In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime and Punishment

  • Introduction
  • Bibliographies
  • Archives
  • Juvenile Offenders
  • Poisoning
  • Crime in the Imperial Context
  • Suicide and Blasphemy
  • Executions
  • Penal Transportation
  • Law and Literature
  • Policing and Law Enforcement

Victorian Literature Crime and Punishment
Anne Schwan, Samuel Saunders
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 February 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199799558-0087


The study of Victorian crime and punishment is a rich area of research that has attracted the interest not only of literary scholars but also of social historians, legal historians, and criminologists. Related scholarship therefore often situates itself at the intersection of a number of traditional disciplinary boundaries, facilitating interdisciplinary conversation. Crime and punishment was a pressing issue for the Victorians and provoked a wealth of responses from contemporaneous commentators in literature, culture, science, and politics. As a new phase of industrialization brought immense wealth for some and abject poverty for others, Victorian urban centers in particular were afflicted by crime, which spurred efforts to establish systems of social regulation such as the new Metropolitan Police in 1829, a plain-clothes “detective department” in 1842, concerted efforts to set up urban police forces across the 1840s, and, after 1856, a compulsory nationwide system of uniformed law enforcement. However, without an effective system of social welfare in place, social inequality and deprivation drove women, men, and children into petty crime and more serious offenses, often resulting in severe punishment ranging from incarceration via penal transportation (abolished 1868) to hanging. Public executions, not abolished until 1868, attracted huge crowds of spectators, including authors such as Charles Dickens and William Thackeray, who wrote about these experiences. Popular street literature also conveyed, illustrated (and thus contextualized) these events for a broad, diverse audience. Execution broadsides of famous cases, printing the alleged last lamentations of convicts on the scaffold in verse, are estimated to have sold by the million. Elsewhere, new (and more expensive) periodicals and magazines, particularly from the mid-Victorian era onward, began to publish regular features that summarized the most recent criminal occurrences – not just from their local area, but from up and down the country. As the legal system itself was undergoing reform (comprising changes in legal evidence procedure, divorce law, women’s property rights, and punishment for sexual offenses, for example), sensational trials caused furor and stimulated commentary in literature and the media. Crime and punishment was discussed in a range of literary and popular genres, poetry, and reformist writing. The “Newgate School” of fiction was accused of glamorizing crime, and the popular penny dreadfuls were feared as vehicles to corrupt public morals. Sensational fiction in the 1860s, which often drew on real-life criminal cases and newspaper reports, depicted the supposedly respectable middle-class family home as a center of transgression. “Detective fiction” emerged fully and drastically diversified in this era, in some incarnations choosing to focus on crime in the world of the middle classes, while others drew upon the power of the uniformed police to penetrate and explore socially inaccessible spaces such as urban slums. For the student new to the subject of crime and punishment, therefore, this area’s interdisciplinary nature can pose an initial and substantial challenge.

General Overviews

There is no shortage of useful overviews of crime and punishment in the Victorian period, although it is helpful to distinguish between works that consider the practice of crime and punishment from a historical point of view (Historical Context) and those that deal with its representation in Literature and Culture, although there is some overlap between these somewhat artificial distinctions. Popular Histories contains well-researched titles written for a broader audience that also provide excellent introductions to the general sociohistorical context of the period in a particularly accessible style.

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