Nature of criminal activity from 1500 to the present day

Types of crime

There are different types of law-breaking activity.

Three different law breaking activity - crimes against a person, authority or property.
Crime against...DescriptionExamples
A personA crime where a person is harmedMurder, manslaughter, sexual crimes, assault
AuthorityA crime opposing or threatening the Government or leadersTreason, conspiracy, espionage
PropertyA crime targeted at possessions and propertySmuggling, fraud, shoplifting, burglary

How much crime?

Evidence from courts, magistrates, police and surveys help historians calculate crime levels from different periods. More recently the media also provides evidence of crime through news articles and appeals for information.

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In the past, many crimes were never reported, and of those reported to authorities not all were recorded. Some records have also been lost over time. These crimes are often called the 'dark figure'.

Sometimes it may appear that crime is increasing, but it could be related to other factors like the authorities cracking down on a particular crime, or people becoming more confident to report a certain type of crime. New laws created new crimes, which also makes it difficult to compare crimes across the periods.

16th and 17th centuries

The overall crime rate seems to have risen in the 1500s and then fallen after the mid-1600s. This fall was due to:

  • a series of good harvests in the later 1600s
  • a slower growth in population
  • the greater availability of work

Sometimes there were surges in crime rates, eg after a bad harvest, or the end of a war when demobilised soldiers came home. There were also dips in crime rates, usually during wars.

Just as in the Middle Ages, theft and violence were the main crimes that existed in the 16th and 17th centuries. The most common crimes were the theft of small amounts of money, food and property. Violent crimes were a minority of cases.

Increasing literacy and the availability of printed broadsheets spread information about crimes more widely. These often focused on violent or new crimes which led to a misconception amongst many that crime was increasing in this period.

18th and 19th centuries

The rate of crime probably remained fairly stable in the early 1700s. However, between 1750 and 1850 there was a significant rise in crime. This was the time of the Industrial and Agricultural Revolutions.

1810-1820 saw the most dramatic rise in crime. This was the time of rising food prices, poverty, and unemployment after the end of the wars with France. After 1850 the crime rate began to fall gradually. This was linked with the new police forces, and the changes in the system of punishments.

Minor thefts still account for around 75 per cent of the crimes that we know about in this period. As in previous centuries, violent crimes were a minority, perhaps only 10 per cent of crime. Despite the fame of some career criminals, such as Dick Turpin, most crime was committed by first time offenders or occasional criminals. Most convicted criminals were men under 30.

Many people at the time believed crime was more common than it actually was. There was fear of revolution amongst lawmakers and fear of increasingly violent crime.

20th and 21st centuries

In the early 1900s crime continued to fall, as it had done since 1850. However, from 1950 onwards the reported crime rate has risen quite significantly. The rate of increase in crime has been faster than the increase in population.

There have been an increasing number of surveys of the population, which help us to gain an insight into unreported crime rates. One survey in the 1980s suggested there were three times more thefts than were reported to the police.

However, in these centuries, the amount of unreported crime has probably dropped compared to earlier centuries. People nowadays are more willing to report crimes to the police, and the police are more consistent in recording all reports of crime.

These factors may make it look like the rise in crime has been more dramatic than it has been. Therefore, crime has increased, but maybe not quite as dramatically as the reported crime statistics might suggest.