Crime in Britain: Creation of police contributes little to 800-year decline in murder rate

Heather Mills,Home Affairs Correspondent
Wednesday 28 April 1993 23:02 BST

THE 5 per cent drop in the number of murders continues a welcome trend - which started eight centuries ago.

Those despairing at what they perceive as growing violence in society may take heart that the murder rate has dropped dramatically each century since King John's reign in 1200.

The murder rate in the 13th century - an average of 20 per 100,000 - was double that in the 16th century. And the murder rate in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras was five times today's - it stands now at just over one death per 100,000.

According to a study by Ted Robert Gurr, a United States academic, 'murderous brawls and violent death were everyday occurrences' in medieval England. Most violent deaths resulted from fights with neighbours involving knives, cudgels and agricultural implements. Research sketches 'a portrait of a society in which men - but rarely women - were easily provoked to violent anger and were unrestrained in their brutality', he concludes.

Oxford, it seems, was a particularly risky place to live. In 1340, it attained an all-time record of 110 murders per 100,000, although this is not, it seems, attributed to any hooligan element among its scholars. This medieval 'crime wave' was blamed instead on the stresses of over-population.

The introduction of pistols, called 'pocket dags', brought a new method of killing in the 1500s and unpremeditated aggression still accounted for a large percentage of overall crime rates. Property offences in Elizabethan times amounted to only 69 per cent of crime compared with 94 per cent today.

The next two centuries, while continuing the overall downward trend, showed an increase in killings within families - including children - rather than at the hands of strangers.

Theories about the causes of the high level of murder in the Middle Ages and its gradual decline through the centuries are as varied as the debate about crime today - poverty, social breakdown, an increase in litigation, demographic growth, juvenile delinquency, the denunciation of 'witches', and the effect of England's involvement in successive wars.

Odd peaks of killings in the 1700s, particularly around London, were attributed to disbanded soldiers and sailors returning from the six wars in which England was involved between 1690 and 1802.

The dramatic fall in the murder rate in the mid to late 18th century was believed to be the result of disarming the aristocracy and stopping them carrying their swords as a status-symbol.

But one thing that all historians seem agreed upon is that the creation of the modern police force in 1827 had little or no impact. The largest drop in murders came before its introduction and there was a temporary rise for nearly 40 years afterwards.

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