Criminology History of Crime in the United Kingdom
Paul Knepper
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0175


Historical study of crime in the United Kingdom encompasses a large literature of books and articles. While the history of crime has been around for some time, particularly in the sense of legal history, much of the framework for historical criminology has grown out of the wave of scholarship that began in the 1970s. Starting with a conference of the Labour History Society in 1972, there emerged a social history of crime that extended the interpretation beyond the legal sphere to cultural, political, and economic contexts. The conference led to E. P. Thompson’s study of England’s “bloody code” and a collection of essays by Douglas Hay and others about “criminal” activities ranging from riots to smuggling. These studies not only led to debates about crime, law, and justice in 18th-century England but promoted criminological study of history. Because they drew on the social theory of Marx, they crossed over to criminology and critique of contemporary criminal justice. Foucault’s work on the prison, which also appeared in the 1970s, inspired historical study as well. It provided a set of issues for investigation in connection with prisons, criminology, and social control. Since then, historians and criminologists have taken the historical study of crime and criminal justice in diverse areas, reflecting both trends in social history and current issues in criminology. The range of research includes forms of criminality; the administration of criminal law; crime trends and levels of violence; women, crime, and justice; and criminological theory. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, historical analyses have looked at British criminal justice history in relation to the British Empire and “globalization.”

General Overviews

There are several synthetic histories of crime and criminal justice in Britain and a number of valuable edited collections. Clive Emsley has produced a number of widely read accounts; Emsley 2010 and Emsley 2007 offer readable text and useful references. Rawlings 1999 and Taylor 1998 emphasize particular aspects of this history; Godfrey and Lawrence 2005 makes connections to criminology. The edited collections Godfrey and Dunstall 2005, Becker and Wetzell 2006, and Kilday and Nash 2010 offer samples of the range of topics within historical study of crime. Godfrey and Dunstall 2005 brings together work about crime, prisons, and police in colonial contexts; the contributions to Becker and Wetzell 2006 range across Europe; and Kilday and Nash 2010 covers a variety of crimes in England connected with morality.

  • Becker, Peter, and Richard F. Wetzell, eds. 2006. Criminals and their scientists: The history of criminology in international perspective. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9781139052405

    Evocative essays about a range of topics in crime that demonstrate the value of comparative methodology in historical study of crime.

  • Emsley, Clive. 2007. Crime, police, and penal policy: European experiences, 1750–1940. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199202850.001.0001

    Good overview of changes in penal policy and policing in England from the mid-18th century to the mid-20th century. Emsley situates England in the European context, presenting English policies alongside those of Germany, France, and Italy.

  • Emsley, Clive. 2010. Crime and society in England, 1750–1900. 4th ed. Harlow, UK: Longman.

    Readable survey of historical research on the changing social context of crime from the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century.

  • Godfrey, Barry, and Graeme Dunstall, eds. 2005. Crime and empire, 1840–1940: Criminal justice in local and global context. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    Crime, and the response to crime, across a range of colonial contexts including Australia, India, and South Africa.

  • Godfrey, Barry, and Paul Lawrence, eds. 2005. Crime and justice, 1750–1950. Cullompton, UK: Willan.

    Guide to crime trends and criminal justice developments for social scientists interested in history. Includes a timetable of significant events.

  • Kilday, Anne-Marie, and David Nash. 2010. Histories of crime: Britain, 1600–2000. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-1-137-04321-4

    Morality, adultery, infanticide, rape, fraud, and white-collar crime over three centuries.

  • Rawlings, Philip. 1999. Crime and power: A history of criminal justice 1688–1988. London: Longman.

    Charts changes in criminal justice policy from the late 17th century to the late 20th century, including the shift from volunteer to professional decision-makers.

  • Taylor, David. 1998. Crime, policing and punishment in England, 1750–1914. New York: St. Martin’s.

    The rise of criminal justice administration from the mid-18th century and notions of the “criminal” on which it was based.

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