The Canon: Crime and Industrial Society in the Nineteenth Century. By J.J. Tobias

January 21, 2010

Some books exhibit such scope and endeavour, provoking thought and initiating responses, that they are surely canonical. In the field of the history of crime and its social context, this book is one such work, first published by Batsford in 1967.

J.J. Tobias was eager to balance the distortion of statistics in criminology with the spectrum of oral and documentary evidence that supported a general interpretation of how criminals were formed and defined in a period of massive social upheaval. At the time Tobias was writing, there was a great sweep of left-wing social history, and the influence of J.L. and Barbara Hammond's studies of town and country labourers was felt everywhere. But Tobias went deep and wide into what was a chaotic, untrustworthy period for "evidence".

At the time it appeared, I was studying English in Aberystwyth, and I had become newly politically aware, having witnessed Welsh students trying to effect change via sit-ins. They were desperate to have Welsh history taught through the medium of Welsh, and I thought that quite a reasonable request. Only a few years later, in the planning stages of Welsh-language television station Sianel Pedwar Cymru (established in 1982 as S4C), the academy itself would see "criminality" at work, when Welsh academics and activists cut off the transmitter's power at Pencarreg in a campaign demanding greater levels of broadcasting in Welsh. When I began writing crime history 20 years later, an awareness of the human dimension was always behind my research. I saw, as Tobias argued, that crime offers unique insights into human communities at any given point in time, and that the truth - the authentic conclusions - is not easy to find.

In the 1830s that Tobias was writing about, criminals were often starving, unemployed or demanding the right to a vote or form a trade union; I saw the link between past and present and realised for the first time that the world was not easily divided between the "criminal class" and everyone else, thoroughly under the thumb of convention and morality.

He was perhaps one of the first historians to explain the sheer simplicity of the criminal acts as enclosures and machines, new towns and relentless mechanisation ate up human communities. His statements that "entry into the criminal class was a means of finding support" and that "the excitement of dodging the police was as important as the hope of gain" were explicit and approachable, although the scholarly and tentative discussion of unreliable evidence was there too.

The book begins with caution and a sense of the insuperable problems awaiting historians grappling with a century of transmutation and revolution. But then the narrative begins, tempered by analysis of the multiple voices of the period that must be considered. I think "groundbreaking" would be too much of a cliche for Tobias' book, but it is notable that the experts and specialists in the period and theme, Martin Wiener and Clive Emsley, have consulted and been inspired by it.

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