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November 2012 Item of the Month

‘Tough but intelligent’ on crime:  1896 report on Sunderland’s East End

This month sees the first ever elections for Police and Crime Commissioners (PCCs) for every police force in England and Wales (except the Metropolitan Police).  These directly elected posts represent a new form of strategic and financial governance for local police forces, and have attracted considerable debate.  Those in favour have argued that they will make policing policy more accountable to the electorate.  Those against point to the dangers of a politicised police force and fear that resources will be diverted towards populist policies at a time of budget cuts.

The PCC elections come at a time of falling crime figures, combined with a fear about future crime and anti-social behaviour.  Government advertisements for the elections highlight ‘yob culture’, while one of the local candidates for Sunderland (within the Northumbria police force area) has called for greater use of ASBOs to tackle ‘anti-social behaviour’.

This month’s document shows that concern about high crime levels is nothing new, nor is the link that is still made between crime and poverty.  It comes from a report of a group set up by the Church of England clergy within Wearmouth deanery, into Sunderland’s East End.  This group, known as the East End Commission, met weekly for a year from November 1895, reporting in November 1896.  The East End Commission’s report survives among one of the deanery and parish files within the Durham Diocesan Records – collections of correspondence and papers maintained by the bishops of Durham and their officials from the 18th to 21st centuries.  The report covers the area of the (then) parishes of Holy Trinity, St John and St Thomas in Sunderland.

Image of a table of crimes, reported by the East End Commission, 1896 (Ref: DDR/BP/PAR/2/9D).
Crimes table, East End Commission Report, 1896 (Ref: DDR/BP/PAR/2/9D).

The table of crimes shows an overall conviction rate of 1 conviction for every 22 inhabitants, although it only includes a single year’s worth of convictions.  This is compared with a rate of 1 conviction for every 50 inhabitants for the borough as a whole.  Comparison with current rates is not straightforward, as the police crime maps at only include outcomes from January 2012, and the conviction statistics published by the Ministry for Justice are not broken down geographically.  The latter however show a national conviction:crime ratio of 1,184,717:3,976,312 or 0.298 for the year ending March 2012 (from the main MoJ table). If that ratio is applied to the Sunderland crime figures on the crime mapping site, a rate of 1 conviction per 57 inhabitants can be estimated – remarkably close to the 1896 figure!

Crimes per 1,000 residents (year ending June 2012)


National conviction:crime ratio (year ending March 2012)


Estimated/expected conviction rate for Sunderland in year ending June 2012

17.68 convictions per 1,000 residents

Estimated conviction rate expressed as in 1896 report

1 conviction per 57 inhabitants

This quick statistical comparison does not of course stand up to much scrutiny.  The current conviction rates include large numbers of out of court disposals (like cautions and reprimands) and offences ‘taken into consideration’, while the crime rate includes ‘anti-social behaviour’ which is not subject to the same legal framework (for instance, proof is to a civil not criminal standard). On the other hand, the 1896 convictions include many ‘offences’ which might today be dealt with as anti-social behaviour or not taken to court, under the broad heading of ‘Drunk etc.’, while attitudes to some classes of ‘crime’ have changed (11 female prostitutes are listed in the 1896 convictions, but apparently no pimps or users).  The online crime maps show that the city centre is now the main focus for concern (particularly for that ‘Drunk’ category, no doubt), rather than the East End.

Perhaps more interesting is how close the 1896 report is to modern debates in other respects.  Under the heading Domestic economy, concern is raised about the number of ready-cooked meals.  Under Pawn shops is stated, “The system, though frequently a relief in the times of necessity, is extravagant and wasteful in its effects”—a topical issue for Sunderland football club’s supporters, whose rivals’ shirts are now sponsored by a payday loans company.  The high Infant mortality rate is noted (239.2/1000, against an average for large towns of 150/1000), and the link between mortality rates and poor housing is made explicit.  The Moral and social heading introduces concern about “the almost universal habit of gambling, “the number of “houses of ill-fame” (51 within the East End!), and the amount of drinking, especially “women drinking harder than the men.”

The report concludes by recommending that, “there should be established a settlement of workers, living a common life and sharing a common home.” Another generation would pass before such settlements were founded in the region – see the papers of the Spennymoor Settlement, for example, also held in our collections.  The commission adds that the residents’ poverty is, “the parent as much as the child of vicious habits:” echoing Tony Blair’s mantra almost exactly a century later, “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime.”

Although the commission’s report was accepted by the Wearmouth rural deanery, this enlightened attitude was doubtless not universally shared by local clergy. Evidence for individual clergy attitudes at this period comes from two main sources:

The clergy visitation returns for 1900 invite and include extensive commentary from the clergy on the topics specified (Ref: DDR/EV/RET/15), including the following answer from the rector of Sunderland to a question about the ordinary interests of the people:

“To secure by the minimum of labour the maximum of such bodily and social happiness as they seem to desire – alcoholic drinks, abundant food (especially flesh-meat), the theatre, tobacco, betting and noisy romping gaieties.  Neither clothing nor personal cleanliness receives sufficient attention. The housewives are generally both lazy and dirty.  Neither men nor women are thrifty or provident.”

The Diocesan Commission on Poverty and Charitable Assistance was established to gather evidence for the Royal Commission on the Poor Laws and Relief of Distress, and collected questionnaires from clergy in 1907.  There are no questions about crime, but the question relating to distress caused by low levels of ‘outdoor’ relief granted by the Poor Law Guardians elicits the following responses from two of Sunderland’s east end churches:

“In hundreds of cases, the Guardians cannot give adequate relief, and how these people manage to exist, is a mystery to me. Any efforts to supplement the Poor Law allowance is as a rule casual, and consequently there is much distress. This is so obvious, that no further comment is needed.” (St Thomas)

“Yes – mainly owing to the exorbitant rent demanded by slum property owners. Cases of 3/6 a week and rent for a hovel or attic 1/6. Two dirty little rooms are sometimes 3/- a week, and an old couple will be receiving 4/6 or 5/-.” (St John)

But whether David Cameron’s “tough but intelligent” approach would include the solution to poverty suggested by the vicar of St Thomas in 1907 is perhaps more doubtful:

“I would suggest, that for 6 months, all charitable relief should be stopped, throughout the country, and any person found guilty of giving relief, should be heavily penalised. This would do more than anything else to solve the problem of poverty – charity, so called, as at present given only perpetuates the problem.”

Every month we showcase here an item from our Heritage Collections.