Crime and The City: What The Underworld Tells Us of London

Like all great cities, London has its illicit underbelly.  Throughout history, it has played host to a parade of villains.  From Johnathan Wild to Jack the Ripper, from Adam Worth to the Kray Twins, the misdeeds of these characters are woven through the tapestry of the city’s history.  They are what Sherlock Holmes termed the “red thread… running through the colourless skein of life.” A study of the London’s criminal past is a study of the very culture of the city, of the moods and attitudes that make up life here.  The records of the Old Bailey are a testament to the lives real people led as every level of society passed through its doors, whether as prisoners or witnesses.  Whereas the sensational stories of London’s newspapers chronicle the prevailing social views and opinion, changing as much by the year as by the century.  Even today, one need only glance at a copy of the Evening Standard to see that crime still forms a part of the character of the metropolis.

A Characteristic of Neighbourhoods

Crime is in the very bones of the city.  Throughout history, the districts that make up London have been defined by their delinquency and reputations once made can be difficult to change.  South of the River is still regarded by some as unsafe, but where once there were brothels and gin palaces, there are now the markets and restaurants of Borough.  The East End, now redeveloped and trendy, still retains some of is disreputable energy from its days as a gangster’s haven in the sixties, and of course the Ripper Walks that retraced the steps of the famous murderer still do good business more than a century after his crimes.  There is an undercurrent almost of pride in London’s criminal past, not in the acts themselves or the pain they cause, but in the independent spirit of the perpetrators; a characteristic that is very dear to Londoners’ hearts.

Heroes and Villains

Londoners’ fondness for criminals is matched by an equal taste for the process of justice, and it too takes pride of place in the city’s character.  Trials could form popular entertainment with tickets to famous cases changing hands for high prices.  For all that they may have lauded a renowned criminal, crowds would still throng to their executions.  What the people loved most though was the common man, the independent spirit.  Figures like Jonathan Wild – the self-styled Thief Taker General who made his living turning in poor performers in his own criminal gangs – drew little sympathy when they fell from grace.  More controversial are gangsters like the Krays who rose from humble beginnings but eventually became figures of authority in their own right.  Most rejoiced in their downfall, but even today some mourn the days when swathes of London were under their rule.

News and Views

A picture of life in London can be built by studying both the cases that have come before the courts and the manner in which they were reported.  For much of history, the average defendant has been male, poor and lacking education.  Their crimes were generally thefts, committed out of poverty if not desperation.  The cutpurses and pickpockets of Shakespeare and Dickens were common enough in reality, their lives a testimony both to the inequalities of society and the spirit of independence that precluded a formal police force for centuries.  The treatment of criminals too betrays the social attitudes of the day.  Of course crimes were by no means limited to the lower class men, no matter what the Victorians wanted to believe.  However, when a gentleman or a woman of any class was implicated, the matter was considered to be far more scandalous and in the latter’s case could lead to much harsher punishment and severe social stigma.

Protecting Themselves

Of course, it is not true to say that Londoners live where they do because of the criminal element.  The romantic glamour associated with a life of crime tends to become tarnished when one becomes a victim.  Instead, they take the necessary precautions to protect themselves.  For many people the biggest single risk is their car.  It is both the perfect target for crime – valuable, often unguarded, and easy to sell – and the most inconvenient to lose.  This is not merely a modern phenomenon; crooks of the past would steal horses for exactly the same reason.  This too has left its mark on London’s landscape.  Arguably the first financial institutions of the city were those concerned with insurance and even today, the cost of insuring a car, is one of the deciding factors for Londoners when considering where to live.  Prices even in neighbouring post codes differ widely and for this reason many people will even live in once place, but keep their car in another, often some distance from their home.  This acceptance of and management of risk is integral to London’s character.

London Today

Times change, but many things remain the same.  Although London is certainly safer than it once was, and indeed is much better than many global cities, crime is far from a thing of the past.  As it has done for centuries, it still plays its part, underscoring the nature of the city.  From the petty criminals pickpocketing the rich West End tourists to the gang violence in the poverty-stricken back streets of Hackney, the prevailing social conditions are still highlighted by their criminal underworlds.

Eve Wright © March 2014.