By Dr Ashley Borrett
Whether you are researching the criminal past of a particular town, city or region, or a criminal ancestor in the family, it is likely that the most common crimes that emerge in your investigations are minor offences, be it petty theft, drunkenness, assault or acts of public disorder. Just as is the case today, most crimes that passed through the courts are what were deemed to be low-level offences and dealt with summarily.
That said, categories of petty offending do shift through time and are often a reflection of the prevailing social, economic and cultural characteristics of a particular era. While the causal relationship between socio-economics and criminal behaviour is a complex one (and one that continues to stir debates among politicians, criminologists, historians and sociologists) certain economic and cultural developments of the last 100 years or so have had a clear impact on crime levels and types of offending.
Arguably the most obvious of these developments is the rise of the motor vehicle. While most transport-related offences are now viewed as trivial by the public (and even the police and judiciary), it hasn’t always been the case. In the early decades of the twentieth century, the burgeoning use of motor vehicles caused growing consternation in towns and cities across the country. The huge rise in transport-related offences raised major concerns, and these anxieties were reflected in the level of press coverage dedicated to this modern type of crime that was afflicting society.
The burgeoning motor industry opened up a whole range of leisure activities for those wealthy enough to afford the new motor car. By 1920, around 187,000 cars were registered in Britain; a year and a half later, this figure had risen dramatically to 242,500. Just before the onset of the Second World War, the number of private cars had exceeded the two million mark. While the majority of car owners were from the wealthier sections of society, a growing second-hand market opened up opportunities for members of the working classes, who were already keen enthusiasts of the motorcycle. The impact was also felt in the commercial sector, with the number of vehicles increasing markedly during the first half of the twentieth century. Virtually half a million commercial vehicles were utilising the growing network of roads in Britain by 1938.
Alongside the positive aspects of the rise of road transport, which afforded increased leisure opportunities to motor vehicle users and new commercial opportunities to businesses transporting goods around the country, there was, of course, a darker side. The number of accidents on the country’s roads, a substantial proportion of which resulted in fatalities, caused concern for governments, the police and local authorities. Legislation aimed at the road user, some of it focused on curbing the dangerous activities of the private car and commercial vehicle driver, also had a serious impact on the work of the police and the courts.
This increasing focus on the roads, and subsequent prosecutions in the courts, is laid bare in the annual crime statistics. According to the report for 1938, those found guilty of the myriad of traffic offences constituted 60% of the overall total of offenders for that year. By the end of the interwar period then, this type of criminal, in his or her many guises, appears to have become the country’s most prevalent offender.
The activities of these offenders made good page fillers for the newspapers, particularly the provincial press. They would become one of the most reported local crimes in this period, alongside thefts and assaults. With increasing frequency, local newspapers became a platform for escalating fears and anxieties around the use of motor vehicles and what appeared to be an almost unstoppable growth in the number of traffic offences on the nation’s roads.
These fears manifested themselves most explicitly in the concept of the motor bandit, which, from a newspaper point of view, became one of the most high-profile acts of criminality in this period. This was probably down to its potentially dramatic characteristics, such as the daring smash-and-grab raid, the audacious pavement bag snatch and the high-speed police chase.
Local newspapers, such as the Hull Daily Mail, covered these stories enthusiastically. For example, in 1926 three men in a car pulled up outside the jewellers, Messrs Gleason and Co in Hull city centre, jumped from the vehicle and tried to steal gold Albert chains from the premises, before returning to the vehicle and driving off. A police chase ensued but the robbers escaped. Similar incidents were reported regularly in the local press, such as the robbery that took place at another local jewellers a few years later. Again, the motor bandits evaded capture, although the newspaper claimed that the ‘whole detective department’ was ‘engaged in an active search for the thieves’.
Car thefts also made the news, but the bigger stories were often reserved for the more extreme incidents, such as the case of the three motorcar thieves who appeared at Hull Police Court in 1925 following a tour of the country in a number of stolen vehicles, taken from a variety of locations including Hampstead, Harrogate and Northamptonshire.
A crime that has now become a familiar part of modern Britain, but was in its infancy in the 1920s and 1930s, also made headline news – joyriding. A front-page article in the Hull Daily Mail in April 1937 declared that the problem locally had reached epidemic levels, citing the cases of three youths, aged 17, 15 and 11, who had taken 13 cars in a month, bringing the city’s total number of incidents to 25 in March alone.
The issue appeared to be one that was affecting major cities across the country. In Birmingham, the police dealt with 259 cases in 1934 and 317 a year later, while in Manchester, joyriders appropriated 471 cars in 1936, which was a 35% increase on the previous year.
It would be fair to say, however, that the intensity of press anxieties throughout the period exceeded the actual number of these kinds of incidents taking place. Individual cases of what were seen to be lower-level offences or regulatory transgressions – such as the failure to install the correct lighting on motor vehicles, obstructions to pedestrian walkways by badly parked cars and lorries, licensing infringements, driving without insurance, and speeding offences – became a much more regular feature in the local newspaper.
And it wasn’t just the motorist that came under fire in this period. The cyclist and pedestrian were also blamed and prosecuted for carelessness on the country’s roads. They became linked in many people’s eyes, including police chief constables and local newspaper editors, with the marked increases in the number of accidents on Britain’s roads at this time – the number of deaths and injuries had already reached the worryingly large figure of 239,000 by 1934.
It is arguably within these spheres that an examination of the battle for Britain’s roads can best take place, due to the prevalence of the lower-level transport-related offences that appear in police files, court records and, in particular, press reporting throughout the first half of the twentieth century.
Accordingly, it is also where you may find your criminal ancestor – although it is never wise to rule out the motor bandit or joyrider!
 W. Plowden, The motor car and politics 1896–1970 (London: The Bodley Head Ltd, 1971), 164.
 P. Donovan & P. Lawrence, ‘Road traffic offending and an inner-London magistrates’ court (1913–1963)’. Crime, History and Societies, 12, 2 (2008), 119–140:122.
 T. Barker & D. Gerhold, The rise and rise of road transport, 1700–1990 (Basingstoke: The Macmillan Press Ltd, 1993), 86.
 Home Office, Criminal statistics England and Wales 1938, vi.
 Hull Daily Mail, ‘Smash and grab raid: exciting chase of motor bandits’, Hull Daily Mail. 12 March 1926, 5.
 Hull Daily Mail, ‘Daring “smash and grab” raid in Hull’, Hull Daily Mail. 12 March 1930, 5.
 Hull Times, ‘Amazing exploits: motor car thieves brought to book near Hull’, Hull Times. 10 October 1925, 6.
 Hull Daily Mail, ‘Epidemic of “joy-riding” in Hull: 25 motor cars go in a month’, Hull Daily Mail. 7 April 1937, 1.
 S. O’Connell, The car in British society: class, gender and motoring, 1896–1939 (Manchester, Manchester University Press, 1988), 103–104.
 Plowden, The motor car and politics, 266.