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The history of homicide

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Mark Easton | 15:22 UK time, Tuesday, 16 December 2008

The highest homicide rate since the mid-Victorian period? Some contributors have questioned my assertion yesterday that the UK has a level of murder and manslaughter equivalent to the mid-19th century.

murderJust to be clear, I was not intending to suggest that murder in Britain had suddenly shot up to levels unseen since Dickens as a result of knife crime in our inner cities. My intention was to offer some historical and global perspective on the issue.

Indeed, I suggested that the most recent data shows a flattening out or even a slight decline in homicide rates in this country.

But the raised eyebrows of some correspondents encourage me to explain further. For 20 years and more, academics have been attempting to offer an historical context for discussions of violence in society.

The problems are manifold. Changes in the intensity of prosecution, in the reporting of crime and in legal structures and the availability (or otherwise) of robust statistics all make the charting of trends in violence extremely tricky.

However, murder and manslaughter offer the best chance of saying something meaningful. Since the Middle Ages, notwithstanding historical changes in the legal system, the significance of unlawful killing has not changed that much.

Studies of medieval or early modern descriptions of the crimes have revealed that the vast majority of cases would still be seen today as culpable homicides and not, for example, as accidents or cases of involuntary manslaughter.

There are also a number of sources (court proceedings, autopsies, coroners' rolls) and since the late 18th to mid-19th Century, most Western states have collected reasonably reliable statistical information on homicides.

With all this data out there, there is broad academic agreement that it is possible to get an idea of the historical trends for murder and manslaughter.

The most recent work I can find was published by Manuel Eisner from the Institute of Criminology at the University of Cambridge.

If you click this link, you'll be taken to a diagram in Volume 1 of the International Handbook of Violence Research. The graph has a slightly abstract look to it, but the sweeping trend across Western European nations remains clear, I think.

In a paper published earlier this year, there is a table [page 297 of this 2.25Mb PDF] which may be an easier way of seeing the story.

For England, the risk of homicide falls from 1.7 (in the 1840s) to 0.7 (mid-20th Century) and back up again as we approach the present day. The Scottish data is even more pronounced - falling from 2.9 down to 0.7 and then rising to a level equivalent to the mid-19th Century.

Eisner also notes:

An increase in homicide rates over the past 40 years can be observed in all European states (with the exception of Finland). This increase by no means represents a return to the pre-modern frequency of homicide, but it is true that improved medical capabilities and changes in age structure - a lower share of younger age cohorts - tend to mean that the increase is underestimated.

If one looks at the J-shaped curve as a whole, one can see that England's murder rates are back to roughly where they were in the middle-to-late 19th Century, despite our improved ability to save lives and our smaller proportion of population made up young men.

This is a fraught area and one cannot produce perfect statistics to make the point. (Can one ever?) However, I remain convinced that trying to get a bit of historical perspective into the debate is well worth the effort and that, broadly: yes, we have Victorian levels of murder in the UK.


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