One of the most intriguing and challenging problems facing historians of crime and the law is determining what were popular perceptions of criminal behaviour and criminal justice. Each of the articles in this special issue tackles this question by examining the content of British and colonial newspapers that were printed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The choice of this period is significant both for the history of the press, and for that of criminal justice. It was during the eighteenth century that the newspaper became the dominant form of print culture, with readers enjoying an increasing choice of papers that were printed both in London and in the provinces. As literacy rates improved, and because newspaper stories could be read aloud, the audience for newspapers continued to expand. At the same time, the British state attempted new ways of administering criminal justice. The multiplication of the number of offences that carried the death penalty meant that the criminal code gained notoriety as the ‘Bloody Code’, while the Transportation Act of 1718, covering England and Wales, authorized the deportation of English and Welsh criminals to the American colonies. By the end of the eighteenth century London magistrates were experimenting with new methods of urban policing, as fears mounted about how the growing population could be both controlled and protected from crime. Newspapers reported, reflected upon and sometimes debated each of these developments, yet remarkably, it is not until now that historians of crime have analysed in any detail what the content of these newspapers can reveal about contemporary attitudes towards crime and justice.
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