Suspicion, stereotypes and proactive policing in historical perspective: the identification of repeat offenders by policing agents in London, 1780-1850

Dr Eleanor Bland1

1The University Of Leeds, Leeds, United Kingdom

This paper examines the relationships between the police and those whom they arrested in London between 1780 and 1850. Why did the police choose to arrest certain individuals, what were the characteristics of these offenders, and what motivated vigilant police officers? Focusing here on repeat offenders, I analyse 1,828 defendants who were tried more than once at the Old Bailey court in London. While acknowledging existing work on recidivism and desistance, particularly on the police supervision of offenders in the later 19th century, this research explores the earlier history of police interaction with offenders. It asks whether policing agents recognised and deliberately repeatedly arrested the same individuals, and how policing knowledge of offenders was expressed and transferred. The main evidence is drawn from the Old Bailey Proceedings, where policing agents explained their reasons for arrest in court; but police court reports in contemporary newspapers are also analysed. I argue that policing knowledge of repeat offenders was increasing in this period, and that individual police officers took opportunities to arrest ‘the usual suspects’. By making decisions to arrest repeat offenders and those that conformed to criminal stereotypes, the police contributed to the received historical record of criminal activity, and our contemporary perceptions of historical crime. In conclusion I reflect on the contemporary resonances of these historical policing practices, and potential comparisons between policing in Britain, and the policing of the convict and indigenous communities in Australia in the nineteenth century.


Eleanor Bland was recently awarded an ESRC Postdoctoral Early Career Fellowship in the School of Law at the University of Leeds, UK, working on historical policing and its contemporary resonances. She completed her PhD, entitled ‘The Identification of Criminal Suspects by Policing Agents in London, 1780-1850’, at the University of Sheffield. Supervised by Professor Robert Shoemaker, the research was fully funded as part of the AHRC-funded Digital Panopticon Project. She completed her undergraduate and Masters degrees at the University of Oxford, graduating in 2015.


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