Thursday, 22 August 2013

The Policing of Petty Crime in Victorian Cumbria

By Guy Woolnough 

Guy Woolnough recently completed his PhD in Criminology at Keele.  In this post he outlines the key themes of his thesis.  Guy maintains his own blog and recommends that readers wanting to know more about his work start here or here.  The images below are examples of the kind of historical artefacts that have been used in his study.   

Report of a stolen turnip
My study is an innovative analysis of the policing of petty offending and the work the police in Cumbria. I have used the neglected minutiae of police and court records to deconstruct the role of the police, discretionary policing by men on the beat, public expectations of the police, and the growth of police bureaucracy. I have been digging through some of the most trivial of records, many of which have been lost, but there have been a few pockets in which a wealth of random paperwork has survived. For example, Maryport where for a few years Inspector Grisdale failed to throw away his correspondence, amongst which the words and opinions of humble police constables and ordinary Cumbrians have survived, reporting or complaining about stolen peas, a turnip robbery or a missing husband. Another survival has been the daily reports of the Grayrigg constable. He served alone at his isolated Cumbrian police station, where he completed the daily reports that monitored his work, reports which ended almost everyday with the words ‘nothing to report.’

My work problematises conceptions of policing and its history. The detailed study of what police were actually doing calls into question both the idea of a ‘golden age’ of policing and the claim that there has been an explosion of bureaucracy in late twentieth century policing. These are the issues that dominate the contemporary discourses on policing, though this study makes clear that assumptions are made today that are not supported by the history. The themes of this study are as relevant today as they were 150 years ago, for this work is interdisciplinary, situated in the social sciences, particularly criminology and history.
A lost banjo

My work examines the police’s role at a time of social, economic and bureaucratic change. It links the development of police expertise and professionalism with the process of state formation. The historiography and nature of Victorian policing are tested by this study of Cumbria, a remote and unique region which was culturally, economically and agriculturally quite atypical of Victorian England. 

This study is a cultural history, for it considers the ways in which the police defined and tackled problems such as vagrants, fairs, blood sports, traditional recreations, drunkenness, pick pocketing, violence, gambling. Police acted in ways which defined and targeted outsiders or deviants, and how they identified and dealt with problems on the streets is central to this study. Discretionary policing, which is shown to be culturally determined and rooted in the working class cultures of Cumbria, is the constant theme. Anthony Giddens structuration theory provides a model for understanding of how policemen, exercising culturally informed discretion, were the crucial agents in the policing of Victorian Cumbria.

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