London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City 1690-1800
by Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker (Cambridge University Press, 461 pages, £21.99)
This comprehensive s tudy of crime in the 18th cent tury is made possible by pains staking work in digitised arch hives, linking up different records so we can trac ck those who were moved d by “extream poverty” [sic] to commit crimes, and those who did so for sheer bravado and went unr repentant to the gallows.
The authors are directors of the groundbreaking digital projects the Old Bailey Proceedings, which covers 200,000 trials, and London Lives with access to more than three million names ( oldbaileyonline. org and londonlives.org).
By transcribing in full the proceedings of the Old Bailey and a large section of the archives of parishes, a new resource has been created that allows for the first time a record of ‘plebeian’ life – those without a material stake in society such as public office or property for which there are enduring records.
‘Plebeian’ London had its own agenda and aspirations. It awarded celebrity status to highwaymen like the Hawkins Gang and famed jailbreaker Jack Sheppard; but recoiled with horror at the story of Elizabeth Brownrigg who tortured and killed apprentices she had taken from the foundling hospital.
They were people at the sharp end of criminal justice and poor relief. Database searches allow a match between poverty and crime: John Askew’s wife was recorded as giving birth in the workhouse in 1782 when she sent him a message that she needed a few shillings. He duly went out and stole a pair of linen sheets worth seven shillings and ended up being transported.
More than 1,000 different occupations have been identified among those accused of crimes. Servants made up a third of the defendants, followed at a long distance by labourers, porters and soldiers. Fewer than three per cent were identified as ‘gentlemen’, who were more likely to be accused of murder than theft. London Lives is a brilliant analysis of an outstanding resource.
Jad Adams is a writer and Fellow
of the Royal Historical Society
William Hogarth’s Beer Street depicts London drinkers in 1751