How did criminal activity in Britain change during the period from 1700 to 1900?

During the period from 1700 to 1900, criminal activity at first increased as the population grew quickly and became more concentrated in large cities. Crimes against property became much more common, though violent crime does not seem to have increased significantly. After the foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, crime prevention and detection improved and crime rates began to fall.

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British society changed a great deal in the two centuries between 1700 and 1900, and many of these changes had an impact on crime. First, the population more than quadrupled, from about 8,500,000 to somewhere in the region of 40,000,000. This population became increasingly urban and also much more mobile, as transport links improved. Highway robbery became more common in the eighteenth century, but decreased in the second half of the nineteenth century with the advent of the train. Petty crimes such as pickpocketing became rife in London and the new industrial cities, such as Manchester and Liverpool.

It is difficult to be sure how much crime increased in this time period, because it is certain that the reporting of crime increased dramatically in the nineteenth century. This is true both of official reporting and informal reporting in the press. The Metropolitan Police Force was founded in 1829, and regional forces soon followed, making the processing of crime a more regular and routine affair. As wealth increased, so did crimes against property, particularly domestic burglary, but violent crimes do not appear to have increased at a faster rate than the growth of the population and may have declined when the increase in reporting is taken into account.

It appears that overall crime increased most sharply in the decades between 1770 and 1830, after which the regional police forces seem to have been influential in bringing it under control.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on March 2, 2021
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