Sunday, 29 November 2015


Fig. 1. Riots in the city during the Victorian period.

The Victorian Era (1837-1901) is known as a period of changes. It is remarkable for being the century of industrialization and rapid development in medical and scientific branches, and above all, in population growth. Urbanization caused many families to move from the countryside to the cities and so the population in cities increased from 16 million people in 1837 to approximately 37 million in 1901. The rapid growth of cities population provoked indirectly the crime rates to rise. Crimes rose from 5.000 cases in the beginning of the century to around 20.000 in 1840 approximately.

The advancements during the time of Queen Victoria were not only seen in the scientific and industrial branches, but also in the evolution of the newspaper industry. At the beginning of the century, due to the war with France, the Government imposed a high taxation policy that affected mostly upon the production and sale of newspapers. However, from the 1830 all those taxes were halved and gradually abolished. “The duty on advertising was removed in 1853, and this was followed two years later by the exemption of newspapers from stamp duty. Finally, production was made cheaper still by the abolition of paper tax in 1861” (Gray 97)

Nevertheless, the abolition of duties was not the only factor in the expansion of the press. Public education started to spread to towns and more and more people learnt to read, so the percentage of illiteracy reduced and increased the number of readers. The improvements in the telegraph and the printers aided the rapid spread of information. In addition, the circulation of books and libraries increased and new weekly and monthly literary magazines appeared. All those factors and the crimes incensement led to the appearance of the sensational newspapers and novels during that time.

Fig. 2. Lloyd´s Weekly Newspaper

Sensationalism consists of presenting information using exciting or shocking stories to provoke interest to the public or in the case of newspapers, to the readers. In that period, newspapers used this technique in the reporting of crimes and society scandals. It became more important the way the news were presented rather than the story itself. “For example, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, which had a circulation of 900.000 by 1890, devoted 50% of its content to crime in 1866, and the Daily Telegraph, likewise owed much of its early popularity to its reporting of criminals activities, murders and trials”. (Gray 101)
Press played a very important role in criminal justice, to the extent that the hanging or reprieving of a condemned murder depended on them strongly. According to Thomas Boyle, “reporting of crime was not new; neither was negative criticism of the cultural effects of such publication. What was new […], however, were those elements of quantity of coverage and distribution which naturally accompanied the rising phenomenon of the popular press.” (53)
The press stories of real events were often extravagant. Press could change a simple fact of a minor crime into a very interesting story in order to catch the reader’s attention. Sometimes, it was difficult to discern between reality and fiction.  

Fig. 3. Jar of arsenic, the most known poison of that time.

Poisoning was one of the most common types of crime in the Victorian period because of the easy access to poison in chemists’ shops. Additionally, doctors did not have a very develop system to do autopsies, it was hard for them to tell if people had been poisoned or died from natural causes, for this reason it was more secure for murderers to use poison to kill someone instead of any other weapon.
Rebecca Smith went to the gallows after it had been discovered that she had poisoned seven of her children. Conviction to women who killed their babies was not common in that period. Moreover, as we have said, press played such an important role in society, that in more than one case, thanks to its influence they could avoid people being convicted. For instance, in the case of Emma Wade, “an unmarried domestic servant in Stamford who killed her infant, the newspaper “Lincolnshire Chronicle urged its readers to add their signatures to the mass petition for commutation of the death sentence” (Wiener 112)

Fig. 4. Add of the "recommended" use of poison.

The same could have happened to Rebecca Smith if she would have not confessed the crime. At first, she was only convicted for having poisoned her one-month-old baby called Richard. The jury considered her guilty but recommended mercy because of her poor health. However, she ended up going to the gallows due to her unexpected confession.
She confessed to having killed seven of her children to avoid them dying of starvation. She claimed she had been physically and sexually abused by her husband since the marriage, so that reason could have influenced in her behaviour too.                           

This news was published in the Lloyds Weekly Newspaper in September 2, 1849. The sensational newspaper used that interesting crime to catch the reader’s attention and they wrote it as if it was a tale. The newspaper described all the process and Rebecca’s behaviour until the moment of her death. The aim of the sensational newspapers was to raise the interest of the readers. Not only the news was relevant, but also the draws published in the newspapers were really shocking too.

Fig. 5. Draw of the execution of Rebecca Smith.


“Garotting” was a term invented by the press to refer to a new type of crime. Specifically, it was a new type of violent robbery in which two or three men attacked a victim to steal them. The technique used consisted in one of the robbers grabbing the victim around the neck while the others stole all the things in pockets or any other part of the body. This type of crime interested a lot to the newspapers and they were full of alarming stories.

In the summer of 1862, a member of parliament called Hugh Pilkington was attacked by two “garotters” after leaving the House of Commons. One of the two robbers choked him while the other stole his watch and then, both of them ran off.

Fig. 6. Case of garrotting. Example of how the garroters acted.

After this incident, the press decided to widespread the panic about crime. People became so much frightened that many of them refused to leave their homes when it was dark. The Metropolitan Police decided to increase the number of security on the streets and some people formed groups called “the anti-garottings” to hunt them.

Fig. 7. Example of the anti-garotting collar.

Many newspapers such as The Spectator or The Observer reported news about “garotting”. For instance, The Spectator said: “Highway robbery is becoming an institution in London and roads like the Bayswater road are as unsafe as Naples.” (Gray 111). The panic was devastating the cities and consequently, many innocent people were arrested for being suspicious thieves.

Fig. 8. An example of news from the New Zealand Herald.

The big impact that caused the incident of Hugh Pilkington to the press also provoked, after some time, changes in the criminal justice system. In 1863, a “Garotters Act” was passed which punished and imprisoned people for that kind of crime.



All around my neck, I wear a spiked steel collar,
A revolver and a bowie-knife I carry up my sleeves,
And if any one should ask of me the reason why I wear them,
I'll tell him 'tis to guard myself from these garotting theives.
Last night in walking home a skulking vagabond addressed me,
Says he, "Pray what's o'clock?" and, not intending any pun,
Full in his ugly face I let out my left, and floored him,
Observing as I did so, "My dear friend, it's just struck one!"
So, ruffians all, take warning now, and keep respectful distance,
Or a bullet, or a bowie-knife clean through your ribs I'll send:
Well armed, we'll straightaway shoot or stab the rascal who attacks us,
If SIR GEORGE GREY won't protect us, why, ourselves we must defend.

Punch, December 20, 1862
            Fig. 9. An example taken from the Punch, a cartoon magazine of the Victorian time.

In conclusion, the Victorian press represented a very important source of information for the population in Great Britain during the nineteenth century. People relied completely on the information given and that was probably the main problem of the manipulation of the news. It was a period in which the news turned to be a combination of fact and fiction to catch the reader’s attention and interest. A minor crime was narrated as if it was one of the major crimes ever and so the press was the creator of a panic society. In fact, many of the stories described in the newspapers are nowadays the “key ingredients for the modern soap opera,” for this reason we should change the consideration of crimes at that time and we should start calling them: sensational and novelistic crimes in the Victorian era.

If you want to know more about the criminal society in the Victorian times, you can also watch this video:


Boyle, Thomas. Black Swine in the Sewers of Hampstead: beneath the surface of Victorian sensationalism. United States. Penguin Group, 1989. Print.

Gray, Drew D. London’s shadows: the dark site of the Victorian City. Bloomsbury Publishing, 2010. Web. Available in:

Wiener, Martin J. Convicted murderers and the Victorian Press: Condemnation vs Sympathy, Rice University,2007.Web. Available in:

King, Ed. "British Newspapers 1800-1860." 19th Century British Newspapers. Detroit: Gale Cengage Learning, 2007. Web. Available in:   


FIG. 1: Emsley, Clive. Crime and the Victorians. BBC. History. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]:

FIG. 2: Lloyd’s weekly newspapers. Digital Image. Google Images. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 4: Add of a rat poisoned. Google Images. Digital Image.  [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 5: The execution of Rebecca Smith at Devizes, 1849. BBC. Your Paintings. Web. Digital Image.[Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 6: Garotters.  Google images. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 7: Smallwood, Karl. The London garotting panic of the mid-19th century. Today I found out. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 8: Punishment for garotters. New Zealand Herald. Paper Past.  Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 November, 2015]

FIG. 9: The song of the Anti-Garotter. Web. Digital Image. [Accessed on 25 Novemeber, 2015]


  1. Hi Nerea!
    I always wondered what 'garotting' was! I think the subject of sensational journalism is very interesting especially related to the justice system; a trial could be a sort of theatre, as it is in A Tale of Two Cities. I wonder how much journalists could sway public opinion or vice versa? I imagine this sort of journalism resulted in quite a lot of mistrust for newspapers and perhaps paved the way for various fraud and scams (such as in Conan Doyle's 'The Red-Headed League'). Maybe people were ready to believe much more what they read in the papers initially and there was likely a process of disenchantment as the century advanced. Very interesting to find out what political developments (like the decrease in taxes) contributed to the origin of this kind of journalism!

    1. Hi Anna,

      I'm glad you liked it! I have always been interested in the media and how news are published. Unfortunately, this phenomenon (sensationalism) is still in use and we cannot imagine how the media modify the news depending on what they want people to know. Thank you for you comment, it is interesting to know what people think of your topic.

  2. Hi Nerea!
    I really enjoyed reading about the relations between crime and the press in the Victorian era. It was very interesting to see this side of how industrialism and urbanism coincided and how journalists - and maybe the criminals! - tried to benefit from and exploit it. It is both frightening and logical that the public would place so much trust in the newspapers and what they said - after all, they were basically the only source available. I really like your comment on soap operas using Victorian newspapers as inspiration!

    1. Thank you for you comment Amelie. Yes, the way they wrote the news was more like a crime story rather than an informative text. They probably used the same techniques as the novelists to emphasize the interest of the readers and create more panic in the society of the time, and that was a bussiness for them: the more terror, the more newspapers people bought to be up to date.