How will these resources help you? 

The role of ‘law and order’ in society may be difficult for modern students to appreciate. However, understanding its importance is the key to understanding the Victorians. The cornerstones of Victorian society were social stability and economic growth. At the start of the nineteenth century, the enforcement of law and order in England and Wales was the same as it had been during the Middle Ages, despite the vastly increased population in cities. Petty crime, violent behaviour and drunkenness made city dwellers of all classes afraid to walk the streets, leading to the introduction of the first (male only) police officers in London by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel. These resources will provide insight into this pivotal change, as well as the wider picture of criminality at the time. 

An overview: the development of Britain’s forces of law and order

The Great British Bobby: a history of British policing from 1829 to the present

by Clive Emsley, published by Quercus (Hachette), (2010), 9781849161978

Emsley’s fascinating book features individual biographies to create a vivid history of the British forces of law and order, from early watchmen and constables to modern police officers. With real case studies from police archives and in-depth historical detail, Emsley successfully recreates the world of Victorian policemen, known first as ‘peelers’ and then ‘bobbies’ in honour of Sir Robert, who were easily identifiable by their blue tailcoats and top hats.

The wrong side of the law

The Victorian Criminal

by Neil R. Storey, published by Shire Publications (Bloomsbury), (2011), 9780747808145

Storey uses a wide range of sources, including newspaper reports, illustrations, photographs and court and prison records, to give a fascinating overview of Victorian criminality. The book describes the gamut of criminal activity, from petty crime and poaching to baby farming and murder, and it charts the development of detective forces and forensic techniques. These (sometimes gruesome) accounts of the crimes of the period illustrate why the introduction of the new police force was so necessary.

Female criminals In the Victorian era

Criminal Women 1850–1920

by Lucy Williams and Barry Godfrey, published by Pen and Sword, (2018), 9781526718617

Many women turned to crime in the Victorian era. However, their stories are hard to trace through historical records, specifically because they did not want to be found. This illustrated book goes beyond the newspaper reports to examine the lives of the individuals arrested and the jail sentences they endured. It is split into three sections: the first outlines the historical context of the crimes, the second contains case studies and the third gives a detailed guide to understanding the archives and online sources for the amateur researcher with an interest in this fascinating, if difficult, subject.

Audiovisual clip

Timewatch - The East End

published by BBC, (1988)

The East End of London was perceived as particularly dangerous by the Victorians, and after the Whitechapel murders, even newspapers started campaigning for more policing in the area.

Further Materials

The Victorian Policeman by Simon Dell, published by Shire Publications (Bloomsbury), (2004), 9780747805915 Find this book
Victorian and Edwardian Prisons by Trevor May, published by Shire Publications (Bloomsbury), (2006), 9780747806417 Find this book
Finding Out About: Victorian Law and Order by Alan Evans, published by Batsford Ltd, (1988), 9780713456592 Find this book
Karen Wallace has written over 300 fiction and non-fiction books for children. Think of an Eel won the Times Education Award and the Kurt Maschler Award in the UK. It also won the Parents’ Choice Gold Award in the US. Her first novel Raspberries on the Yangtze was shortlisted for the Guardian Young Fiction Award.

Text © Karen Wallace, 2021.