By Dr Ashley Borrett

In a previous blog, I looked at how newspapers can provide a wealth of information for the crime researcher looking to gain a better understanding of both the nature of crime and reactions to criminality during a given period.

With articles covering everything from crime statistics and court appearances to police campaigns and prison conditions, the newspaper offers an unrivalled level of detail, albeit with added colour and embellishment that can sometimes distort the true extent and characteristics of offending.

Caveats heeded (including the editorial constraints of coverage, commercial bias and the political disposition of ownership), the newspaper can offer us a fascinating insight into prevailing attitudes to the various aspects of crime, through comments attributed to key players in the crime arena such as police chiefs, judges, magistrates, solicitors, prison officials, probation officers, and all those other individuals involved in the dealing with criminal behaviour.

This is particularly true of the local newspaper. With its narrow geographical reach and, consequently, its reliance on furnishing its stories and filling its columns with comments from the key movers and shakers in local crime debates, it is no surprise that the provincial newspaper offers the researcher an ideal opportunity to examine these voices from the past and chart the development of attitudes to crime.

These localised analyses can often reveal some interesting ‘characters’. In my own research into responses to crime and criminality in Hull during the interwar period, one such individual emerged from the pages of the local newspapers.

In 1925, Hull City Council agreed to appoint a stipendiary magistrate in the city after operating for a number of years without anyone in the role. The man who took up the post was John Robert Macdonald, who hailed from Brondesbury in London.

Macdonald had worked in the City before being called to the Bar, practicing in both London and on the North-Eastern Circuit. He also fought in the First World War, spending time in France, Macedonia, Egypt and Palestine, receiving the Officer of the British Empire (military) and the Order of the Nile medals for his service during the conflict. He served as the stipendiary for Hull until his retirement in 1952.

Locally, Macdonald was seen as a progressive magistrate. His views often reflected what has been perceived to be a shift in attitudes to crime and criminality during this period, where notions of reform and rehabilitation challenged retaliation and retribution for primacy in criminal justice debates and practices.

Rather than simply sending offenders to prison, Macdonald would often look to other methods of ‘punishment’ that would ultimately help ‘save’ the individual from a life of crime. This would sometimes manifest itself in what appear to be rather lenient sentences for offences he deemed trivial.

For example, at Hull Magistrate’s Court in January 1938, Macdonald declared that a 32-year-old Hull man’s offence of driving while under the influence of alcohol on New Year’s Day was far from being a ‘bad case’ and, accordingly, imposed a fine of £1. The magistrate did not suspend his licence either as he felt that this would have been a ‘tremendous punishment’ for the defendant, who drove a taxi for a living.[1] Of course, this may have been a reflection of nationwide attitudes to drink driving at that time.

Macdonald also appears to have been a keen advocate of probation for both adult and juvenile offenders and was involved in helping former prisoners get back on their feet after release, serving as vice-president of the local prisoners’ aid society from 1925 until his retirement in 1952.

The Hull, East Riding and Lincolnshire Discharged Prisoners’ Aid Society was established in 1857 with the aim of helping former prisoners reintegrate into society and make a useful and lasting contribution via employment, education and voluntary work. The driving force behind the organisation was an ethos of ‘optimism’ and ‘opportunity’, helping former prisoners to ‘face the world afresh’.[2] As was the case with probation, this was all about giving former prisoners a second chance, rather than simply marking them out as criminals.

Macdonald also refused to believe that ordinary people would turn to crime if their social or economic circumstances changed for the worse. He was quick to challenge a Hull Daily Mail newspaper article that had reported him saying that, with regards to crime, the unemployed were ‘driven to it’, when what he actually claimed to have said was that they were ‘hard driven’ and not necessarily more inclined to criminal behaviour. ‘In spite of the hardness under which the men of the country are being driven, they are keeping honest, admirably honest, and it is something to be proud of,’ Macdonald declared. ‘They are hard driven, but they resist going into crime.’[3]

But all that said, Macdonald’s views were far from consistent. Just as I found with other members of Hull’s local elite during the interwar period, the social, economic and political conditions of the age could directly influence attitudes to crime, often precipitating calls for harsher punishments to a whole range of criminal behaviours.

During tough economic times in Hull, notions of probation and giving offenders a second chance increasingly came under attack. When a married Hull man with three children appeared before the city’s magistrates on charges of theft of cigarettes, his solicitor explained that the defendant had never been in trouble before. Seemingly unmoved by the plea, the stipendiary magistrate declared that it was ‘not the law that because a man committed a crime once, he would get off’.[4]

The change in Macdonald’s views were most notable for the juvenile offender, who was perceived to be a major societal problem during the 1930s, locally and across the country.

To deal with this growing ‘menace’, as it was described, Macdonald mooted the idea of ‘labour camps’ for offenders, which he saw as an ‘intermediate method’ of punishment, somewhere between probation and prison. His proposal was in response to rising crime rates and what he believed to be a failure of the current system of probationary sentencing.

‘Mr Macdonald has long been a firm advocate of probation in all its forms,’ claimed a Hull Daily Mail editorial in September 1935, ‘but a man of his experience and humanity does not make declarations like this without there being good cause’.[5] Something had to be done as there was ‘an increasing number of people who think that the breaking of the law will bring nothing more than an admonition from the Bench, and a piece of advice to go away and be good for a spell ranging from three months to three years’.[6] It was claimed that offenders in the camps would have to work hard, not through forced labour, but through the knowledge that if they didn’t they would ‘starve’.[7]

The threat of starvation through idleness or insubordination had menacing connotations, particularly in light of the events unfolding across Europe at that time. Nevertheless, the newspaper felt it was an idea that was worth considering by those charged with law enforcement in the region.

Across the city of Hull, there were also calls for the reinstation of the birch for young offenders. Macdonald himself declared he was not averse to proposing a simple, good old-fashioned ‘whacking’ to some of the youths that appeared in his courts.[8]

Macdonald also harboured rather conservative views about social status, often rebuking the working classes for attempting to act like respectable members of society and participate fully in the legal process. When a 38-year-old Hull labourer appeared before Macdonald in in June 1935, he read out portions of the criminal law as a defence to accusations that he assaulted a Hull Police officer, who had arrived at his house to collect a fine for a previous offence.[9] It was stated during the case in the Hull Police Court that it ‘seemed idiotic for a working-class man to try and understand the law of England and it was no use trying’. Rubbing salt into the wounds, Macdonald added: ‘And if you have a collection of Acts of Parliament, burn them.’[10]

These of course are just a snapshot of responses to crime and criminality in Hull during this period. But these reactions can help us gain a better understanding of the prevailing attitudes of key members of the local elite.

This is important because the interwar years have often been depicted as a period characterised by the consolidation and expansion of more progressive attitudes to crime. My own research reveals that this is a generalisation and only a partial account – one that masks potentially divergent responses in towns and cities across the country.

By examining the pronouncements of members of the local elite – an abundance of which can be found in the provincial newspapers – it may be possible to chart the development of responses to crime and criminality and offer more nuanced accounts of particular periods of our history.



[1] Hull Daily Mail, ‘“Wicked to treat taxi-drivers” – Hull stipendiary’, Hull Daily Mail. 7 January 1938, 1.

[2] Hull, East Riding and Lincolnshire Prisoners’ Aid Society, Annual report (1919). Hull and East Riding Prisoners’ Aid Society Records, C DSPA/2/1, Hull City Archives, Hull History Centre, Hull. 1920.

[3] Hull Daily Mail, ‘What Hull stipendiary said: unemployed men hard driven, but keeping honest’, Hull Daily Mail. 18 September 1925, 10.

[4] Hull Daily Mail, ‘Due to poverty: Hull man pleads guilty to theft of cigarettes’, Hull Daily Mail. 28 October 1929, 10.

[5] Editorial, ‘New way with lawbreakers’, Hull Daily Mail. 23 September 1935, 4.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Hull Daily Mail, ‘Labour camp for offenders’, Hull Daily Mail. 23 September 1935, 5.

[8] Hull Daily Mail, ‘Revelations of gangster terrorism in Hull: hooligans of the dance halls’, Hull Daily Mail. 1 November 1937, 10.

[9] Hull Daily Mail, ‘“Amateur lawyer loses”: sent to gaol for assault on Hull P.C.’, Hull Daily Mail. 28 June 1935, 1.

[10] Ibid.

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