When trying to assess levels of crime for a given period or for a particular location, one of the first ports of call is often the official crime statistics that have been produced, to varying degrees of complexity, since the early part of the nineteenth century.
Although the information was limited to certain crimes in the early years, statistics began to be published annually by the middle of the century and included information such as the number of indictable (or more serious) crimes known to the police and the figures for persons proceeded against for summary offences.**
But while the annual crime statistics may appear to give you an overview of levels of crime at both a national and local level, they are far from an accurate representation of actual criminal activity.
Most tellingly, the figures only include crimes that were reported and then recorded or identified by individual police forces. Unreported or unrecorded crimes are, obviously, never part of the overall numbers. It is impossible to ascertain how many crimes constitute what has been described as this ‘dark figure’ of crime.
This is not the only issue. New legislation or changes in crime definitions and categorisations make it difficult to assess criminality across time periods, and increases in population may also need to be taken into account. And the actual processes and systems adopted by each police force and the efficiency of the methods used to record criminal activity would be reflected in the official statistics.
It is a topical issue, but the causal relationship between falling crime figures and police numbers is far from straightforward and could even be deemed a paradoxical one. A weakening of a police force and its crime detection activities could lead to an increase in actual crime. But any decline in the said force’s efficiency, be it due to police numbers or lax administrative practices, could mean more crimes not being identified or recorded, resulting in what appears to be a decrease in the number of crimes actually taking place.
Some police chiefs may also be keen to present lower crime figures in a bid to reassure the public that they are operating effective preventative mechanisms. They may try to boost clear-up rates by failing to record specific crimes or recording them inaccurately – for example, marking them as a single offence if not solved or as multiple offences if somebody had been arrested and charged.
The discretionary nature of local policing, at both an organisational level and by individual officers, is another major issue for the annual crime statistics and one that makes comparisons across towns and cities problematic.
This is something I experienced firsthand when assessing crime levels in the city of Hull during the interwar period. I was attempting to provide a context for my research into reactions to crime in this period, evaluating regional responses to criminality against the backdrop of rising crime levels, as presented in the annual statistics.
While I didn’t discover anything unusual in the statistics for more serious offences – these matched the trends at a national level with modest increases in the 1920s and sharper rises in the 1930s – I was shocked to find that non-indictable offences in Hull appeared to be incredibly high for much of the period.
In the middle four years of the interwar period, Hull consistently had more than 23,000 people proceeded against for non-indictable crimes.
As the table above shows, these figures were much higher than other major Yorkshire cities such as Leeds and Sheffield; more than Birmingham and at times even exceeded Liverpool and Manchester.
So why were the total figures for Hull so high? Was the city riddled with petty criminals during this period? Well, the answer turned out to be a little surprising. What actually set Hull apart, and was responsible for the high figure, was the local Hull Corporation’s vehement adherence to a 1677 Act that restricted trading in the city on Sundays. The prosecutions constituted a very high percentage of the total non-indictable offence numbers for Hull. By 1931, an article in the Hull Daily Mail was even claiming that the number of Sunday trading offences in the city made up two-thirds of the total for the whole country.
This proportion was noted in the introduction for the 1930 annual criminal statistics, stating that there appeared to be a ‘greater disposition to prosecute’ in places like Hull. Prosecutions for the ports of Hull and Grimsby together accounted for 24,281 out of the total 31,090. Hull’s figure alone was 19,835. This meant that offences relating to Sunday trading constituted 85% of the total non-indictable offences in the city.
It is not altogether clear why the city was so keen to penalise Sunday traders. However, the claim that, via this outdated Act, the local corporation could bring in revenues of £100 a week from vendors prosecuted for trading is a persuasive one. After all, the offence itself is not serious and didn’t really pose a threat to the local community, so it is difficult to find a justification for why so many people were prosecuted, beyond the financial incentives.
That said, there was support for the prosecutions, mainly from religious groups railing against the greed of traders and the failure of the public to respect the Lord’s Day. Some of these groups even called for an increase in the fines to stop the ‘avarice’ of city shopkeepers. Not surprisingly, the vendors and shopkeepers in Hull, along with many members of the public, wanted the Act abolished.
The number of prosecutions for Sunday trading in Hull did fall dramatically later in the period. This was a consequence of the introduction of the Shops (Sunday Trading Restriction) Act 1936, which was viewed as a more ‘modern’ approach to the regulation of shop opening hours. By 1937, the number of persons prosecuted had dropped to 6,272. The figure plummeted to just five in 1938, with a concomitant drop in the overall total for persons prosecuted for non-indictable offences in Hull – figures that appeared more in line with other major cities in Yorkshire and beyond.
Without further investigations into the reasons why Hull had such a high rate of offending, the annual statistics appeared to present a city that, for much of the interwar period, was a hotbed of petty offending. Further investigations revealed just how petty or inconsequential these offences actually were.
It is perhaps in this capacity that the annual statistics are best utilised. Rather than offering an accurate account of overall crime levels, they can provide a starting point for local investigations into crime, particularly if they present anomalies as interesting as those found in Hull. This may lead to more detailed examinations of what kinds of crimes were being prosecuted in a particular region and why these were deemed an issue for each respective community.
So while caution is needed when analysing official crime statistics, they should not be discarded altogether. They can still offer an interesting snapshot of attitudes and reactions to crime and criminality, which form a key element of the social history of a particular town, city or region, even if the true extent of this criminality can never be accurately assessed using these figures alone.
**You can access the official annual crime statistics at https://parlipapers.proquest.com/parlipapers via many local libraries and archives.
For more information about crime statistics in the nineteenth and twentieth century, read:
C. Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750–1900, 2nd edition (Harlow: Longman Group Limited, 1996) and Crime and Society in Twentieth-Century England (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2011)
B. S. Godfrey, C. A. Williams & P. Lawrence, History and Crime (London: Sage Publications, 2008)