The Changing Complexion of Crime in Nineteenth Century England
Crime during the nineteenth century in England, was being redefined as industrialization and urbanization increased. The social ramifications of overcrowding, poverty, immigration, and a growing disparity between rich and poor created new and inventive kinds of crime. As London approached the 1840's crime increased to new heights and the community reacted accordingly. The metropolitan police, although established in 1829, began to expand and change its role due to increasing stratification of crime (1).
By the 1840's larceny, whether breaking into houses or pickpocketing, was the most prevalent crime (2). As a direct result of this , houses and property were consequently being locked. Contemporary newspapers were running advertisements for locks. Most of the ads boasted locks that could not be picked. That kind of ad is most striking for how London society is changing. It also illustrates that, indeed, all types of crime had become rampant, thereby showing the need for locked doors, windows, cellars etc.
Larceny, in the city, primarily consisted of pickpockets. Crowds, lack of interest, and an overabundance of unsuspecting people enabled the pickpockets to flourish. Charles Dickens in Oliver Twist shows how a lack of community coupled with poverty, and the innate desire of the poor to survive by any means brought out the deviant side of society. Dickens portrays a children's gang led by Fagin, to show how savvy the pickpockets of London were becoming. In fact, during this time the average pickpocket was an adult, working with two other people (3). It may be that Dickens chose to portray a gang of children pickpockets for the sake of sensationalism. Using an adult just would not have had the same effect on the audience as a band of children. By using a child in this way Dickens makes his audience feel superior against the lower classes.
In Oliver Twist Dickens uses crime as a manifestation of the social stratification in London. Since breaking into houses was the second highest crime after pickpocketing. The mere idea of Sikes planning and executing a robbery was fairly typical of the time. Looking at it from our perspective it seems a fantastic crime, but in reality, "highway robberies, burglaries, and housebreaking occur most frequently in the suburbs" (4). Most of the housebreaks, however, were committed by servants, or people familiar with the people of the house. but again, it may be that sensationalism make for Dickens, makes for better reading the reality.
Several other aspects of Dickens' novel deserve special notice. Dickens' representation of the trial system was an accurate representation. For instance, when Oliver is taken into custody he is never allowed to speak. When standing trial he is sick, and the judge dismisses his silence as an act of noncompliance. This is probably the most realistic aspect of the Dickens' novel. At the time the novel...