Georgian England, The Developing World, Crime Prevention, and Internet Trolls

Life in Georgian London was an alien sort of existence: it’s hard to wrap your head around it, though there is one analogy I’ve discovered for it that neatly says a lot about the things we take for granted… and also suggests something of our future, too.

I suspect the unexpected key is this figure:


Yes, our old friend… the internet troll.  I’d argue that, among other things, the Internet is pretty invaluable in keeping humanity acquainted with what it’s like to live in a lawless, unpoliced world. Which is the kind of world that people in the 1730s lived in… for certain definitions of “policing” we take for granted today.

Here’s how I arrived at this realization…

Back in mid-May, I heard a really interesting thing from one of Mrs. Jiwaku’s Korean students, that I’ve been thinking about ever since. She was talking about how her husband’s factory got trashed (but only lightly) and looted during the riots in Bin Duong at the time. What was weird was how it was handled… and how the student felt that was the reason for the light-to-moderate damage inflicted:

  • The people running the factory didn’t attempt to resist the mob. When the crowd showed up, they just opened the doors and let them come in without any kind of resistance.
  • The Chinese workers at the factory–because, yes, they do hire Chinese workers despite operating in Vietnam–were hidden away during the “visit,” for their own safety but also to reduce the justification for extreme trashing.
  • When the trashing and looting was finished, the factory administrators had a nice refreshing cup of cool water brought out for everyone involved in the looting and trashing. (And no, they didn’t put anything in the water. It was just water. A kind of refreshment offered to the people who’d just shown up and trashed the factory and searched for Chinese workers to abuse.)

It sounds weird, but this kind of thing perhaps isn’t as surprising if you consider that the people running the factory really had no recourse to outside help for dealing with the situation. Cops? Not really. The army? They hadn’t been dispatched yet. The authorities did get involved later in the day, and much more so the next day–and they arrested a lot of people–but at the height of the outburst, it was unrestrained mob rule out there, and the people in the factories pretty much had to deal with it on their own.

And the people running the factories figured that politeness and cooperating with their assailants was the best policy. It’s a funny sort of mental shift, for someone who is used to the idea of legal recourse, of crime prevention, to suddenly be in a setting where a certain degree of illegal property damage is simply assumed to be inevitable, and where one focuses on minimizing the damage instead of fending it off altogether, or insisting that one’s right to property be safeguarded (because, well… who will safeguard it?). It’s a paradigm where one is wisest to be cordial with a criminal attacker in order to lessen the severity of the attack. (Something that, sadly, doesn’t work so well one-on-one.) That certainly helps to explain some of the conversations that got reported by other people in other factories, many of which showed up on Korean forums, along the lines of, “But I told them, ‘We’re Korean! We’re all Korean! Why are you attacking us if you’re mad at China?” and “Well, you hire Chinese workers, so we’re attacking you too…”: I was a little puzzled about how people were having all these conversations with the rioters and looters, but now it seems a little less baffling.

Anyway, in the case of the woman we know, the result is that her husband’s factory didn’t suffer too much damage, and will probably be able to get back in business sooner than those who offered more resistance or expressed more outrage in their responses to events. (Like the factory run by one boy we know, which was much more brutally trashed.)

While that sounds alien to me, and probably to anyone else reading this, it’s probably not so “foreign” as we might think. As I recently learned, we didn’t even start to have anything like modern policing in the English-speaking world until the middle of the 18th century:

Henry Fielding was a playwright and novelist who accepted a position as magistrate deputy of Bow Street Court in 1748. He is credited with two major contributions to the field of policing (Gaines et al.). First, Fielding advocated change and spread awareness about social and criminal problems through his writings. Second, he organized a group of paid nonuniformed citizens who were responsible for investigating crimes and prosecuting offenders. This group, called the Bow Street Runners, was the first group paid through public funds that emphasized crime prevention in addition to crime investigation and apprehension of criminals. While citizens responsible for social control used to simply react to crimes, the Bow Street Runners added the responsibility of preventing crime through preventive patrol, changing the system of policing considerably. Despite the Bow Street Runners’ efforts, most English citizens were opposed to the development of a police force. Their opposition was based on two related factors: (1) the importance placed on individual liberties, and (2) the English tradition of local government (Langworthy and Travis).

Prior to the formation of the Bow Street Runners, there were magistrates and bailiffs, but they weren’t particularly focused on crime prevention, except where individuals had a particular inclination–like the Christian fanatic John Gonson’s penchant for shutting down “disorderly houses” and jailing the pimps and prostitutes operating them, as Rictor Norton discusses in this chapter of his book on the Georgian underworld. (He’s also got collected tons of interesting new articles from the period.)

My impression is that the magistrates–who mostly weren’t all that invested in the job to begin with–tended to pursue the punishment of criminals, and sometimes go on moral crusades, but there wasn’t really a conception of “crime management” and the English hadn’t really modernized to the point where they thought crime might be susceptible to management by an organized, office administrative system. In Georgian England, as in many places today, the authorities saw crime as something that could be responded to (however haphazardly) but they didn’t have a sense that the presence of a police network could help to control crime, or to minimize both organized and disorganized criminal activity in an area.

All of this has also helped me to figure out one of the things I struggled with most in Korea: my perception of how nice people are so passive when confronted by strangers behaving like thugs. I’m not talking about the people who are clearly crazy and on the verge of violence–plentiful everywhere in the world–but the people who are just behaving like pricks. In a world where you can expect legal recourse if you are attacked, it makes sense to confront at least some of the people who behave that way… but in a world where legal recourse is as reliable as a die roll, well… you shrink away, go quiet, hope the prick responds positively to an absence of stimulation: you behave, in other words, in the way people online are urged to do:


That’s a pretty stunning thing to wrap your head around: cities were awful for a long, long time in part because they were just unpoliced, unsupervised, uncontrollable collections of people. That is to say, the Romantics may have decried the horrors of the city in part out of some nostalgic claptrap longing for an idyllic, pastoral past… but also because cities were really awful places plagued with crime, disorder, disease, and massive social dislocation.

That social dislocation–as mass migration into London and other English cities accelerated–was at least part of what gave rise to some things that Rictor Norton describes. However, and this is fascinating, anyone who’s spent time in the SF subculture, especially online, will find that chunks of Georgian English underworld culture are still with us, still being used in the worlds of cosplay fandom, LARPing, and so on.

For one thing, there was the specialized argot–which Norton correctly argues was much more about group identity and cohesion than about concealing what was being said, and which is a feature in all kinds of subcultures ranging from the jazz world of the 40s and 50s, to the junky underground revealed literarily to the mainstream by William S. Burroughs (here’s the glossary of “junk lingo” and jive talk” that appeared at the end of Junky), to the game-terminology and in-jokes of RPG gamers:


… to the beat-literature-imitating lingo of cyberpunk SF and the purposefully obscurantist cant of the pick-up artist underground (the latter two of which I fused in my 2010 satire “Sarging Rasmussen: A Report By Organic”; see the story notes and links here). If you’d like to see some examples of the kind of lingo used by criminals in London in the Georgian Era, here’s an excerpt from a dictionary compiled in 1736 by one Nathan Bailey: the last twenty pages or so (which are what I excerpted) are a canting dictionary, full of thieves’ cant/lingo phrases and their explanations… a surprising number of which are still familiar to use today:

Then there was the use of legendary-sounding aliases and personae to match. Again, from the Norton Rictor:

Aliases and nicknames are a characteristic feature of the criminal underworld, used mostly to forge subcultural identities. Criminals often have several aliases, or false but ordinary names, which would help them avoid being identified as a repeat offender if they were prosecuted on subsequent occasions. More interestingly, some criminals often sport a colourful ‘monicker’, which stays with them throughout their criminal life. A striking feature of the network of footpads to be examined in Chapter 9 is the men’s use of monikers or underworld nicknames: there was Stick in the Mud, Crab Jack, Beans, Jack the Hatter, Sick Will, Long Will, Smoaky Jack, Moco Jack and Bob the Glazier. Monickers were often linked to some physical characteristic, or celebrated some daring exploit, or called attention to a characteristic behaviour or attitude, or were simply an affectionate nickname which arose for no apparent reason and stuck.

None of those names–or the others mentioned in Rictor’s chapter on Georgian London’s criminal fraternities–would be out of place at a Steampunk cosplay convention or a LARP weekend, now, would they? I frankly found myself thinking not just of the “steam-sonas” of many of the individuals featured in Jeff Vandermeer’s The Steampunk Bible (which I recently read, but haven’t discussed here), online personae and “handles,” and so on. That’s all interesting.

What’s more interesting is the LARP angle: after all, if you’re in a world that works more like the unpoliced, seemingly unpoliceable internet than anything we’re used to, then role-playing takes on a new significance. Role-play isn’t just the milder self-presentation we talk about today: it can mean the difference between life and death, between thriving or starving, in a world that has no boundaries, no rules, and where you–as a rootless transplant to a dangerous city–aren’t anchored to anything, for better or worse.

Speaking of rootless transplants, this all got me thinking about my time in South Korea. In all my years there, even living where I had to walk through one of the country’s worst neighborhoods to get to the subway–a neighborhood where my students often reported incidents of sexual harassment and threats from strangers, where one student set a story about a serial rapist, where a serial killer cover-up was widely believed to have been in progress, and where I myself saw and experienced countless examples of criminal activity, threats of violence, and so on–I never once saw a single beat cop on patrol. Not once. The wound festered because nobody even bothered to clean it. I saw riot police, when citizens gathered to protest; I saw police and soldiers at the airport, and at subway stations an hour away from the meeting site during, I think it was, FTA or World Bank meetings in Seoul a few years ago. Cops are great for deterring political uprisings, or making sure things run smoothly at the airport, but regulating and preventing crime in neighoborhoods with crime problems? The attitude seems to be, Ehhh… what?

Moreover, the consequences for self-defense in Korea can be serious: if someone attacks you, and you injure him while defending yourself, you may be liable to pay a fine to his family, as determined by the police, for the injury. (Which is why I carried pepper-spray after my first near-escape of someone assaulting me: the penalty for using illegal pepperspray that causes no permanent harm must surely be less than the penalty for breaking some nut’s arm.) But it’s no surprise, then, that Koreans tend to just opt to either put some distance between themselves and anyone who seems obviously crazy, or else play the wallflower: they’re basically on their own when it comes to negotiating encounters with the insane, including the violently insane. (And there are more of the violently insane wandering around in a society where mental illness and mental health care are so very taboo, I can attest, since the wallflower approach pretty much categorically failed every time I tried it.)

I’ll have to read more to know whether such conciliatory gestures were a widespread norm in a world without police, but surely some other set of commonsense practices must have existed–practices that would look somewhat alien to a person from a place like I’m from. In the blank space of my ignorance on the subject, I immediately reached for the case I knew: The English Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and the way Richard II dealt with Wat Tyler’s followers. Notably, there were many attempts to defuse the situation through conciliatory appeals and offers, and not just by the king but all the way to London. But notably, even King Richard II offered all kinds of conciliations to the peasants when push came to shove. (As soon as he could, of course, he shoved back, retracting everything and violently suppressing the revolt, hunting down its leaders and having them slaughtered brutally; but what’s interesting is that it was deemed imaginable for him to even make the offer public at all.) That’s a tantalizing example–even a King could be forced to “negotiate with terrorists,” however falsely and however briefly, and the peasants even seem to have imagined it might be for real–but I’d like to know how common such conciliatory gestures were historically.

Certainly, escalation of the kind that the factory owners must have feared did happen in Georgian London, at least. As Rictor Norton mentions in his discussion of the Black Boy Alley gang (in The Georgian Underworld, an ebook I mentioned here):

One day in autumn 1744 the Headborough Alexandar Forfar together with a constable and four assistants went to Joseph Field’s house in Black Boy Alley to arrest two disorderly persons. But when they got there they were afraid to break open the door because the occupants ‘held candles out of the window and showed cutlasses to us in order to terrify us, and threw brickbats and glass bottles at us’. A mob began to rise. A boy called Lippy (because he had a hare-lip) shoved Forfar down and was caught and given to the constable, but the mob grew so large that the constable was forced to let him go, and most of the officials had to retreat. Forfar and an assistant who remained were chased to Cow Cross and White Lion in Clerkenwell, where Forfar was wounded in the head with a cutlass and then beaten by the gang of men, women and children ‘with bludgeons, pokers, tongs, and other things’. There were nineteen wounds to his head, and one of his fingers was almost cut off. The ones who particularly assaulted him were Ann Duck – who shouted ‘Hamstring the dog!’ – and Thomas Wells. Wells lived in Black Boy Alley but kept a gaming house at Black Mary’s Hole. One person recalled that he passed his door every day ‘with a gang of gamblers and pickpockets, and such as they call street robbers’.

This is stunningly similar to a passage in The Difference Engine that stuck in my mind even after finishing listening to the end of the book the other day, though of course it’s steampunkishly anachronistic with the inclusion of roller-skates in 1850-something (they existed by then, in some form, but it’s unlikely young street ruffians were using them much; the whole thing feels like a sort of cross between Dickens’ Oliver Twist and a group of modern skatepunks… or, for that matter, a group of modern youthful internet trolls):

There came an odd whizzing sound from up the pavement. Mallory glanced in that direction and saw a queer half-crouching ghostly figure emerge from the fog, clothing flapping about it with speed, a pair of walking-canes doubled up under its arms.

Mallory jumped back at the last possible instant as the boy shot past him with a yowling whoop. A London boy, thirteen or so, on rubber-wheeled boots. The boy turned swiftly, skidded to an expert stop, and began to pole himself back up the pavement with the walking-sticks. Presently, an entire pack of boys had surrounded Mallory and Fraser, leaping and yelping in devilish glee. None of the others had wheeled shoes, but nearly all wore the little square cloth masks that Bureau clerks donned to tend their Engines.

“Say, you lads!” Fraser barked, “where did you get those masks?”

They ignored him. “That was dead flash!” one of them shouted. “Do it again. Bill!” Another boy cocked his leg three times with an odd ritual motion, then jumped high in the air and crowed “Sugar!” Those around him laughed and cheered.

“Calm down, you,” [the policeman] Fraser ordered.

“Vinegar phiz!” a wicked boy fleered at him. “Shocking bad hat!” The whole pack of them burst into raucous hilarity.

“Where are your parents?” Fraser demanded. “You shouldn’t be running about in this weather.”

“Nuts and knuckles!” sneered the boy in wheeled shoes. “Forward all, my hearty crew! Panther Bill commands!” He jabbed his walking-sticks down and off. The others followed, yelling and whooping.

“Far too well-dressed to be street-arabs,” Mallory remarked.

The boys had run off a short distance and were setting up for a game of crack-the-whip. Swiftly, each boy grabbed the next by the arm, forming a chain. The boy on wheels took the tail-end.

“Don’t like the look of that,” Mallory muttered.

The chain of boys swung out across Camera Square, each link gathering impetus, and suddenly the wheel-footed boy shot loose from the end like a stone from a catapult. He skidded off with a scream of devilish glee, hit some small discontinuity in the pavement, and tripped headlong into a sheet of plate-glass.

Shards of glass burst from the store-front, toppling like guillotine blades.

Young Panther Bill lay upon the pavement, seemingly stunned or dead. There was an awful moment of shocked silence.

“Treasure!” shrilled one of the boys. With maddened shrieks, the pack scrambled for the broken store-front and began grabbing every display-item in sight: telescopes, tripods, chemical glassware —

“Halt!” Fraser shouted. “Police!” He reached inside his coat, yanked his kerchief down, and sounded three sharp blasts on a nickel-plate police-whistle.

The boys fled instantly. A few dropped their snatched booty, but the rest clutched their prizes fiercely and ran like Barbary apes. Fraser hoofed it after them, Mallory at his heels, reaching the store-front where Panther Bill still lay sprawled. As they approached, the boy levered himself up on his elbow and shook his bleeding head.

“You’re hurt, son,” Mallory said.

“I’m right and fly!” said Panther Bill sluggishly. His scalp was slashed to the bone and blood was pouring over both his ears. “Hands off me, you masked bandits!”

Belatedly, Mallory pulled his own kerchief down and tried to smile at the boy. “You’re injured, son. You need help.” Together with Fraser, he bent over the boy.

“Help!” the boy screeched. “Help me, my crew!”

Mallory turned to look. Perhaps one of the other boys could be sent for aid.

A glittering triangular shard of flung glass spun from the fog, catching Fraser square in the back. The policeman jerked upright with a look of wide-eyed animal shock.

Panther Bill scrambled off on his hands and knees and jumped to his skidding feet. There was a loud smash from another store-front nearby, the musical clatter of glass, and delighted screams.

The glass-shard protruded in shocking fashion from Fraser’s back. It was imbedded in him. “They’re going to kill us!” Mallory cried, hauling Fraser along by the arm. Behind them glass was bursting like bombs, some of it flung blindly to shatter against the walls, some cascading from its shop-front mullions.

“Bloody hell . . .,” Fraser muttered.

Panther Bill’s cry rang through the fog. “Treasure, my hearties! Treasure!”

“Clench your teeth,” Mallory said. Folding his kerchief to protect his hand, he plucked the shard from Fraser’s back. To his great relief, it came out of a piece. Fraser shuddered.

Mallory helped him gently out of his coat. Gore had streaked Fraser’s shirt to the waistline, though it seemed not as bad as it might have been. The glass-shard had stabbed the chamois-leather strap of Fraser’s shoulder-holster, which held a stout little pepperbox. “Your holster stopped most of it,” Mallory said. “You’re cut, but it’s not deep, not through the ribs. We need to staunch that bleeding . . . ”

“Police station,” Fraser nodded, “Kings Road West.” He had gone very pale.

A fresh cascade of smashing glass echoed distantly behind them.

Of course, here Sterling and Gibson are drawing on later texts, but it’s interesting how well their slightly-altered Victorian caricatures match the actual descriptions of criminal groups of children in England a century earlier… as well as just how familiar so much of this is from our daily life today. Of course now it’s transposed to a realm where the worst you’re likely to experience is annoyance or insult, rather than any sort of deadly harm, but the human social dynamic is very much recognizable. And that makes sense: we talk about “the developing world” as if it’s a thing of the 20th century and beyond, but Georgian England was (and to a large degree, Victorian England remained), quite literally, a “developing country” too… even in many of the ways that “developing countries” today are.

It’s also interesting also because the very vocabulary of violence used in the Victorian era seems to be born of the urbanization of the English, which accelerated forcefully in the 1700s; as a small example, the term “brickbat” that has such a Victorian resonance to us today (least, it’s not a word I’ve ever heard used in a 20th century context, certainly not spoken aloud); but it was in as wide use in the 1730s as it was in the 1850s, or perhaps even wider use in fact. (And possibly earlier.) Mob violence developed and alongside it, a vocabulary for the tangible specifics of that kind of mob violence also developed, in tandem. And that vocabulary lasted until mob violence was, for the most part, diminished to mere occasional outbursts of the sort we see today.   (For more on that, I will be consulting Robert Shoemaker’s London Mob,when I get the chance: the link is to a review by Patrick Dillon that makes me think it is very pertinent to all of this, given that the very word “mob” shows up in the late 1600s… right at the start of the Georgian Era, in fact!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *