Standards of good or bad behaviour, within a society, are by no means constant. In fact they vary enormously from age to age, and within different societies in a particular age. This is even more applicable to those actions, forbidden by law, that are known as crimes.
Crime is usually defined as “an act prohibited and punishable by law.” No matter how revolting or dangerous an action may be, it is not legally a crime unless covered by a law that prohibits it, and prescribes a punishment for it. However in popular usage the words crime and criminal are used to describe actions that are anti-social, regardless of their legality. This is quite understandable, as throughout history most criminals have been a pretty brutal and heartless lot. The fact that many of them were driven to crime did not make them any more likeable. The Robin Hood type of legend, popular throughout the world, has never had much basis in fact. So that when we are discussing crime, it is as well to get the definition right.
This is not just being pedantic, as a glance at the history of crime will show. Even within a particular age there are great variations. For example, where prohibition exists, to take a drink becomes a crime and the production and sale of liquor carries heavy penalties. But all of this is quite legal and harmless elsewhere. Again laws on such things as homosexuality, blasphemy, gambling and adultery, to name just a few, are completely different from country to country, and even, in a Federal Union like the USA, from State to State.
When we compare one age to another this is even more obvious. Many actions that once carried the death penalty, and were regarded as the wickedest in the calendar, are no longer illegal and often not taken seriously. Witchcraft, once a capital offence that brought torture and death to countless people, is no longer taken seriously. Any legal action that is taken in the matter now is usually associated with alleged fraud. Heresy, atheism and Trade Union activities, once either capital or transportation offences, are no longer illegal in most states.
On the other hand many things once considered harmless or even praiseworthy, are now serious crimes. The Election practices of the Georgians would today land all concerned in gaol for a long period and the kind of satire that slams like a sledge hammer from the cartoons of Gillray and Rowlandson would now be considered criminal libel. On a grimmer note, the ceremonial torturing of animals, like throwing live cats from the belfry at Ypres, would bring heavy, and popular sentences. An even greater crime—the kidnapping, enslaving, buying and selling of human beings— known as the slave trade was once, not very long ago, an honoured profession. Perhaps the most important change of attitude, since, the coming of capitalism, is the increased importance of private property. Crimes against private property bring forth as great, if not greater penalties as crimes against people.
In the early days of Capitalism when each group was struggling for a foothold, and when enterprising but murderous characters were clawing their way into power, the line between criminal and legal action was very thin. One of the great Capital offences of the 19th century was Piracy on the High Seas. But piracy had not always been taken so seriously. The Privateer was a private person commissioned by a government to capture enemy ships, and was behaving quite legally. The pirate, on the other hand, was an outlaw. Drake and Grenville were privateers, while Morgan and Leech were pirates, but it is difficult to see any basic difference in their actions.
Earlier governments had tolerated, and even encouraged, piracy against their rivals and taken some of the proceeds. A successful pirate could always buy a pardon, and settle down in his home country. Morgan, one of the cruellest and unprincipled of pirate captains, received a hero’s welcome in England, and was received by Charles II. He died wealthy and respectable.
By the 19th century British, French and American capitalists dominated the trade routes of the world. They wanted settled conditions in which to operate. Pirates were ruthlessly hunted down and executed. These same Capitalists had used corruption, bribery and the plunder of ancient civilisations to fill their coffers and help finance their more orthodox enterprises. The Great Train Robbers were the descendants of these freebooters of the past. The aim was the same, to acquire wealth quickly and then become “respectable.” But unfortunately for the Train Robbers they came two hundred years too late. Modern Capitalism does not want this kind of action, and emphasises its point with 30 year sentences. Settled conditions are needed and corruption, theft and fraud are crushed whenever they can be detected.
Now what about proletarian criminals, the ones that stole the copper, while the others stole the gold? To be condemned to hang for stealing a handkerchief, by a judge or magistrate whose family wealth had come from piracy, the plunder of Bengal, or from slave produced West Indian sugar was, to use a current slang expression, a bit thick. But that was the fate of many.
The economic revolution of the Tudors, with its galloping inflation, agricultural unemployment and enclosures, drove more and more people on to the roads. They swelled the ranks of the sturdy beggars who roamed in search of subsistence. They flocked to London and settled in hovels in and around the town. Crime was often the only trade open to them. Penalties became increasingly brutal; flogging, branding and mutilation, as well as hanging, were extensively used. Not that the victims got much sympathy from their more fortunate brethren. Public executions had a high entertainment value, and provided an instructional day out for the kiddies.
Much more profitable was the use of criminals as a source of cheap labour. The 17th century saw more extensive use of transportation to the colonies. The plantations and farms of North America and the West Indies cried out for cheap labour. Magistrates and judges were always ready to commute a death sentence to one of transportation, for a reasonable consideration.
The 18th century was the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, and new methods of agriculture, with the inevitable enclosures. People continued to pour into the towns but industrialisation was not proceeding fast enough to absorb all of them. London and the growing towns became crammed with people with no legal source of income. They crowded into the most appalling slums—the infamous Rookeries—and lived as best they could. Mayhew, writing in the next century when the situation had eased somewhat, described the pathetic means by which people sought to grub a living. Crime was one of the most obvious ways. In fact successful crime and successful prostitution were about the only means of climbing out of this hell into a more civilised existence, but not many made it.
Meanwhile industrialisation, and the exploitation of the new Empire, brought increased prosperity to the more fortunate section of the population. This led to an increase in crimes against property. The growth of the banking system led to more legislation against forgery, while the expansion of trade caused increased concern over adulteration of goods. The terrible state of the roads, and the inefficiency of the Post Office, gave rise to the highwayman, whose main occupation was robbing the post boys. A programme of road building and fast, well armed mail coaches largely ended this situation, but the growth of commerce and shipping led to organised raiding of ships in the Thames.
The ruling class struck back with renewed savagery, supported up to the hilt by the law abiding citizens. The 18th century saw a surplus of labour in Britain, and there was no use for convict labour at home, so more people were hanged or transported. The Continental countries had built up modern police forces, but Britain’s police were inefficient and corrupt. The British ruling class feared the development of a Police State, and refused to reorganise their own police. Instead they developed what became known as “Britain’s Bloody Code.” Over 200 offences were punishable by death, and many more by transportation.
The loss of the American Colonies upset the practice of transportation, and led to the establishment of the notorious prison hulks. These were old battleships, moored mainly in the Thames, and run by private enterprise. These ships were bad even by the standards of existing prisons. They were a “temporary” measure which lasted eighty years.
The 19th century saw the development of the world we know today. The Capitalist class were firmly in the saddle, and with them came Capitalist morality. There has probably never, before or since, been such an age of reform as the Victorian. It was the age of the rise of the Trades Union and the working class movements. When changes came they came with amazing rapidity, in thirty years the number of capital offences fell from over 200 to four. More important, the Capitalists began to realise that the worker with a terraced house, a piano in the front room, and pretensions to support, made a more docile and efficient slave than the products of degradation in the Rookeries.