The long Victorian

Crime in a rapidly changing society

Reading the novels of Jane Austen, one might be forgiven for thinking that hers was a calm and relaxing period in which to live (1775-1817).

“Ah! There is nothing like staying at home, for real comfort.”
? Jane Austen

Far from it. The economy of the country was going through the rapid change of the Industrial Revolution. This brought many opportunities, but also many problems. The population of London doubled from 1801 to 1851 – many other towns and cities also grew rapidly. There was high unemployment (“labour displacement”) and poverty was rampant. Few social safety nets existed.

Crime was a major concern for Victorian society. The courts were kept busy but the fear of many was that crimes often went unreported, unrecorded and/or unsolved. London’s Metropolitan Police Force was formed in 1829. Between 1842 and 1877, ninety prisons were built or extended. The Victorians seem to have been keen on locking up a far higher proportion of women (c.17%) than we do today (c.5%).

Old Police Cells Museum, Brighton

Whenever I get an opportunity to look round an historic courthouse, prison or police cells, I snap it up. You can learn a lot from the experience, perhaps even what it feels like to have a cell door slam on you when you’re on the wrong side.

If you ever visit Brighton (Sussex, England), do nip into the Old Police Cells Museum (check the visiting hours first). The Museum is dedicated to ‘charting the history of policing in Sussex from 1830 to the present day’  and is housed in the basement of Brighton Town Hall. It even has a wedding licence, so you can get married there if you have time. The Museum advertises:

Happy couples can swap cufflinks for handcuffs at one of Brighton’s newest wedding venues. Instead of the pealing of church bells, brides and grooms can hear the clinking of jail cells after The Old Police Cells Museum was granted a wedding licence.

There is a lot of information there about the realities of Victorian and post-Victorian crime to take in – or you can just absorb the atmosphere and imagine.


Very interesting post. I feel the same fascination for historic crime museums and think this one is particularly atmospheric. It features as the police station in Elly Griffiths’s 1950s Brighton detective novels.


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