The title London Lives: Poverty, Crime and the Making of a Modern City, 1690–1800, was clearly chosen for its connection to the London Lives website. It emerges as part of the Economic and Social Research Council–funded project that enables combined searches of manuscript sources and datasets for millions of people in the metropolis from 1690 to 1800. Tim Hitchcock and Robert Shoemaker are to be applauded for the way they have harnessed technology to piece together material from disparate sources. The book is exceptionally well researched and goes far beyond the London Lives site, combining quantitative analyses of such things as prosecution rates and the gender and age of relief recipients with more anecdotal evidence of personalities and events. The title takes on a new significance if “lives” is understood in its connotations of vitality. London really “lives” in this book. The authors present various vignettes that bring the eighteenth-century city to life, from the claustrophobia of the near-naked women pounding on the low ceiling of the St. Martin’s Lane roundhouse cell for water in 1742 (158) to the savvy eleven-year-old girl who drew upon popular sympathies for abused apprentices in the aftermath of the Brownrigg case in 1767 (289–290). Scenes such as these are the colorful backdrop of an overarching narrative that reveals “a new model of pauper and criminal agency … shaping the evolution of policy” in criminal justice and poor relief for the long eighteenth century (16). The chapters charting this development are divided to represent six periods and followed by an epilogue examining the 1790s. The Treaty of Utrecht marks the termination point for chapter two, which covers 1690–1713. The next chapter traces the rise in prosecutions following both the demobilization from the War of the Spanish Succession and the unrest of the Hanoverian succession, concluding at 1731. The fourth chapter, covering the “halcyon decades” of 1731 to 1748 (137), shifts the focus to the select vestry (a parish council run by an elite minority) and the opposition it received from ratepayers and the population under its control. Throughout these periods, prisoners expressed their defiance through attempts to escape imprisonment or transportation. Elite attempts at control by funneling power toward justices had the unforeseen impact of creating channels of complaint against prison and workhouse officials. Plebeian agency was also visible when opposition to informers for the Reformation of Manners campaign and the Gin Acts curbed enforcement against certain infractions. Economic downturns in the period 1748–1763, combined with fears of crime waves from demobilization, served as the backdrop for the justices of the peace John and Henry Fielding and the Bow Street Runners (the paid thieftakers who operated from the Fieldings’ residence on Bow Street). Finding themselves increasingly criminalized for their poverty, the poor are presented as fighting back by emphasizing the corruption of professionalizing police and co-opting associational charities to their own ends. Opposition to the Bow Street Runners only grew in the span covered by the next chapter (1763–1776), when they were used to combat industrial protest. The penultimate chapter, bookended by the opening of revolutions in North America and in France, shows increasing social tensions in London. Acts of riot and rebellion among convicts spilled into the streets in the Gordon Riots of 1780. Attempts at repression only polarized plebeian-elite relations still further. Chapters 4, 6, and 7 highlighted the way in which defendants’ growing reliance on lawyers forced judges to allow defense counsel in the courtroom, and inspired new defense strategies more broadly. Pauper narratives, stifled by late-century administrators’ growing use of statistics, found an outlet in the market for plebeian autobiography. Throughout the book, Hitchcock and Shoemaker argue compellingly for an evolving range of “tactics” by which the criminal and pauper underclass affected the “strategies” employed to control them (20). The authors acknowledge the complexity of plebeian London. They demonstrate how criminal and pauper interests could align in some instances and diverge in others. It is unfortunate that this sensitivity and insight does not extend to soldiers. While Hitchcock and Shoemaker recognize that soldiering was among the top five identifiable occupations of defendants at the Old Bailey (6), the authors ignore soldiers as agents in the rest of the book, treating them largely as tools of the elite for riot suppression. A particularly glaring example can be found on page 235, which depicts an incident in 1757 where soldiers prevented constables from arresting prostitutes in the Strand. The redcoats claimed the prostitutes as their wives and fought their capture. Hitchcock and Shoemaker note that “a military guard had to be summoned” to suppress them but do not acknowledge the distinct act of resistance constituted by the servicemen in identifying themselves both as opponents of military authority and as husbands (235). The latter act is significant in light of army regulations discouraging men in the ranks from marrying, and officers’ tendency to label women whom soldiers married in defiance of these regulations as “whores.” Soldiers figured in poor relief and criminal justice, and officials in those occupations, as well as those of the army, despite its reputation for harsh discipline, had to take soldiers’ views into consideration. Military courts operated in the metropolis as well, and those records could add another thread to the fabric of plebeian agency that has been so intricately woven in London Lives. This quibble aside, London Lives is an indispensable reference source for the history of criminal justice and poor relief in a century of transformation. After serving their fellow historians with large digital projects like the Old Bailey Online and London Lives, Hitchcock and Shoemaker are to be congratulated for providing yet another valuable resource. © The Author 2018. Published by Oxford University Press.
The American Historical Review – Oxford University Press
Published: Feb 1, 2018
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