The Victorian era (1837-1901) saw many of the same types of crime as previous and later eras, from drunk and disorderly conduct to theft, rape and murder. During Victorian years, even minor thefts were indictable offences and harshly punished. While a boy of 14 who stole 3 shillings was no longer hung or branded, he was transported to Australia for 14 years. Victorians rightly worried about crime, which rose steeply as the century progressed, from about 5,000 per year in 1800 to about 20,000 per year in 1840. Financial crimes took centre stage in the last half of the century.
Magistrates tried summary offences, sometimes in the magistrate's home. Usually these were the less serious crimes such as breaches of the peace, drunk and disorderly conduct, vagrancy and minor poaching. Victorians considered theft -- even of the smallest amount -- an indictable, more serious crime. While prostitution was a summary offence, Victorians viewed it as the "great social evil" of the time as they struggled to deal with issues of poverty and deviance from the norm.
Indictable offences were considered serious crimes, tried either at the quarter sessions in front of magistrates or before a judge at the Assizes. A jury decided the verdict in these cases, and the magistrates or the judge pronounced the sentence. The most serious crimes, which had potential death sentences, were tried at the Assizes. These included murder, homicide, rape, violent robberies and assaults that wounded the victim. quarter sessions tried the less serious and more common offences such as larcenies, housebreaking, non-violent robberies, frauds and embezzlements.
With the coming of railroads in 1825, and as travel by rail became more common, railway crimes began. Cardsharks, shell game barkers, pickpockets and robbers began to frequent trains, causing financial harm to those they came in contact with. Many of these criminals chose to dress up as clergymen, to more easily steal from trusting people. Female criminals haunted passenger cars, waiting for a manly victim to blackmail. Unless the gent paid up, she accused him of "improper conduct."
The Victorian era was a time of great societal changes. The industrial revolution had led to many people being displaced from the country into the city looking for factory work as agricultural jobs disappeared. Workers in factories and merchant trades grew adept at lifting property from their employers. "Respectable" people created the new category of "white collar" crime. Financial offences of fraud and embezzlement became common, causing far more financial harm to society than a theft of a few shillings. By the end of the century, the Victorian era was called "the era of fraud and embezzlement."
- Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images