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Heroes or Villains?: The Irish, Crime, and Disorder in Victorian England

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 July 2014

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Extract

During the Victorian period the link between Irish immigration, crime, and disorder in England was widely regarded by contemporary observers as axiomatic. In 1836 the Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain devoted four pages to the examination of Irish criminality, noting that “the Irish in the larger towns of Lancashire commit more crimes than an equal number of natives of the same places,” and in 1839 the Report of the Constabulary Commissioners observed that in the towns of South Lancashire, “when large bodies of Irish of less orderly habits, and far more prone to the use of violence in fits of intoxication settled permanently in these towns, the existing police force, which was sufficient to repress crime and disorders among a purely English population, has been found, under these altered circumstances, inadequate to the regular enforcement of the law.”

The belief that the Irish in England were the harbingers of crime was by no means novel. With the substantial increase in Irish immigration during the early Victorian period, the host society's widespread belief in the innate criminality of the Irish—and, more particularly, of the Irish poor—formed an integral component of the negative side of the Irish stereotype. Witness, for example, Thomas Carlyle's much-quoted view that “in his squalor and unreason, in his falsity and drunken violence” the Irishman constituted “the ready-made nucleus of degradation and disorder,” or Henry Mayhew's assertion that “as a body, moreover, the habitual criminals of London are said to be, in nine cases out of ten, ‘Irish Cockneys,’ that is, persons born of Irish parents in the Metropolis.”

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Research Article
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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1997

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References

1 Report on the State of the Irish Poor in Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (hereafter cited as P.P.), 34 (1836), pp. 2023Google Scholar.

2 Report of the Royal Commission to Inquire into the best means of Establishing an Efficient Constabulary Force in the Counties of England and Wales, P.P. (1839), p. 169, xix, 89, S. 97.

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10 See, for example, Handley, James, The Irish in Scotland, 1798–1845 (Cork, 1945), pp. 141–68Google Scholar; Handley, James, The Irish in Modern Scotland (Cork, 1947), pp. 93121Google Scholar; Jackson, John Archer, The Irish in Britain (London, 1963), pp. 4051Google Scholar.

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13 See, for example, Finnegan, Frances, Poverty and Prejudice: A Study of Irish Migrants in York, 1840–75 (Cork, 1982), pp. 132–54Google Scholar; William J. Lowe, “The Irish in Lancashire, 1846–71,” (PhD diss., Trinity College, Dublin, 1975); Richardson, Clem, “The Irish in Victorian Bradford,” The Bradford Antiquary 9 (1976): 311Google Scholar; Swift, Roger, “Another Stafford Street Row: Law, Order, and the Irish Presence in Mid-Victorian Wolverhampton,” Immigrants & Minorities 3 (March 1984): 529CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Finnegan shows that in York the Irish-born comprised 26 percent of all prosecutions in 1850–51 (an index of overrepresentation of 3.6), 21 percent in 1860–61 (2.6), and 16 percent in 1870–71 (2.1); Lowe's study of Irish criminality in selected Lancashire towns in 1861, 1871, 1881, and 1891 reveals a similar picture: in these four census years the Irish-born percentage of all prosecutions in Manchester comprised 30 percent (an index of overrepresentation of 1.9), 22 percent (2.3), 17 percent (2.3) and 13 percent (2.8); in Liverpool 37 percent (2.0), 34 percent (2.2), 24 percent (1.9), and 16 percent (2.1); in Preston 26 percent (3.1), 28 percent (5.2), 27 percent (6.1) and 26 percent (8.4); Richardson's study of the Irish contribution to crime in Bradford suggests that the Irish-born comprised 19 percent of all prosecutions in 1861 (3.3), 24 percent in 1871 (4.2), 15 percent in 1881 (3.5) and 5 percent in 1891 (2.0); while Swift shows that the Irish-born comprised 22 percent of prosecutions in Wolverhampton during the 1850s, with an index of overrepresentation of 2.8.

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22 Wolverhampton's chief constable observed in 1849 that “many are tempted to spend their time and money in these places from the total want of comfort at their own houses; indeed, many of them have told me, after having been turned out of the public house, that the place in which they lived was in such a miserable state that they would rather remain out in the open air if the weather was not severe” (Report on the Sanitary Condition of Wolverhampton [1849], pp. 2829Google Scholar).

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36 Report of the Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles (1852), pp. 197, S. 1695–97Google Scholar. Graham Davis shows how the Bath Chronicle gleefully reported Irish vagrancy cases between 1847 and 1852: in Bath, local policy was to despatch vagrants from the city rather than to prosecute them. For example, the paper reported that “John Williams, an Irishman and his wife, destitute and two children, applied to the Police Station for relief. On being searched, a bottle of whiskey and 10d. found on them…. He was discharged with a caution to leave the city immediately” (cited in Davis, Graham, Bath Beyond the Guide Book: Scenes from Victorian Life [Bristol, 1988], p. 13)Google Scholar. In contrast, York authorities adopted a harsher policy toward Irish vagrants: in October 1848 the Yorkshire Gazette claimed that “there is no doubt that our gaols obtain a large amount of their inmates from the class of vagrant children who infest our streets” (Yorkshire Gazette, 21 October 1848); in August 1849, when the York Herald estimated that there were more than 1,000 vagrants in the largely Irish Bedern district, the York Watch Committee requested that city magistrates impose harsher sentences for vagrancy, which the paper defined as “nearly akin to theft” (York Herald, 11 August 1849).

37 Jones, , Crime, Protest, Community, and Police, p. 183Google Scholar.

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50 “It is nevertheless clear that they [the police] did nothing to prevent the rioters' entry into the Irish quarter or the destruction and ransacking of Irish houses. The fact that a majority of those appearing in court after the riot bore Irish names and were charged with throwing stones at the police from inside their houses makes it very clear that the police sided with anti-Irish rioters and were seen to do so by the inhabitants of the quarter” (Weinburger, Barbara, “The Police and the Public in Mid-Nineteenth Century Warwickshire,” in Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth-Century Britain, ed. Bailey, Victor (London, 1982), pp. 6971Google Scholar.

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60 Redford, Arthur, Labor Migration in England, 1800–1850 (London, 1926; rev. ed. Manchester, 1964), pp. 159–64Google Scholar. However, some evidence suggests that the Irish impact on wage rates has been exaggerated and that competition between English and Irish workers was essentially a product of the pre-famine period; that there was relative harmony and some political and trades-unionist cooperation between English and Irish workers; and that Irish and English cotton operatives sometimes acted in unison during moments of industrial militancy. See, for example, Williamson, Jeffrey, “The Impact of the Irish on British Labor Markets during the Industrial Revolution,” Journal of Economic History 46 (September 1986): 693721CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Thompson, Edward, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963), pp. 469–85Google Scholar; Foster, John, Class Struggle and the Industrial Revolution (London, 1974), p. 333CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kirk, , “Ethnicity, Class and Popular Toryism,” pp. 64106Google Scholar.

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