Narratives of Crime and Disorder: Representations of Robbery and Burglary in the London Press, 1780-1830

Hopps, Robert Stephen (2017). Narratives of Crime and Disorder: Representations of Robbery and Burglary in the London Press, 1780-1830. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.0000ce4e

Abstract

This thesis is a qualitative and quantitative study of crime and justice reportage of several London newspapers during two periods - the 1780s and the early nineteenth century focusing on two felonies: highway robbery and burglary, two of the most feared crimes at that time and used by contemporaries to assess the moral health of the capital. The press's reliance on unsolved crime reports provide a more realistic guide to the extent and nature of offending than court records. Reports show how these felonies changed: 'hustlers' replaced highwaymen and burglary became proportionately more significant than robbery. Press accounts were constructed to satisfy perceived reader interest, thereby proportionately exaggerating these felonies, their violence and special characteristics, providing a distorted image of crime. Newspapers were the main source of information and influenced public perceptions about crime making it seem endemic and normative. As the press became more professional, reports changed.The press, no longer content to remain chroniclers, produced longer, more detailed accounts representing certain types of property theft as socially and culturally problematic, such as juvenile offending and errant servants, creating criminal stereotypes and giving rise to beliefs in the existence of organised gangs, a criminal class and a criminal underworld, serving to demonise the poor as inherently deviant. Such representations found a targeted and receptive audience in the thriving urban bourgeoisie and middling classes, already anxious about political radicalism and social change, who were not only the principal purchasers of newspapers, but who were also disproportionately portrayed in the press as most frequently the victims of these two crimes. Furthermore the state, needing public legitimation for its administration of criminal justice, found this in the burgeoning press, which, through its positive portrayal of justice as fair, created narratives of public justice and authority justifying the state's increasing powers.

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