Crime & Print Culture in 18c London


A review of Print Culture and Responses to Crime in Mid-Eighteenth-Century London, by Richard Ward.

Richard Ward’s thesis explores the landscape of mid-eighteenth-century crime in relation to print culture, the criminal justice system, law-making, and social responses and attitudes to criminality. Utilising a variety of sources, Ward focuses on newspaper reports, publications such as the Old Bailey’s Proceedings, and illustrative plates to examine a visual and written variety of printed responses to crime and punishment. Ward also provides statistical evidence in a variety of tables and graphs to substantiate his research. This is an effective and accessible way for researchers to access key facts; for example, he offers a table indicating the number of crime reports printed in popular London newspapers of the epoch such as the General Evening Post, the London Evening Post, the Old England Journal, and the Whitehall Evening Post from year 1747 to 1757. Throughout the thesis he analyses a “wide variety of printed and unpublished materials using a combination of different methodological approaches” (p. 31). Thus, a criminological approach is used in combination with a historiographical methodology.

The thesis is divided into four main chapters. Ward’s approach to the topic differs from that of other contemporary research that considers the social response to crime. He suggests that previous research tends to view personal accounts in diaries and correspondence as representative samples. Rather, he adopts a perspective that is influenced by criminological studies and focuses on the way “media collates, selects and distributes crime reports to its audience” (p. 21), emphasizing the ability of the press to affect and reflect social realities. The first chapter shows how crime was perceived as representative of the moral health of society, a view that was especially influential during the mid-eighteenth century, when changes in social mobility served to “subvert the traditional social order” (p. 27). Ward shows the power of the press in influencing social and criminal opinions and debates by utilising the example of the mid-century gin craze, when print media disseminated a range of arguments on the issue and expanded its significance, utilising gin as a metaphor for social sickness. The author discusses how politics also influenced policy-making. For example, the crimes of the few had an impact on the financial wealth of wards and parishes and affected the elite members of society who controlled them. However, it was not just the elite who was affected by change due to the impact of crime; middling men are described by Ward as influential due to their opinions and tax contributions, which influenced government law and policy-making. The author outlines the variety of different print sources that featured crime in different ways, but he focuses especially on newspapers, the Proceedings, crime biographies, pamphlets, and pictorial prints.

Chapter 2, “Contemporary Readings of Crime Literature,” explores the influence of newspapers, the Proceedings, and the diary entries of Gertrude Saville. Saville’s diary comments on the power of print on the reading habits of a person living in London. This section reflects on how people in the mid-eighteenth century were affected by print culture in their attitudes towards crime and how contemporary readings are also influenced by such crime writing. Printed accounts of criminality were read as entertainment and were also used to dissuade readers from committing crime. Ward uses Saville, noting how she reflects on reading Ordinary Accounts and criminal biographies of a specific case. He highlights how accounts of crime varied among different publications, which induced the reader to engage critically with the texts in order to derive meaning from divergent reports. Furthermore, he comments on the works of Henry and John Fielding and Saunders Welch, highlighting their influence during the period. The Proceedings also influenced people in forming their ideas on the causes of crime.

In Chapter 3, “Print Culture and Prosecution,” Ward argues that there has been a tradition in historical research to focus on crime waves and examines how such crimes were represented in print. He evaluates crime waves, prosecution waves, and their representation in print, arguing that they occurred simultaneously rather than being in a cause-and-effect relationship. The impact of theft features heavily in newspapers and is a key feature of this chapter. Ward reveals the link between crime reporting and prosecution rates, with crime reporting frequently influencing prosecutors’ decision making. However, he cautions against deriving simple explanations from this and discusses the conditions that fuelled anxieties about crime through the example of the fears the public held over smuggling in 1747. Public perceptions were not based on prosecution rates, but were rather induced by the frequency and detail of newspaper reports. In this chapter, Ward also examines how crime writing created public fears about the demobilisation of seamen, marines, and soldiers in the 1740s. Newspapers did not simply affect public opinion about crime but became a conduit for providing feedback about the effectiveness of the criminal justice system.

Chapter 4, “Print Culture and Policing,” explores the relationship between print and the criminal justice system. Newspaper coverage of Sabbath breaking between 1752 and 1753 shows how policies and public attitudes were heavily influenced by newspaper reports. This chapter also focuses on the attitudes conveyed by crime writing towards peace men and individuals involved in capturing criminals. Ward uses the example of the reporting on the crime committed by Stephen Pittet. Newspapers reported the details of the crime, describing how Pittet was apprehended, tried, sentenced, and executed. In 1748 alone, fifty cases were reported in a similar way. Newspapers commented on parish authorities, on their response to crime through extra policing, and their success in tackling crime. Criminal biographies focussed on the crimes and the punishment of the offender. Private individuals plaid a pivotal role in policing in London in the early part of the eighteenth century; however, they did not receive attention in newspaper reports. Instead, they were marginalised and their effectiveness minimised. Ward also considers the role of newspapers in implementing the law through the offering of rewards and “crime advertising,” where lists of stolen goods from thefts were published.

In Chapter 5, “Print Culture and Punishment,” the author concentrates on the influence of the 1752 Murder Act, which was used to combat the crime problem to reveal the enmeshing influences of print, parliament, and political merit. This act was featured heavily in crime writing and Ward uses it to examine the impact of print upon the introduction of penal legislation and the changes to penal practice. He reveals that print represented a rich source for legislators and explores the portrayal of familial murderers Mary Blandy and Elizabeth Jeffryes. Furthermore, he offers a new interpretation of William Hogarth’s artwork by focusing on the example of Industry and Idleness (1747), which illustrates an eighteenth-century execution, and comparing it with further illustrations of the same subject matter. He also analyses the power of Hogarth’s The Cruelty Prints, which detail The Four Stages of Cruelty (1751). According to him, such illustrations served to deter people from crime and also criticized the levels and methods of punishment served to criminals. The author concludes by noting that print culture reflected on homicide cases in a way that made it “a problem greater than the sum of its parts” (p. 201) and had a significant influence but was not a single factor in inducing legislative change.

Joanna Wargen
Department of English
University of Westminster

Primary Sources

A variety of works by John and Henry Fielding
London Evening Post
Old Bailey Proceedings
Ordinary’s Accounts
William Hogarth’s The Four Stages of Cruelty prints

Dissertation Information

University of Sheffield. 2010. 252pp. Primary Advisor: Bob Shoemaker.

Image: “Cruelty in Perfection,” from “Four stages of cruelty,” by William Hogarth, 1751. Source: Wiki Commons.

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