Students taking Andy Croll’s History foundation module ‘Crime, Vice and Lowlife in the 19th century’ have spent the last two weeks thinking about the so-called ‘criminal’ classes. Many Victorians were convinced that the slums and rookeries of their great cities and towns were inhabited by a class of ne’er-do-wells who lived on the proceeds of crime and vice. One of the most notorious of these ‘little hells’ was the ‘China’ district of the South Wales iron town of Merthyr Tydfil. The inhabitants of China were supposed to have their own Emperor and Empress who headed-up an organised criminal network comprised of ‘rodnies’ (juvenile thieves), pimps, bullies and ‘nymphs of the pave’ (prostitutes). Marxist historians and writers of popular history were often happy to accept contemporary reports of an underclass of Robin Hood figures who lived outside the norms of bourgeois society. But recently scholars have cast doubt on the reliability of sources that were invariably penned by middle-class observers (like Henry Mayhew). Were the slums really populated by real-life Fagins, sharpers, mudlarks, magsmen and till-friskers or are such figures the products of the fevered imagination of waves of bourgeous social explorers who, too often, confused crushing poverty with immorality and viciousness? Can we, as historians, ever know?

Want to know more about the Humanities and Social Sciences Foundation Programme? Click here