Vice and Crime

As a city with some 400,000 inhabitants in the second quarter of the seventeenth century and close to 1,000,000 by 1725, London naturally experienced problems with vice and crime.  Several things made both morality and the criminal law particularly difficult to enforce.  On the one hand the metropolis had a highly mobile population: an estimated 8,000 people moved into London during an average year in the seventeenth century, while during exceptional periods, like those following major plagues, the numbers were substantially higher.  Many migrants were adolescents who had come to take up apprenticeships or positions as servants; others were poor laborers in seach of work.  Keeping track of this population and assuring that the young and poor always led honest and productive lives presented enormous challenges.  The abscene of professional police before the appearance of paid "thief catchers" in the early eighteenth century coumpounded the problem.  So did the fact that servants and transient lodgers often lived under the same roof as prosperous householders, making it difficult to know who was responsible when valuables went missing.  The ubiquitous presence of pawn shops facilitated the disposal of pilfered items for cash.  Pawn shop owners might be held accountable for receiving stolen goods and many declined to accept suspicious pawns, but in a city the size of London it cannot have been difficult for a thief to find a shop willing to fence his booty.

Inevitably the capital also spawned criminal gangs and subcultures, which gave rise to a picaresque literature as early as the Elizabethan period. Prostitutes and semi-prostitutes sometimes appear to have doubled as con artists and petty thieves, judging by testimony in criminal cases. It must often have been difficult to distinguish between goods given a woman in exchange for sexual favors and those she had appropriated from an unwilling victim. Periods following major wars, when demobilized soldiers returned to London and found difficulty obtaining employment, invariably produced rising levels of crime.

Given these conditions it is in some ways surprizing that crime rates were not even higher. Criminal activity seems to have been limited in part by cohesive neighborhood communities that quickly assimilated newcomers and kept an eye out for suspicious activities. In London as elsewhere in England, most people placed a very high value on their honor and reputation among their neighbors. The draconian sanctions of the criminal law, which prescribed hanging for all but the most trivial of crimes, were effectively a last resort, when other social deterents to crime failed to operate. 


Enjoy this post? Share it with others.