Creating the Criminal

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries most crimes appear to have been committed by young males in their teens or early twenties. Such youths and young men were commonly accused of being led astray by designing women, by cheap trashy literature and, during the twentieth century, by the cinema and then by television, violent videos and video games. There was also a popular belief that, as they grew older, so the activities of these offenders would grow worse and that they would be transformed into dangerous, professional criminals. It is convenient to imply that crime is the work of professionals, working outside of ordinary society and at war with it.

There were other explanations for criminals that emerged with new forms of knowledge, and new ways of categorising people during the nineteenth century. The Victorians liked to label and categorise. By the middle of the century they were speaking of the 'dangerous classes' lurking in the big cities and ready to use any opportunity – but especially political demonstrations that could become disorderly – to sweep out of their 'rookeries' to commit offences. As the threat of Chartist demonstrations declined, so the 'dangerous classes' were reassessed and relabelled the 'criminal classes'. The fact that most of those processed by the police and the courts came from the poorer sections of the working class contributed significantly to this categorisation. It did not, however, help to explain the offences committed by those from the middle class – people that are now referred to as 'white collar criminals' such as fraudulent clerks and bankers. The development of Darwin's theories of evolution helped here; the malign counterpart of evolution was degeneration. Moreover assumptions were made that criminality could be inherited. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, others challenged the notion of hereditary criminals by emphasising the demoralising effects of poor environment, poverty and poor parenting.

From the middle of the nineteenth century until the First World War the statistics of crime appeared to level out. The police received much credit for this. But the problem remained of how to deal with the incorrigible offender, and with what was now referred to as the 'residuum' – the small groups of professional criminals that were seen to exist in slum districts.

Legislation targeted criminals deemed to be incorrigible. The Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 required that any person convicted of a felony and not sentenced to penal servitude, be subject to police supervision for seven years to ensure that he (or she) was making an honest living. Under the Prevention of Crimes Act of 1871 any man released on a ticket-of-leave (a kind of parole system) could be brought before a magistrate and have his parole revoked if the police suspected his behaviour.

The 1871 Act also required that registers be kept of every person convicted of a crime in Great Britain. The bureaucracy responsible for what became the Criminal Record Office was housed in the Metropolitan Police headquarters in Scotland Yard. It maintained the Habitual Criminal Register which amassed a vast amount of information on such offenders.

personal information of criminals recorded

The extract from the register in 1893 (shown above) gives an idea of the scale of detail that was kept. At the beginning of the twentieth century fingerprints were added to the files which now also contained photographs. Then, in 1913, a Methods Index was established in the belief that professional criminals generally acted in the same way time after time. It can be argued that, in establishing such registers, the police were helping to create the image of those that they, as crime fighters, were empowered to combat.

Jane Condon's details

Incorrigible criminals were not the only offenders targeted in this fashion. That great problem for the beat officer – the habitual drunkard – was dealt with in a similar fashion. The Habitual Drunkards Act of 1879 allowed the incarceration of drunks to asylums for treatment. The police created photographic albums of drunks that were circulated to licensed premises. The example alongside shows the page for Jane Condon who was convicted on 2 September 1913 and sentenced to serve three years in a certified inebriate reformatory.

The debate about the causes of crime and criminals continued throughout the twentieth century as the crime statistics rose, gradually after the First World War, but steeply from the early 1950s to the mid-1990s. By the 1990s notions of the criminal class and the residuum had been revived with the concept of the 'underclass'. Again, throughout the twentieth century those processed by the police and the courts were drawn, disproportionately, from the poorer sections of society. They were people living on the margins, often from hand to mouth and generally stigmatised – and increasingly in the second half of the century many of these came from ethnic minorities.


A ticket-of-leave was a release on license from prison granted to a convict and adjusted according to his behaviour.

When discharged on ticket-of-leave a prisoner received a full kit of workman’s clothing, with blankets and rations sufficient to take him to the district of his choice. He received only a portion of his gratuity, but the remainder was handed over when he reported to the resident magistrate in the town to which he travelled. This was to ensure that it was not squandered before he reached his destination. He had to report to the magistrate within seven days of his arrival and twice a year thereafter. If he wished to go to another district he had to carry a pass issued by the magistrate. He could choose his employer and was protected, and bound, by the Masters and Servants’ Act; but he could be bound for a year while his master could discharge him with only a month’s notice. Also he had to notify the magistrate of any change in employers. A ticket-of-leave man could be self-employed and engage other ticketers. He could own land and property; and he could marry, although during the earlier years of the convict era permission of the comptroller general was required before the ceremony.

The restrictions were irksome. A ticketer had to be indoors times and show it on request. He could not own or carry on ships, a condition that was circumvented on several occasions. He could be arrested without a warrant and tried summarily by a single magistrate without a jury. A re-conviction meant harsher punishment than that meted out to a free man. Until 1857 many convicts received their ticket-of-leave on the day of arrival.

If a ticketer could not find employment he remained at the hiring depot and worked with the probationers in road parties, but he retained certain ticketer privileges. He received wages for this work and often preferred this to private employment, until Governor Kennedy ordered that no ticketer in government employment was to be paid a labourer’s wage. After that such men soon found other work.

The above taken has been taken from the case study of convict Thomas Fuller Bacon at

Souvenir of the Tottenham outrage Souvenir of the Tottenham outrage