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The Liverpool Underworld: Crime in the City

Crime in the City, 1750-1900

Borough Gaol Great Howard Street 1843

In 1850 Thomas Carter, the Anglican chaplain of the Liverpool Borough Gaol, admitted that ‘our town has been acknowledged to be one of the most unhealthy towns in the kingdom. It is certainly notorious for being (so far as the criminal statistics show it) the most immoral.’ yet in the same year the Liverpool Mercury warned, ‘There is nothing more dangerous, in our estimate of the causes of social evil, than an implicit reliance on statistical information.’ Crime statistics have always been a problematic guide to both the amount and the type of criminal activity. For a start, a great deal of crime goes unreported and hence unrecorded, the so-called ‘dark figure’. In a lecture on ‘Liverpool Slum Life’, delivered in 1894, local JP and temperance campaigner Dr Whitford revealed the uselessness of crime statistics. On the one hand, the head Constable's report could boast that there had been no significant increase in crime during the year. At the same time the Liverpool Mercury was informing its readers ‘that the Liverpool slum dwellers are at present more degraded, more drunken, and more lawless than at any time during the past 15 years’. Whitfeld helped explain the discrepancy by pointing out several cases of violent robbery that were never reported to the police. In the slums, intimidation and terror were so common that most people were afraid to complain. He concluded that ‘most of the crime in the Liverpool slums never appears in any police return’.

River Mersey, Dock and Customs House
On 5 February 1777 a woman called Mary Clarke was set upon, beaten and thrown into the Mersey. The community was so shocked at this heartless act that Mayor Crosbie set up an appeal for money to help the victim, who could no longer earn a living. Since it was clear that the existing system of policing was not working, a new police committee was formed to sit daily. A curfew was also imposed, with all respectable people being advised that if they wished to avoid arrest they should not leave the house at night. These were worrying times. In 1779 detachments of the Yorkshire Militia were stationed at the town's garrison to keep order on the streets. Despite such local scares, it was not until the nineteenth century that crime became the national issue it is today. In the eighteenth century there was little sense of media or government concern about the causes of delinquency, no link between social conditions and criminal behaviour. Robbery and violence affected individuals but there was no great public debate about crime. Even into the early nineteenth century, law-breaking was simply put down to a moral weakness in people. When a woman, just released from the Borough Gaol, immediately committed another crime, the Liverpool Mercury enquired whether she was without employment. If so, it was suggested that she might have been driven to commit the offence through ‘absolute want, as well as depravity’.

Stocks in West Derby
The medieval justice system was nothing if not robust. In 1565 a Liverpool purse-thief called Thomas Johnson was nailed by the ear to a post and afterwards whipped out of town by boys carrying bunches of twigs. Over the centuries, pain and public humiliation remained essential elements of criminal justice. In 1785 Joseph Timms, another thief, was put in the pillory and flogged. Stocks were situated at High Cross in High Street and the punishment was still used in the nineteenth century. Walton-on-the-Hill, three miles from Liverpool, housed an iron stocks. As late as 1857 a prisoner was confined there by order of the local magistrate. James Stonehouse recalled that children were particularly cruel to victims held in the stocks: ‘I have seen stout and sturdy fellows faint under the sufferings they endured.’ He also remembered the large pond in Marybone, called the Flashes, which once held a ducking stool for women.

The impress service, press gangs.

A great deal of disorder in the eighteenth century involved the activities of the press-gang. The Impress Service, as it was properly known, provided recruits for Royal Navy warships. The tyrannical discipline of life aboard a man-of-war, compared to the relatively less strict conditions on merchant vessels, discouraged sailors from enlisting, hence the need for a little encouragement. To put it bluntly, the navy sanctioned the press-gang to impress (in other words, enslave) seamen. A thriving port, Liverpool was a prime target for their activities. In the eighteenth century about a quarter of Liverpool's adult male population was at risk of impressment. The press-gang was particularly busy during times of crisis. The resulting recruitment drives were known as ‘hot presses’. During the American War of Independence the town council was prompted to encourage men to volunteer for bounties.

Liverpool Quay 1887
If the poor wanted warmth and comfort they would find it in the brightly lit public houses. This is where they would meet with friends to listen to the latest gossip, keep informed about available work and seek financial and emotional support from fellow countrymen. The Irish poor were also tied to particular neighbourhoods by the need for credit from sympathetic shopkeepers and familiar landlords. Food was cheaper in the city-centre markets. Generation after generation would be brought up in the same areas. Although people would move constantly from street to street they never moved too far away from each other.

Dockland districts throughout the world have always had a reputation for wickedness and depravity. Teeming with sex-starved sailors and gullible travellers loaded with money, such areas are magnets for thieves and prostitutes. Nevertheless, Liverpool was singled out as being exceptionally bad. The worst quarter was Gibraltar Row, running from Great Howard Street to the Princes Dock. In the 1830s, Herman Melville described the area as ‘putrid with vice and crime to which perhaps the round globe does not furnish a parallel These are the haunts in which cursing, gambling, pick-pocketing and common iniquities are virtues too lofty for the infected gorgons and hydras to practise.’ Nearby Waterloo Road, with its 16 public houses, was also infested with ‘desperate and abandoned characters’.

Maritime crime was a lucrative business. In 1836 Head Constable Whitty claimed that 1,700 people lived upon merchandise plundered from the docks, although the figure seems somewhat excessive. Liverpool docks were one of the wonders of the western world, yet the dearth of secure warehousing facilities was cited as a major reason for so much crime. In the 1840s only the Albert Dock was completely enclosed and protected. The northern docks were sheltered by walls but had no warehouses within the enclosures. The southern docks were unprotected by walls and were open to the public.

Albert Dock

Today's newspapers carry reports of knife crime, youth gangs, binge drinking, vice and anti-social behaviour all have their origins in an earlier age. The Victorians not only faced the same inner-city social problems, but faced them for the very first time. For all the benefits of social progress, we are still struggling with Victorian problems and still offering the same old solutions. It is ironic that when Liverpool City Council looked at establishing ‘managed zones’ for sex workers (selected districts where prostitution would be tolerated) one of the areas for consideration was Kempston Street, formerly Blandford Street, the focus of the city's brothels in the 1890s. This was the same ‘red light district’ permitted by Head Constable Nott-Bower and his officers. It is as if we have come full circle.


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