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Walking the streets of Victorian crime and punishment

2013 February 22

By Zoë Alker,  (Liverpool John Moores University)

In JVC Online’s ‘Teaching and Learning Showcase’, September 2012, Drew Grey (University of Northampton) discussed his experience of ‘Putting Undergraduates On Trial: Using the Old Bailey Online as a Teaching Tool.’ Drew introduces his second-year history students to eighteenth-century court proceedings by getting them to re-enact cases from the Old Bailey. Even more ambitiously, he is planning in future years to re-stage the trials at the Sessions House in Northampton.

This gave Helen Rogers and I ideas for our second year English module at Liverpool John Moores University, Prison Voices: Crime, Conviction and Confession 1700-1900. On the module we explore real and imagined prison voices examining, for instance, the emergence of the novel with the birth of Moll Flanders at Newgate alongside the Old Bailey trials, criminal confessions and execution broadsides that Defoe drew upon. We have encouraged students to become aware of the mediated nature of ‘prison voices’ by writing their own ‘penitent’ narratives. But Drew gave us another idea: to get students to follow in the steps of the convicted, and put them in the dock.

To this end, I devised a three-week block on street crime and its prosecution, drawn from my PhD research on violent street robbery or ‘garotting’ in mid-Victorian Liverpool and Chester. This provided a welcome opportunity in a year-long module to leave the classroom and pound the streets with the Victorian policeman that our students have appreciated as much as us, despite inclement weather. I organized field trips to the places that featured so heavily in the Liverpool garotting narratives: the nineteenth-century Assize court in St George’s Hall, and the former bridewell on Argyle Street.

Figure One: Steve Binns discussing nineteenth-century criminal cases with LJMU’s Prison Voices students in the courtroom at St George’s Hall

In St George’s Hall we were taken on a tour of the building by local historian, Steve Binns, who gives weekly talks on cases heard in the court, and who kept us riveted with his encyclopaedic knowledge of Liverpool and its criminal trials.  We visited the holding cells which contain photos of many of the offenders who waited there before being called for trial. Another focus was the exhibits of nineteenth-century punishment, in particular, the replica birching chair and cat o’ nine tails which were used to flog offenders of street robbery following the introduction of the Garotters Act in 1863. The Act marked a retreat from the early nineteenth-century emphasis on reforming and rehabilitating prisoners to the more punitive mid-Victorian regime of hard fare, hard bed and hard work. We held the seminar in the courtroom and considered the theatrical nature of the legal process as well as seeing the space as performative. We analyzed three street robbery cases which were tried there in the Spring Assizes of 1865 and discussed the complex cultural identities of victims and offenders and the ways they were negotiated and constructed in court.

Figure Two: LJMU’s Prison Voices students listening to historian Steve Binns in the entrance of St George’s Hall

In the second week we used the 19th Century British Library Newspapers Online and the census returns through to do a virtual tour of Victorian Liverpool and to research offenders, where they lived, and where the crimes took place. We considered how the reputations of offenders and victims, and of particular pubs, streets and neighbourhoods, impacted on the legal and discursive treatment of prisoners.

In the third week we took to the streets to visit the surviving nineteenth-century police station in Liverpool’s Ropewalks district. Now a bar and restaurant known as L1 Bridewell, the outer structure is little changed since it was built in 1861, and we held our seminars in the cells that now form the drinking booths. Students read excerpts from Hugh Shimmin’s ‘Liverpool Life: Police, Prisoners and Prisons’ series, published in the Liverpool Mercury throughout the Summer of 1857. A prolific journalist and social commentator, Shimmin followed Liverpool’s police force on their Saturday night beat and provided us with one of the few extant accounts of the process of Victorian policing, related in lurid detail. His sensational portrayals of slum dwellers and their environment prompted students to highlight how his articles were shaped by the penal and criminological discourses they have interrogated elsewhere on the module.

These sessions proved very successful in encouraging students to do wider research outside the classroom – in actual and virtual space. Our students will be writing a research proposal for the module’s final assessment and some of them intend to extend the work they discuss in their blog. We are very excited about the recently digitised collection of criminal records available from the National Archives and are already considering ways we can build these sources into their research proposals as well as future teaching. Others are planning to use their research for other modules. Sam Bennett, for instance, is considering writing a play about Mary Regan, whose graffiti he examines here, as part of his Drama degree.

Six students have blogged on key themes we covered in the sessions, and are accessible here:

Zoë Alker is a final year doctoral student and Associate Lecturer at Liverpool John Moores University where she teaches nineteenth-century British History and English Literature. Her thesis examines street violence in mid-nineteenth century Liverpool and Chester.  She can be contacted on Twitter @victoriancrime and by email Z.Alker@ljmu.ac.uk

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