The police magistrate as a teaching tool

Today was the first time that I’ve used this blog in my own teaching. I’ve discussed it at conferences and with colleagues but thus far I hadn’t exposed undergraduates to it.

I am coming to the end of a 10 week module for third year undergraduates at Northampton University which explores the social and cultural history of late Victorian London. It takes the 1888 Jack the Ripper murders as it focal point and verse off to look at a variety of interconnecting themes.

So we start with London in the late nineteenth century (the ‘infernal wen’) as the capital of Empire and the expanding metropolis that seemed to many contemporaries to represent everything they feared about society in the later 1800s. Here was a huge urban area, densely packed with hundreds of thousands of people, many drawn from outside of London, living cheek by jowl, and struggling for air beneath the coal smog.

Here were colourful migrants and visitors from every corner of the Empire and the globe, bringing the riches of other lands along with their culture, language and radical politics. Tensions rose with unemployment – a new word in the 1880s – and competition for space. So we explore the themes of immigration and anti-alienism as well as poverty, charity, and housing reform.

We look at the Ripper murders and the impact they had; at the way the press manipulated the story and how this fitted with other contemporary concerns about violence, prostitution, immorality and the plight of the poor. Hopefully the module challenges some preconceptions about the Victorian age (and about who might have been the ‘Ripper’) and next week we are tackling the mythology associated with the case and its impact on history and Ripperology, head on.

This week I chose to concentrate on the notion that a criminal ‘class’ existed in the Victorian period. This is how contemporaries like Henry Mayhew and James Greenwood described the ‘underclass’ (the residuum); a class below the ‘respectable’ and ‘honest’ working class who were eulogised in Ford Maddox Brown’s painting ‘Work’. These were the Londoners who ‘will not work’ and earned their living instead by thievery and deception.

We discussed how this view was created by writers like Mayhew and Greenwood (and others0 and perpetuated by a media driven by a  mix of sensationalism and early investigative journalism. I asked them to search through this blog to see the ways in which I’d interpreted the newspapers that contributed to the rhetoric of criminality and got some others to mine the database of nineteenth-century newspapers to discover the reportage of the police courts for themselves.

It was interesting to see my own research reflected back at me, (and to have my typos pointed out!) and to hear their own interpretations of what they read and found. I’m trying to use more digital resources in teaching as I recognise that this is how this generation access historical material. Where I once spent hours, days and weeks hunched over dusty volumes in a archive, the next cohort of historians are turning to the computer screen to make their own discoveries.

There’s a instant quality to this method of data searching but it all still requires context: some of the things they found didn’t make sense to them – in places I was able to draw on what is now over three years of looking at the London Police courts to help them make sense of it. In the end I thought it was a useful expertise which I will repeat next year, and perhaps in the spring with my second years (who study a longer broader period of crime history).

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