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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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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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Copyright © North American Conference on British Studies 1997

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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.

11 See, for example, Swift, Roger, “Crime and the Irish in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” in The Irish in Britain, 1815–1939, eds. Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan (London, 1989), pp. 163–82Google Scholar; Neal, Frank, “A Criminal Profile of the Liverpool Irish,” Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire [hereafter cited as THSLC] 140 (1991): 161–99Google Scholar.

12 O'Day, Alan, “Varieties of Anti-Irish Behavior in Britain, 1846–1922,” in Racial Violence in Britain, 1840–1950, ed. Panayi, Panikos (London, 1993), pp. 2643Google Scholar; Swift, Roger, “Anti-Irish Violence in Victorian England: Some Perspectives,” Criminal Justice History 15 (1994): 127–40Google Scholar.

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.

14 Report on the State of the Irish Poor (1836), pp. 4041Google Scholar.

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17 Report on the State of the Irish Poor (1836), pp. 19–20, 57Google Scholar. Similarly, Gilbert Hogg, the chief constable of Wolverhampton, reported in 1849 that the majority of commitments from the Irish quarter “are mainly for offenses against the public peace, and not for the crime of felony; the number of commitments of that kind being comparatively few” (Board of Health, Report on the Sanitary Condition of Wolverhampton, P.P. [1849], pp. 2829Google Scholar).

18 Jones, David, Crime, Protest, Community and Police in Nineteenth-Century Britain (London, 1982), pp. 117–43Google Scholar; Dillon, Tom, “The Irish in Leeds, 1851–61,” Thoresby Miscellany 16 (1979): 129Google Scholar; Finnegan, , Poverty and Prejudice, pp. 132–54Google Scholar.

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20 For example, Elizabeth Malcolm concludes, “In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries Irish people, both Catholic and Protestant, subscribed to teetotalism in remarkably large numbers.… The answer to the question “Did Paddy Drink?” is a complex one, being both yes and no. In fact the question might most helpfully be worded “Which Paddy Drank?” (Malcolm, Elizabeth, Ireland Sober, Ireland Free: Drink and Temperance in Nineteenth-Century Ireland [Dublin, 1986], pp. 331–33Google Scholar). Also see Harrison, Brian, Drink and the Victorians: The Temperance Question in England, 1815–1822 (Keele, 1994), pp. 156–58Google Scholar.

21 Denvir, , The Irish in Britain, p. 253Google Scholar.

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).

23 Report of the Select Committee on Public Houses, P.P. (18521853), p. xxxviiGoogle Scholar.

24 Report on the State of the Irish Poor (1836), Appendix I, pp. 4041Google Scholar.

25 Jones, , Crime, Protest, Community, and Police, p. 166Google Scholar.

26 Report of the Select Committee on Criminal and Destitute Juveniles, P.P. (1852), pp. vii, Appendix, 393402Google Scholar.

27 Report on the State of the Irish Poor (1836), Appendix II, pp. 1920Google Scholar.

28 Report of the Constabulary Commission (1839), pp. 18, S. 27Google Scholar.

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30 Mayhew, and Binney, , The Criminal Prisons of London, pp. 402–03Google Scholar.

31 Report of the Select Committee on the Education of Destitute Children, P.P. (1861), pp. vii, 95Google Scholar.

32 Jones, , Crime, Protest, Community, and Police, p. 8Google Scholar.

33 Report of the Constabulary Commission (1839), p. 67Google Scholar.

34 See, for example, Hart, Jenifer, “The Reform of the Borough Police, 1835–56,” English Historical Review 120 (1955): 411–27Google Scholar; Emsley, Clive, Crime and Society in England 1750–1900 (London, 1987), pp. 4877Google Scholar; Swift, Roger, “Urban Policing in Early Victorian England, 1835–56: A Reappraisal,” History 73, 238 (June 1988): 211–37CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

35 Report of the Constabulary Commission (1839), pp. 18, S. 27Google Scholar.

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.

38 For the view that Irish-born women were drawn disproportionately into prostitution, see, for example, Montague Gore's description of the Irish in St. Giles in 1851: “We believe that female prof-ligacy is more rare in Ireland than in England, though poverty is more excessive, but the Irish coming to London seem to regard it as a heathen city and to give themselves up at once to a course of recklessness and crime. The purity of the female character which is the boast of Irish historians here at least is a fable” (Gore, Montague, On the Dwellings of the Poor [London, 1851], pp. 1214Google Scholar). This was disputed by Henry Mayhew, who remarked on the chastity of Irish women in London, in contrast with English street-sellers: “With the Irish girls the case is different; brought up to a street life, used to whine and blarney, they grow up to womanhood in street-selling, and as they rarely form impure connections, and as no-one may be induced to offer them marriage, their life is often one of street-celibacy” (Mayhew, Henry, London Labor and the London Poor, 4 vols. [London, 1861], 1: 448Google Scholar).

39 Neal, , “A Criminal Profile of the Liverpool Irish,” pp. 161–99Google Scholar.

40 Finnegan, , Poverty and Prejudice, pp. 134–43Google Scholar.

41 The Tablet, 24 January 1846.

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43 Stack, John A., “Children, Urbanization, and the Chances of Imprisonment in Mid-Victorian England,” Criminal Justice History 13 (1992): 133Google Scholar.

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46 ibid.

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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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53 Davies, Stephen, “Classes and Police in Manchester, 1829–1880,” in City, Class, and Culture: Studies of Cultural Production and Social Policy in Victorian Manchester, eds. Kidd, Alan and Roberts, Kenneth (Manchester, 1985), p. 34Google Scholar.

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57 See, for example, Kirk, Neville, “Ethnicity, Class and Popular Toryism, 1850–1870,” in Hosts, Immigrants and Minorities, ed. Lunn, Kenneth (Folkestone, 1980), pp. 64106Google Scholar.

58 See, for example, Gallagher, Tom, “A Tale of Two Cities: Communal Strife in Glasgow and Liverpool before 1914,” in The Irish in the Victorian City, eds. Swift, Roger and Gilley, Sheridan (London, 1985), pp. 106–29Google Scholar; Neal, , Sectarian Violence, pp. 37–79, 151–75Google Scholar; Neal, Frank, “Manchester Origins of the English Orange Order,” Manchester Region History Review (Autumn 1990): 1224Google Scholar.

59 Lowe, WilIiam J., “Lancashire Fenianism, 1864–71,” THSLC 121 (1977): 156–85Google Scholar; Quinlivan, Patrick and Rose, Paul, The Fenians in England, 1865–72 (London, 1982), pp. 4394Google Scholar.

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.

61 Swift, & Gilley, , The Irish in the Victorian City, pp. 112Google Scholar; see also Collins, Brenda, “The Irish in Britain, 1780–1921,” in An Historical Geography of Ireland, eds. Graham, B. J. and Proudfoot, L. J. (London, 1993), pp. 366–98Google Scholar.

62 Report on the State of the Irish Poor (1836), p. 23Google Scholar.

63 For further details of the growth of the Orange Order, see especially Senior, Hereward, Orangeism in Ireland and Britain, 1795–1835 (London, 1966)Google Scholar.

64 Gallagher, , “A Tale of Two Cities,” pp. 106–29Google Scholar.

65 Neal, , Sectarian Violence, pp. 196249Google Scholar; see also Anne Bryson, “Riotous Liverpool, 1815–60” and Bohstedt, John, “More than One Working Class: Protestant and Catholic Riots in Edwardian Liverpool,” in Popular Politics, Riot and Labor: Essays in Liverpool History, 1790–1940, ed. Beichem, John (Liverpool, 1992), pp. 98–134, 173216Google Scholar.

66 See especially Bailey, Victor, “Salvation Army Riots, the ‘Skeleton Army,’ and Legal Authority in the Provincial Town,” in Social Control in Nineteenth Century Britain, ed. Donajgrodzki, A. P. (London, 1977), pp. 231–53Google Scholar; Murdoch, Norman H., “From Militancy to Social Mission: The Salvation Army and Street Disturbances in Liverpool, 1879–1887,” Popular Politics, Riot and Labor, pp. 160–72Google Scholar; Reed-Purvis, Julian, “Black Sunday: Skeleton Army Disturbances in Late Victorian Chester,” in Victorian Chester: Essays in Social History, 1830–1900, ed. Swift, Roger (Liverpool, 1996), pp. 185206Google Scholar.

67 Report of the Constabulary Commission (1839), pp. 169, 19, 87–88Google Scholar. Similarly, in 1849, Wolverhampton's chief constable reported that it was necessary to remove policemen from other parts of the town in order to contain disturbances in the Irish district, noting: “Whenever a disturbance takes place, these overcrowded lodging-houses pour forth their inmates in almost incredible numbers, attacking a single policeman or two with great ferocity and savageness, but being equally expert in beating a retreat when faced by a sufficient force to repel their lawless proceedings” (Report to the Board of Health on the Sanitary Condition of Wolverhampton, P.P. [1849], p. 28Google Scholar).

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91 See, for example, Roberts, Robert, The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Twentieth Century (London, 1971), pp. 6–7, 8485Google Scholar.

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