Exploring the Archives: Capturing the Criminal in Victorian Sheffield

MA students in the School of English are provided with the opportunity of taking a work placement as part of their degree programme. This year James Throup is working at Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library as a social media assistant. He is writing a series of blog posts highlighting the city’s fascinating archival treasures. This post first appeared on Sheffield Libraries’ blog on 3 March 2016.

Over this coming series of blogs I hope to guide you through a selection of Sheffield’s rich historical treasures, delving deep into Sheffield Archives and Local Studies Library to unearth some of the golden relics of the city’s bygone days. In the process, I aim to show the valuable role such documents play in our consideration of ideas such as community, identity, social progress, local heritage, and the lessons that history can teach us.

George Parker, aka George Peace

George Parker, aka Charles Peace

Our first journey takes us back to Sheffield in the late nineteenth century, a period when wages were low, employment was unsecure, and subsequently crime was rife. Amidst all this, there was a growing fear in Victorian society of a burgeoning social ‘residuum’ – a class of congenital criminals who were considered beyond reform.

To quell such fears, the Habitual Criminals Act of 1869 was passed, followed hotly by the Prevention of Crimes Act in 1871. These stipulated that repeat offenders, when released on parole, could be hauled before a magistrate and made to prove that they were honestly employed. Failure to do so could result in a further sentence. Additionally, this resulted in the need for a detailed record of all criminals.

Sheffield Archives is the proud owner of a Ticket-of-Leave book (1864-74), a ledger in which the details of each paroled criminal from the Sheffield area was recorded. In addition to a photograph, each criminal profile features an index of crime committed, sentence, hair and eye colour, complexion, height, and any distinguishing marks. In this manner criminals were rendered easier to identify, and therefore easier to capture if required, but also liable to receive much harsher sentences for repeat offending. However, some convicts became adept at circumventing these new modes of surveillance.

James Horne

James Horne

One popular means of evading scrutiny over past crimes was to provide an alias. This technique is evident in the double entry of George Parker (pp. 2 and 132), aka infamous criminal Charles Peace. Over the course of his criminal career Peace was guilty of multiple counts of burglary, and eventually hanged in Leeds in 1879 for committing murder. However, in the entries of the Ticket-of-Leave book, ‘George Parker’ has been convicted for the more prosaic crime of receiving stolen goods in the first instance, and then burglary with previous conviction in the second. What I considered most striking about Peace’s first entry is his photograph. Sat in a wooden chair with his hands clasped in front of him, fingers entwined, he looks relaxed, as if unconcerned by the proceedings. When Peace was arrested for the final time in his life, he was not initially recognised due to the fact that he had disguised himself by shaving the front of his hair and darkening his skin using walnut juice (Bean 1987: 71). However, suspicions arose when, as the days in jail passed, the accused man began to change colour.

William Roebuck

William Roebuck

Throughout the book, I thought it curious that there is a lack of uniform composition across the various mugshots, indicative, perhaps, of the fledgling nature of the practice. Some, such as James Horne (p. 20), appear as disembodied heads and shoulders, as if they are lost souls suspended in the ether. Many have adopted a strong look of defiance, staring straight down the lens with arms crossed bullishly across their chests, such as William Roebuck (p. 143). Nevertheless, the overwhelming air of these snapshots is one of despair: a tangible sense of how these people knew they were locked into a system of little or no work, habitual crime, and then, as a result, increasingly harsher sentences.

The vast majority of entries reveal an economic impetus behind the crime committed. One of the most frequently reported crimes is that of counterfeiting coins. Crudely cut, ill-weighted coins made counterfeiting an easy crime to detect, but the sheer number of cases speaks volumes about the economic desperation of those convicted.

The Ticket-of-Leave book provides an excellent window into how the Victorian criminal mind was calibrated, at once rendered more visible and quantifiable, yet also deemed more incorrigible. Though we may feel we have progressed in our attitudes from an age where criminality was seen as hereditary, and though prisoners are no longer subjected to the cruelty of penal servitude, official statistics for proven re-offenders show that recidivism is slowly rising. Such artefacts as the Ticket-of-Leave book show how a greater understanding of punishment and rehabilitation is needed.

James Throup

‘Ticket-of-Leave Book (1864-74)’ Sheffield Archives: SY295/7/3

J.P. Bean, Crime in Sheffield (Sheffield: Sheffield City Libraries, 1987) in Local Studies Library: 364.1 S

Related Posts:

Leave a Reply