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Tales from the Archive: It's just Criminal

It is often said that nowadays people have no respect for the law; crime is the worst it has ever been; youths are a violent law unto themselves.

Harriet from Coventry Archives takes a brief glimpse into Coventry's crimescene in the early 20th century

It wasn’t like this in the good old days. 

This is not a statistical survey of crime rates, so I cannot prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are in unprecedented lawless times or that actually, we are in a lawful utopia by comparison to earlier times. However, what I can do is take you on a trip through a rogues’ gallery and a brief glimpse into crime in Coventry and the Archives.

If a crime is committed in Coventry today then providing that the perpetrator is caught, they will be taken to the local police station. In the early 20th century though, the first stop for criminals was the Council House which was equipped for every eventuality. There were separate male and female cells as well as a Drunkard’s cell, as can be seen in the building plan. Whilst they were enjoying their stopover at Their Majesty’s pleasure, a record of their crimes would be made (or updated) and they would also have to have the infamous mug shot taken.

The example shown here is of Oliver Hickman and I chose him because as far as I know he has to be one of the youngest known criminals since the first recorded incident against him was when he was 7 years old and he was lurking in a place he should not have been. However, as he was so young, charges were not brought at that time. Not that long after though he accumulated quite a list, including being fined for playing football in the street.

Oliver’s criminal career is not the only one we have at the Archive. There is a whole microfilm reel dedicated to the criminal records of people in Coventry during the 19th and 20th centuries. We also have the execution broadsides and other resources to investigate crime in Coventry and other areas. These include the infamous case of Mary Ball as well as Edward ‘Duckfat’ Bradshaw.

One thing that always strikes me when I read early sources about crime is how detailed and graphic it can be. For instance, we have in our collection a cartoon about the murder committed in Hertfordshire by John Thurtell and each stage of the crime has been rendered in glorious technicolour.

Although today it could be said it seems that every other news story is about some sort of crime, I would say that it is reported very differently. There may be a shocking headline but the articles themselves usually contain only the barest outlines of the situation. The other difference of course is that now we have national and international news instantaneously, courtesy of the internet. Therefore, we are bombarded with more information than ever.

Although this has been a whistle stop introduction to our criminal classes I hope it has piqued your interest. One thing is for certain, it is just criminal the trouble people can get in to.