Crimes connected with urbanisation in the 19th century

Urban crimes

Theft was the most common crime in the new industrial towns and cities. Many crimes were concentrated in areas known as rookeries. Areas such as 'China' in Merthyr Tydfil were examples of rookeries.

An illustration of St Giles rookery, London in 1850. Some people are walking in the street whilst others are lying on the floor next to a pig and a cat. Blankets are hanging from poles in the street
The Rookery of St Giles, London in 1850. Situated between Great Russell Street and Seven Dials, it was one of the worst slums in Britain

Types of urban theft

Pickpocketing was one of the most common types of theft in industrial cities. It was not a new crime, but the size of the cities gave pickpockets more opportunities.

They worked wherever there was a large crowd, for example at public executions. They would steal purses, pocket handkerchiefs, pocket watches from their chains on waistcoats, and pins and brooches from ladies’ dresses.

Stealing water was a new type of theft which resulted from the squalor and poor living conditions in cities. People were charged to use the water pipes in the street, so they stole water from taps and pumps instead.

Fraudsters were given opportunities following the development of the railways. They tricked investors and made false financial dealings in railway companies.


Prostitution was not a new thing in the 19th century, but there was greater concern about the exploitation of girls at brothels in London. A Select Committee report of 1882 stated that prostitution was increasing in London and that young girls were increasingly being drawn into prostitution.

Murder and Jack the Ripper

The rate of murder was less than 400 per year, and decreased further after 1890. Murder was not a common crime, but interest in the crime of murder increased during the 19th century. Many people followed murder trials in the newspapers whilst others visited the 'chamber of horrors' at Madame Tussaud's on Baker Street.

In the 1850s and 1860s there was a series of garrottings that led to public panic.

In the 1880s Jack the Ripper also led to increased morbid interest in murder. He was a serial killer who murdered and mutilated five women in the East End of London. He operated in the area of London called the 'evil square mile' which included Whitechapel, Aldgate and Spitalfields. This was a slum area, full of smoke from factories and narrow streets and alleyways. Jack the Ripper was never caught, and to this day his identity has not been confirmed.