Irish Catholic immigrants.
Secondly, students can look to the way that offenders and their behaviour is described to develop this argument further. The prosecution narrative is highlighted in the article, and both the victim and offenders’ ethnicity can be evidenced through two signifiers: the weapon, and the description of the conversation that took place between them. Students should use quotes to illustrate their argument. For example, the article reported that, ‘In cross-examination, the prosecutor stated that he was pushed into the row by the prisoner and the other man, and he laid about him with his stick right and left.’ The account continued, ‘He did shout “faugh-a-ballaugh”’. ‘Faugh a Ballaugh’ is Gaelic for ‘clear the way’, and the newspapers used this to signify that the offender was an Irish Catholic. Students can also quote the description of the weapon used – a shillelagh, which is a long stick with a curved knob at the top, commonly reported to be used in traditional Irish fighting. For example, the report noted that the offender, ‘did not rush into the row flourishing a shillelagh. He wished it had been a shillelagh; it was only a bamboo.’
Therefore, the language used in the Liverpool Mercury to describe the two offenders tapped into wider xenophobic attitudes directed towards the Irish Catholic population of Liverpool. Wider research into secondary sources, such as Neal (1988), builds on the argument that newspapers were anti-Irish, and that anti-Irish prejudice peaked during the middle decades of the nineteenth century as a result of the vast influx of immigrants following the Famine, subsequent economic competition, and the development of Fenianism in the city.
However, students need to be cautious of using newspapers as a retelling of factual events. One way of doing this is to look at what elements are being described and, in turn, what is being excluded. It’s clear to see from the article how selective newspapers were in creating and selling crime stories. It is the prosecution, rather than the defence, which is highlighted in the narrative, so we don’t hear from the offender himself. Instead, the ‘voices’ that feature in the article were from elite groups, in particular the police, lawyers, and magistrates. Men and women who were brought before the courts were judged on their appearance, their backgrounds, marital status, and behaviour, both in court and during the attack, and these were replayed in the newspaper accounts.
Another way of developing this argument is to examine how this newspaper report may differ or correlate with other anti-Irish press. Wider research into crime reports from other newspapers may suggest that this was a local concern given that Liverpool was the centre of Irish immigration in the middle of the Victorian period. Students could also explore how the tone of the article may be more melodramatic than other newspaper articles. Crime reporting in the Liverpool press followed the typical conventions of other local news reports in that it presented violent crime as a serious problem, yet repackaged violent incidents for moralistic or purely entertainment purposes. However, this reporting was considerably more understated than the sensationalism and melodrama that typified the post-1880 era of New Journalism, so it’s important to investigate the subtleties of language used to describe the scene and historical actors. By locating the narrative within the historical context, it is possible to extrapolate the discriminatory attitudes directed towards the Irish community in the nineteenth century. The discourse drew upon established symbols of Irish Catholic culture; the shillelagh, the offenders’ use of Gaelic, and the setting of the offence, marginalised the offender as deviant. McKeown would be recognised by (some) readers as the stereotypical Irish rough with a propensity for drink and violence. These cultural markers provided a text through which magistrates, and subsequently newsreaders, read and determined the respectability of victims and offenders, and thus, the legitimacy of their testimony.
Old Bailey Trial
The next case study is the transcript of a trial which took place at London’s Central Criminal Court, the Old Bailey, in February 1881. The trial was of 23-year-old Eleanor Myers for breaking the peace by wounding Madeline Birks. When making her way home through Limehouse at night, Birks claimed that she passed Myers, a women from a neighbouring street, who attacked her with some kind of corrosive fluid.
Trials like this one offer students a first-hand account of crime in the words of (predominantly) working-class offenders, victims, and witnesses, which are often not available through other sources. The text of trials allows students to identify relevant information about the personal, social, and cultural context of crime. These details can be used to offer new interpretations about the patterns of crime and to confirm or contradict current historiographical understandings.
The best place to start when analysing any trial report is to read once through the text in order to identify the contextual ‘who, what, and when’ of the trial. This basic information will help shape the research questions you can answer with the source. In this example one young woman was accused of wounding another woman. Therefore this trial can help us answer questions relating to women and to violent crime. The text gives us accounts from the victim, Birks, five witnesses for the prosecution (including the arresting policeman), and two witnesses for the defence. It does not contain any information given by the defendant.
Next, it can be useful to identify what other information is available. Each segment of testimony includes the witness stating their name and location, their relation to the case and a brief recollection of the event in question. Here there is plenty of useful information relating to the personal and social dimension of violent female crime in Victorian London. Students reading the source should consider the identities of the defendant, witnesses, and victim. How old were they? Did they know each other? In this case all the women involved were locals of the same area in London, they were of the same age, and appeared to have known each other for some time. Information like this can be compared and contrasted with other trials in order to assess how typical or atypical the case is, and how it fits in to wider patterns of crime. For example, you could compare Myers’ trial with other female wounding cases from 1881. Were those involved of a similar age, class, and location? Did defendant and victim usually know each other? Was corrosive fluid a common weapon? Myers’ trial could also be compared to other kinds of crime or offender. For example, how did her case differ from cases of wounding with a male defendant? Were different kinds of evidence presented? Were verdicts and sentences radically different? In doing so you can start to analyse how factors like gender, class, or age related to crime and conviction in this era.
Another approach is to examine the details of a trial and to give an interpretation that challenges or confirms current historiographical knowledge. In this particular case we are offered a good deal of information about the identities and lives of those involved. For example, all of the women involved lived in Limehouse in London’s East End, notorious at the time for high levels of crime and disorder. Four of the women who testified identified themselves as ‘unfortunate’ girls or ‘a girl of the town’, language often used to describe prostitutes. Myers was said to run a house of ‘ill-fame’ – a brothel. How might this information be used to provide an interpretation of why these events occurred that isn’t mentioned in the text? Does it change how we should understand this crime? Can it tell us about the role violent crime played in the lives of prostitutes? Further testimony details the origins, living arrangements, routines, leisure, and social interactions of these women, all of which can be used to support an argument that confirms or contradicts what secondary literature, or other sources, tells us about women, class, and crime in nineteenth-century London.
There are two important factors to be aware of when using trial accounts. The first is that the testimony which has been recorded was in response to questions asked in court which have not been recorded. Thus when using this type of source, it is important to remember that we are effectively being offered only one side of a conversation, with little clue as to what prompted answers to be offered. The second factor to consider is that evidence is often deeply contradictory. For example, Birks and several of her friends testified that Myers held a grudge against her and planned the attack in advance. Friends of Myers testified that she was in a public house all evening and could not have been on the street to attack Birks. Therefore, while information and motive about the crime are offered, it is often not possible to draw any firm conclusions as to the ‘true’ events of the case, or whether the verdict – not guilty – was deserved.
While some trials offer information too conflicting in nature to be able to establish the guilt or innocence of the defendant, many offer rich information about crime and those who it affected. Trial transcripts allow us to gather evidence about crime and the legal process from the perspective of those who were victims, perpetrators, and witnesses. One of the easiest ways for students to utilise the information in a trial is by exploring how representative it is by comparing it with others. The details we find in trials can be used to confirm or challenge ideas about crime and justice presented in other types of sources or in secondary literature. As long as students remain aware of the limitations of court testimony as an objective or ‘true’ telling of events, the rich detail inherent in this material can be very useful in uncovering and narrating the social, personal, and cultural context of crime and justice.
Select Committee Report
This section examines the Report from the Select Committee on Contagious Diseases Act (1869) [B]. The Contagious Diseases Acts (CD Acts) were originally passed by UK Parliament in 1864 with amendments made in 1866 and, as shown here, in 1869. The Act was the state’s attempt to regulate prostitution, and sanctioned magistrates with the power to order a genital examination of prostitutes for the symptoms of venereal disease (VD), and detain infected women within lock hospitals. The 1864 Act emerged because of fears that venereal disease was both widespread and on the increase in the navy and military. The 1866 Act broadened the legislative powers of the 1864 proposals to include other non-garrison towns and cities in which prostitution was prevalent. If women were found to be infected they could be interned in locked hospitals for up to three months, a period which gradually expanded to one year under the 1869 Act.
Students can use this report in two main ways: firstly, to look at the ways in which the criminals are represented, and secondly to examine how the law was influenced by discriminatory attitudes towards women and prostitutes in particular.
First, it is possible to extrapolate how prostitutes were represented in the Act. Prostitution is described as a ‘physical evil’ (p.iii), for example. The report also requires that arrangements were made, ‘in order to check the evil arising at Aldershot from diseased women accompanying regiments when coming from a distance into camp’ (p.143). Wider research on the representation of prostitutes can be used to develop your argument further. Students can do this either through wider primary research, including newspapers for example, or through secondary sources. Prostitutes received harsh condemnation in the press as they were generally portrayed as either ‘fallen’ women who had been seduced and betrayed, or as ‘rough’ urban prostitutes who committed sexual acts for money and signified disease, contagion, and disorder (Walkowitz, 1992). Evidence of these attitudes is present in the Select Committee report, and you can use quotes from the report to construct a persuasive argument. For example, the aim of the 1869 amendment sought to ascertain, ‘whether it would be practicable to extend to the civil population the benefits of an Act which has already done so much to diminish prostitution, decrease disease, and reclaim the abandoned’ (p.v).
Students can also use the source to consider how these attitudes manifested in law. The stipulations within the report show that only prostitutes had to undergo genital examination and treatment and not the men that they engaged with. For example, in proposing the extension of the Act, one of the Committee members, Dr Brewer, argued that the ‘object of it is to induce the women to apply more regularly for examination’. Also, women only had to be suspected of prostitution by a police officer in order to be examined, and refusal to consent to the examination resulted in imprisonment. This can be evidenced in the following quote, ‘common prostitutes now so far know the law as to be aware that if they do not voluntarily submit, they can be obliged to submit by the magistrates’ order’ (p.2). Drawing on theoretical perspectives about prostitution offers a useful framework for examining how prostitutes were represented and treated in the nineteenth century. Feminist theorists, such as Andrea Dworkin (1993) and Catherine MacKinnon (1993), argue that laws, such as the CD Acts, that allow for sexual promiscuity among men but enforced chastity on women is evidence of the sexual double standard. These theories can be used to argue that the CD Acts were evidence of how the law was influenced by patriarchal society and, in particular, the sexual double standard.
However, the Act does have some issues which students need to be aware of. Firstly, it is important to remember that the report was not intended for a popular audience, but for politicians in the House of Commons and House of Lords. The language used is formal, and the speakers are all men of high authority. Note the identities of the speakers and interviewees within the script: they are all male doctors, lawyers, and politicians. Fragmentary anecdotes of working women’s experiences were selected to justify the extension of the Act. Refracted through elite voices, historians should not read these accounts at face value. This limits the Acts’ potential as a historical source, crucially because it excludes the experiences of women who endured medicalisation, shame, and imprisonment under the CD Acts. The Act also excludes the wider public debate on prostitution that challenged the CD Acts. Victorian feminists, including Josephine Butler, Millicent Fawcett, and John Stuart Mill, highlighted the ways in which the CD Acts were the legal manifestation of the sexual double standard. Contemporary feminists objected to the CD Acts because they violated women while men were not subject to either examination or punishment. Butler and her Ladies’ National Association argued that the acts did little to discourage prostitution, interfered with the civil rights of women, and subjected women to degrading and intrusive medical examinations. Because of the efforts of feminist groups throughout the 1870s, including the LNA, a petition with over 2.5 million signatures was presented to the House of Commons, and the acts were finally repealed in 1885.
This chapter has drawn attention to some key primary source material available to students interested in crime history. Since its conception in the 1970s, the subject has developed ways of analysing the criminal past through the wide range of source material, including court reports, press, and law. Students can gain entry in to the criminal worlds of the nineteenth century in a variety of ways, some of which have been discussed here. The digitisation of eighteenth- and nineteenth-century crime sources has extended these possibilities even further. Of course there are disadvantages to using criminal sources without critical interrogation. Much of the surviving historical evidence was written by the law makers rather than the law breakers. Elite voices dominate crime history primary sources such as newspapers, or police, court, and legal records. Nevertheless, it is possible to recover the lives and experiences of those caught up in the criminal justice system, and the attitudes and discrimination directed towards them.
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