Victorian Criminal Class Was Nothing More than a Middle-class Myth

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About this sample


Words: 1594 |

Pages: 4|

8 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Words: 1594|Pages: 4|8 min read

Published: Aug 14, 2023

Table of contents

  1. The Professional 'Criminal Class': A Fearsome Concept in Victorian Social Observations
  2. Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor': Exploring the Criminal Class
  3. Conclusion
  4. References

In the nineteenth century, Victorians used the word 'slum' to describe blighted areas and public squalor. During this time, Britain was primarily industrial and considered by many to be the world leader in the advancement and significant shift in traditional practices in agriculture, manufacturing and transportation. Britain was renowned as a powerhouse state, one of the richest in the world; consequently, this led to overcrowding in inner cities, squalor, hardship and deprivation for many. Britain's deprived areas in the nineteenth century were synonymous with people's views leading to the formation of the word 'slum'. Definitions for the term 'slum' vary, but many included the notion that poor districts were the source of criminal behaviour and responsible for flourishing crime. During this time, many Victorians adopted the idea that a 'criminal class' existed. It was the product of industrialisation and urbanisation, which subsequently left those facing devastating poverty to survive mainly off crime proceeds. To this day, there are still debates surrounding the notion that the Victorian 'criminal class' could have potentially been nothing more than a myth. This essay will address the portrayal of Victorian slums by middle-class writers and discuss the relationship between the Victorian slums and crime. Also, it will discuss the meaning of the term 'slum' to determine whether or not it gave an accurate representation of the poor districts at this time.

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The Professional 'Criminal Class': A Fearsome Concept in Victorian Social Observations

In 1883, the Reverend Andrew Mearns published a pamphlet called 'The Bitter Cry of Outcast London'. Rapidly this pamphlet became very popular as it consisted of information on the poorer parts of London's living conditions. During this time, middle-class readers were eager to know more about these notorious slums as they never had the opportunity to visit these areas themselves'. Throughout, Mearns gives you the impression that the slum districts were overcrowded, cramped, unhygienic and full of criminality. For example, when he visited Collier's Rents (south-east London), he observed that the slum dwellers were 'largely occupied' and deemed the sanitary conditions 'indescribable'. This pamphlet validates that London's poorer districts were immensely crowded and they were filthy beyond belief. Furthermore, Mearns describes the houses in these districts and their inhabitants. For example, he writes that there were 'many low lodging-houses in the neighbourhood of the worst type. Some of them 'enanted chiefly by thieves'. This pamphlet implies that the poorer parts of London consisted of the worst type of people, some of which included criminals. This point is validated further through descriptions of the houses. For example, he writes that some of the houses were joined together by narrow passageways and that they were 'a ready method of escape in case of police interference'. This quote suggests that the general public believed in the notion that a 'criminal class' existed because of the assumption that passageways were used as routes to escape the police.

Even though there is evidence within articles to suggest that Victorian slums were real, were they? In the 1990s, historian Alan Mayne published several articles and books that argued that the nineteenth century slums were 'mythical'. Although some of his arguments are now relatively archaic, they are still relevant when determining whether or not the Victorian 'criminal class' was a myth. In the first line of Mayne's book 'The Imagined Slum', he says that 'slums are myths', that 'they are constructions of the imagination'. However, shortly after, he contradicts himself. For example, he writes, 'I do not mean that slums were not real. They were, after all, a universal feature of big cities. This quote implies that his main argument was not on whether slums existed or the areas themselves but more so on the term 'slum' and the negative attributes attached to it. Furthermore, Mayne implies that the term 'slum' appeased the middle-class. For example, he writes that 'the slum was employed by both reformers and entertainers as a potent trigger device which mobilised bourgeois interest'. This quote implies that the portrayal of the slums and the 'criminal class' by middle-class writers could be inaccurate or deeply misunderstood. It also implies that middle-class writers dehumanised and stereotyped the poor and did this for entertainment and profit.

In the nineteenth century, social observers were scared that a criminal underworld had developed in London. As a result, many Victorians began to write of a professional 'criminal class' that survived off the proceeds of crime and targeting the wealthy. In the early 1800s, English writer Charles Dickens published a fictional novel called 'Oliver Twist' that provided a realistic picture of organised criminals in a criminal underworld. For example, one of the novel's main antagonists was an 'old gentleman' named Fagin, a kidsman (trainer of young thieves). During chapter 9, Dickens gets Fagin to play a 'game' with the Dodger and Bates, wherein he puts on a tight coat filled with expensive goods and challenges the two boys to steal these goods without him realising. Throughout this chapter, Dickens portrays Fagin as an organised criminal who craftily grooms and exploits young boys. Although not clearly stated, the reader can grasp that Fagin is teaching young boys to pickpocket. Furthermore, Dickens' novel sheds light on the poor's living conditions by depicting the human misery, blight, and squalor persuasively. However, it restored belief in many Victorians that a professional 'criminal class' existed and that these types of criminals stemmed from the poorer classes.

Henry Mayhew's 'London Labour and the London Poor': Exploring the Criminal Class

In 1882, sociologist John Binny wrote a section within Henry Mayhew's book 'London Labour and the London Poor' to describe young pickpockets' training. At the beginning of this section, he expresses how young people from low lodging-houses are responsible for pickpocketing. He suggests that it is a product of negative influences and neglect from parents. For example, he writes, 'they often begin to steal at six or seven years of age, sometimes as early as five years and commit petty sneaking thefts, as well as pick handkerchiefs from gentlemen's pockets'. Due to the children's ages, it implies that they were taught by others in the slums to steal. Also, Binny's referral to the thefts being 'sneaky' implies the children rehearsed these crimes. He shows that this assumption was correct by saying that the children were 'taught by trainers of thieves, young men and women, and some middle-aged convicted thieves'. This quote implies that many people from the slums had the knowledge and ability to steal. It suggests that young and middle-aged men and women passed on this knowledge to one another. Furthermore, Binny's research implies Dickens fictional representation of a criminal underworld was accurate and proves that a professional 'criminal class' likely existed.

In the 1850s and 1860s, journalist Henry Mayhew wrote a series of books called 'London Labour and the London Poor', which explored the working-class's living conditions and lives. In his earlier series, he categories the poor into three categories, 'those that will work' - the respectable 'labouring' poor, 'those that cannot work' - the elderly and disabled and 'those who will not work' - the criminal and vicious. It is not until 1862 that Mayhew decides to focus on 'those that will not work' (criminals perceived as dangerous). At this stage, Mayhew aimed to define crime and the professional 'criminal class', whereby he argued a crime had occurred when an individual broke social law. After completion, many Victorians believed that several 'criminal classes' existed and that a professional 'criminal class' flourished throughout London's towns and cities. For example, he argued thieves came under 'criminal class' as they were continuous offenders; hence, the source of where crime stemmed from. His book was so plausible because he conducted numerous interviews with slum dwellers, speaking to them first-hand. However, some are still sceptical of the legitimacy of to these conducted interviews. Mayhew probably had to pay interviewees, which may have to exaggeration of the truth.

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To conclude, the sources suggest the Victorian 'criminal class' existed and was not a myth. Even though Mayne speaks of the slums as being constructions of the imagination, he still acknowledges that there were areas of deprivation within Britain. Throughout the slums are portrayed as the source of crime, whether through fictional or non-fictional accounts; it implies a majority of sources written were accurate and that they give a realist representation of the poor districts during this era. Throughout, middle-class writers have shown criminality during this era, and that it mainly stemmed from the slums, wherein many professional criminals resided. Even though there is a significant amount of evidence to suggest this to be accurate, some people remain sceptical and believe the poor were dehumanised and stereotyped to appease the middle-class.


  • Binny, J. (1862). 'John Binny on the training of young pickpockets', in Henry Mayhew (ed.) London Labour and the London Poor. London: Griffin, Bohn and Co, p. 304.
  • Croll, A. (2021) Visiting a Victorian Slum with Revd Andrew Mearns, from HS1S008 Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the Nineteenth Century. University of South Wales. Available from Blackboard
  • Croll, B. (2021) 'Slums are myths' historian Alan Mayne on the Victorian slum, from HS1S008 Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the Nineteenth Century. University of South Wales. Available from Blackboard
  • Croll, C. (2021) Henry Mayhew's 'criminal class', from HS1S008 Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the Nineteenth Century. University of South Wales. Available from Blackboard
  • Dickens, C. (2015) Oliver Twist. New York: Open Road Media.
  • Mayhew, A. (1985) London Labour and the London Poor. London: Penguin Books Ltd.
  • Mayne, A. (1993) The Imagined Slum: Newspaper Representation in Three Cities 1870-1914. London: Continuum International Publishing Group Ltd.
  • Mearns, A. (1883) The Bitter Cry of Outcast London. London: James Clarke Co.
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Victorian Criminal Class Was Nothing More Than a Middle-Class Myth. (2023, August 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved April 19, 2024, from
“Victorian Criminal Class Was Nothing More Than a Middle-Class Myth.” GradesFixer, 14 Aug. 2023,
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