Skip to main content  

A pick-pocket at work in Regency London

​A pick-pocket at work in London

Burglar Bill: Researching historical geographies of crime and governance at LMA

Eloise Moss, a D.Phil History Candidate from Magdalen College at the University of Oxford, describes her research into representations of burglars and burglary in London, 1860-1939, and how a survey of 600 magistrates courts registers held by LMA has contributed to her knowledge

My research explores how popular versions of burglars and burglary - manifested in contemporary press reports, fiction, theatre, and films - were informed by, and influenced, legal and criminological ideas about the nature of the crime and its prevalence. 

I am also interested in interrogating the evolving psychological dimensions of crime; questioning what aspects of burglary induced greatest fear, and how they were articulated in literary or artistic media; and under what circumstances burglars could be recast as glamorous rogues, and burglary as a thrilling escapade of revenge upon the inequalities of wealth and social hierarchy. 

In answering these questions, my thesis aims to elicit and enhance our understanding of the relationship between representations of crime and social, cultural, and political change, offering a fresh perspective on the cultural landscape of late 19th and early 20th century Britain.

As a major part of my research, I have completed a survey of the London magistrates courts registers held at London Metropolitan Archives (LMA), documenting incidences of burglary throughout London at five-year intervals across the eighty years I am studying. These records contain descriptions of where burglaries took place, what was stolen, what tools were used in committing crimes, and remarks about the age and appearance of the alleged perpetrators.  Such details will assist me to construct a picture of how burglary was policed historically, and how definitions of the crime and criminal used in shaping legislation against property crime were informed by encounters between law-enforcers and burglars on an everyday basis. 

Additionally, notes about the tools used shed light upon the sophisticated technologies and devices created to effect entry to a home (preferably in silence), and therefore, the reasons why burglars were generally characterised as ‘skilled’ or ‘professional’ criminals; whilst the lists of property stolen reveal not only the wealth of victims, but also the changing contours of the black market and perceptions regarding what constituted valuable goods in a fluctuating economic context.

Furthermore, the manner in which the police recorded such events developed in interesting ways over the course of the period.  Initially written into the registers with little more information than the names of those arrested and their crime, by the 1890s the police were careful to note the circumstances of the capture, including the time, any ‘suspicious’ behaviour, and what incriminating articles were found in the possession of those arrested.  This reflected a greater concern on the police’s part to differentiate between ‘housebreaking’ - the forced entry into and theft from a dwelling house during the ‘daytime’ hours of 6 am and 9 pm - and ‘burglary’, considered the more serious crime for being enacted during the intervening ‘night’ hours. 

As night fell over London, the activities of roaming thieves took on a more malignant aspect, with police officers’ ability to negotiate and control the city’s precincts being dependent upon a system of street lighting that, in the late 19th and early 20th century, did not illuminate every street or passage.

Inmates at Newgate Prison

​Inmates at Newgate Prison

​By comparing the results of my survey with ideas about burglary circulating in popular culture, I can investigate the relationship between how burglary was policed and broader cultural assumptions about when, where, and why those crimes took place. 

We are all familiar with ideas of London’s East End as an infamous 19th century ‘den of vice’, from fictional narratives such as Dickens’ Oliver Twist, to real-life events like the Jack the Ripper murders in Whitechapel in 1888.  But was this stereotype of the area (which proved of long duration) as widely-recognised to contemporaries as we have assumed? 

Scholarship on crime in London in the disciplines of history and English literature has tended to reinforce the East/West division of London’s vices - respectively, serious violent and petty crimes attendant upon poverty and deprivation versus those arising from excessive luxury and wealth (see for example Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (University of Chicago Press, 1992); Lynda Nead, Victorian Babylon (Yale University Press, 2000); Simon Joyce, Capital Offences (University of Virginia Press, 2003)). 

I am extremely grateful to all the staff of the LMA for their kindness, help, and patience whilst bringing me circa 600 registers to analyse over the last year, which made a potentially onerous task far easier!    

Publications: Eloise Moss, ‘Burglary insurance and the culture of fear in Britain, c. 1889-1939,’ Historical Journal. Eloise is supervised by Dr. Matt Houlbrook.

15 June 2012
Last Modified:
11 September 2018