The crime rate in early 20th century Britain was low, lower
than for the early 19th century. Even the terrible poverty
and unemployment of the 1930s appeared to bring only a small
increase in crime. Then from about 1960, crime figures seemed
to rocket upwards. What was going on?
A simple comparison of some crime figures for 1900 and 2000
shows the impact of this:
The "crime wave", as it was called, seemed all
the harder to understand as it went along with greater national
prosperity, peace and security. It became a political issue,
with parties vying with each other for the "answers"
and each accusing the other of being responsible. This meant
that the crime figures themselves became the focus of political
A glance at the table above will show that the increase in
the three types of crime listed is not the same. But as 20th
century crime statistics became more detailed, they only led
to further arguments over interpretation. What types of crime
were increasing? Was the increase slowing down? What did it
all mean anyway?
Then there was always the problem of the "dark figure".
This is the difference between the numbers of crimes committed
and the number reported. The "dark figure" exists,
but no one knows how big it is, or if it is changing. For
example, there was a 100% increase in the number of reported
burglaries in the 1970s, yet only an 18% increase in the number
of people who said they had been burgled. It would seem that
burglary was increasing, but not as fast as the reported crime
It seems that the "dark figure" is shrinking as
more crimes get reported: the police encourage the reporting
of crime; insurance claims make it necessary; more people
have telephones. Police reporting and acting on crime reports
is also now far more thorough.
Newspaper crime reporting may also exaggerate the actual amount
of crime. The newspapers like to report crime, and to sensationalise
it. One effect of this is fear: people are more afraid of
crime, even when, in fact, they are at no more risk than in