In this essay I am going to be looking at the changes in crime during three different periods; the early modern period (1350-1750), the modern period (1750-1900) and, the twentieth century (1900-Present day.) I will comment on the ways in which crime changed, and why.

The early modern period.

During the early modern period there were three main crimes that took place frequently: poaching (catching and killing animals on another persons property), smuggling (bringing goods from another country without paying any tax on them) and robbery on the roads (highwaymen.) These are all crimes that can be defined and interpreted as different by different members of society.

The changes in society during the early modern period had a great affect on the changes in crime. The population was increasing so it was harder to find jobs; this meant that more and more people had to steal to survive. More crimes were created and some opportunities to commit crimes that had almost faded out became available. Landowners wanted to protect their land, and felt they were more superior as they could afford their own property. They believe that most criminals were of a lower class, which was mostly true, so they wanted to make an example of how out of order the poor people were. The civil war during the 1600’s also made people feel insecure about their land and their safety, so they would’ve most likely supported any new ideas for keeping criminals in line.

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Robberies in large towns and cities had always been a problem, but it became more common during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries because of the increase in travelling. (This was down to the improvement in roads, and the falling prices in horse costs.) Highwaymen robberies made up 5% of serious crimes in the sixteenth century. Highwaymen had quite a good success rate as roads were always ‘out of the way’ and quiet. People carried their money and expensive possessions with them, as banks were scarce.


Smuggling was not seen as quite as serious as highway robberies. Some people even had sympathy for them as they helped to keep the prices of foreign produce down. The people it did affect the most however were the government. Government relied on taxes for wars and the many other expenses they had. If people were smuggling goods without paying tax, the government were losing money, which is you can imagine was a great concern to them.

The most popular smuggled good was tobacco. Other popular produce included foreign wine, spirits, especially brandy, silk and lace. Goods were usually smuggled at night into places such as Devon and Cornwall. Varying kinds of people approved of smuggling, as they felt they should not have to pay for expensive goods. Many people didn’t even se smuggling as a crime. Magistrates did not often convict smugglers and witnesses did not usually give evidence for fear of attack. Smuggling reached its highest point during the 1700’s, but in the 1800’s governments cut import duties so good could be bought for a cheaper price.


Poaching was a common crime in rural areas. It caused uproar amongst property and landowners as they saw it as a violation to their rights; they had paid for the land so they felt anything that lived on it should be theirs. The first law to protect landowners from poaching was passed in 1389, with many more being passed as time went on. As with smuggling, the poaching gangs often used violence and the game was usually sold on the black market. In 1707, a law was passed to make it illegal to buy, sell, possess, hunt or trap game. Despite the threat of fines and prison sentences, people were still not put off of poaching.

The crimes during this period happened mostly because of high poverty rates and changes in society. Because the government was charging high taxes, crimes such as smuggling seemed more acceptable than they would have previously. Although other crimes such as murder obviously still existed, this period was dominated by crimes based on class and status.

The modern period.

The industrial revolution had a great impact on society causing some of the changes in crime during the modern period. Poaching was still common in Norfolk and Suffolk due to the rural poverty. Attempts were mad to try and stop poachers by using traps and guns to mutilate and kill offenders. Smuggling also continued in this period. In this period, Britain changed to an industrial society. Population increased and unemployment was so high that there were no benefits for the people without jobs. Petty theft increased due to the amount of poverty.

At first the punishments for criminals became harsher, but this was soon realised to be unsuccessful. People campaigned against the rights of people of lower class. They believed an education and better living conditions would lower the rates of crime. During the modern period as well as the early modern period, new laws were created making several formerly legal activities illegal. This increased crime rates a great deal as people were used to certain things being legal, so they continued them. It was usually assumed that criminals were poor, however during the modern period the increased number of new business led to a lot of fraud, embezzling and bribery.

Despite the rise in ‘middle class crimes’ the punishments for the poor still remained harsher. With the dramatic increase in crime, people began to wonder and panic about what had caused it. They came up with several solutions to why crime had increased and changed over the years, including, alcoholism, extreme poverty and unemployment and bad living conditions. Between 1750-1900 there were economic and trade difficulties that made people dependant on fewer trades in order to earn a living. The records for crime in the early part of the nineteenth century show that the rate of offences increased dramatically during the recessions.

Like the periods before this, 75% of recorded crimes were petty theft. Most people believed the crime rate had to be stopped, and the government should take more drastic measures in order to do so. During the modern period there were more crimes that became widespread, the three most common were; pickpockets, garrotters and murderers.

Pick pocketing

Although people had been picking pockets for centuries, the population increase crowded the streets of London giving criminals an extra chance of success. One of the most common times for someone to pickpocket was during public executions when there would not only be a large number of people, but they would be more likely to concentrate on what was happening to the offender than to what was still in their pockets. A popular item to steal was a handkerchief as it would be easy to take from the person without them noticing.


Garotting was where the criminal would half strangle their victim before attempting to rob them. There was a lot of panic surrounding garrotting as it was seen as a worse form of mugging, another violent crime. Although it was rather horrific, it was also thankfully quite an unusual one. When gas streetlights were introduced, it made garrotting and other street robberies more difficult for the criminals as they were more likely to be seen and caught.


When more newspapers were introduced, public interest in murders grew. If a murder were committed in one town or village, the only people who would be aware of it would be the people living in that area. With the introduction of the newspapers, the crimes that happened in the south would be known in the north, east and west, and vice versa. More murders were taken to trial as the police force had improved with time, so more criminals were being caught. Newspapers helped to create panic about the increase in murders, especially with cases such as jack the ripper. Despite these horrific murders taking place, murder rates had dropped slowly between 1857 and 1890.

Child crime

During the modern period, one of the very shocking things to happen was the increase in child crime. It was a situation that had never occurred before in such high numbers. Most people believed that young people fell into criminal ways because of a lack of supervision not only from their parents but also of society. The way the country had changed affected the younger generations as well as the adults.

Children were being allowed into public houses, where they associated with ‘bad company’. It encouraged gambling and drinking, and generally many types of bad behaviour. The economic changes were blamed for the increase in child crime. Living conditions were bad and lots of children were abandoned and orphaned. Children had no other choices but to turn to crime as a way of survival. In late eighteenth century, 90% of criminals hanged were under the age of 21, the youngest of that percentage being 10 years old. Some people were transported also.

This period was one of great change in crime. Not only was child crime increasing, the social, economic and psychological effects of a changing society took its toll on everyone. Crimes in general became more violent, although this may have just been due to the ‘media hype’ that was created with the introduction of newspapers.

The twentieth century

The twentieth century saw many more social and political changes. The effects of war on society made many social and political changes. Soldiers came from all different classes and had to endure the same conditions during the war, which helped them to realise the effects of social status.

During the twentieth century, crime rates fell considerably. The standards of living had improved greatly and the state provided benefits for unemployed. Petty crimes went down, and the police force had improved a lot so more and more crimes were being reported. The depression of 1933 made crime levels rise for a while, but this was expected.


Burglary is a very common form of theft. Poor areas are at great risk as they end to have a lot less security.


Shoplifting has become more and more common since the 1950’s. Some shoplifters are mentally ill, or have to do it, as they are poor. There is however some organised groups who make large amounts of money from breaking shops security codes and beating their systems in order to steal products.


Smuggling still remains today, although it has become a much more high profile crime. Instead of the tobacco and food that was popular in the early modern period, criminals have turned to drugs, which have a large, and popular black market industry. Most drug smuggling is conducted by large groups of criminals who will plant the drugs on certain individuals or lure people into carrying packages for them.


Another violent crime that has become widespread over the last century is terrorism. Terrorism is usually a result of strong religious beliefs, personal grievance, or strong beliefs that have usually brainwashed them into thinking in a certain way. The number of terrorist incidents has not been dramatically high, but have been of great effect and damage.

The advances in technology created more and more crimes, which in turn created more and more punishments.

Car crime

When cars were first introduced in 1894, the number of crimes increased. The two main types of car crime are;

Motoring offences

Cars brought many new crimes with them including speeding, not paying tax, driving under influence of alcohol or drugs and many more. Because only richer people could afford to buy and look after their cars, crime rates extended to the middle and upper classes as well. Motoring offences caused crime rates to rise. By 1939 60% of cases were to do with motoring offences. 6,5000 people were killed each year by cars. By 1996 1.3 million motor crimes were committed in Britain.

Car theft

Thieves saw new opportunities in the introduction of cars. Car theft is now one of the biggest categories in crime. It could be seen as the modern equivalent of horse theft. Some car dealers change parts of the car, change their mileage, number plates or even join two different cars together in order to make profit.


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