Defame fathers, create crime?

Norman Dennis

ManKind Conference

28 October 2000

It is possible to entertain oneself and one’s friends almost without limit by engaging in arguments that available facts cannot settle about crime in England before 1857. But from 1857 we have the figures of crimes recorded by the police. There are strong deficiencies in the figures as a measure of the absolute amount of crime. But the deficiencies are much reduced when the figures are used to show the trend of the volume of crime.

From the mid-nineteenth century until its lowest point in 1911 the trend was fairly steadily down. This was the case even though there was far deeper poverty than anyone experiences today. Working-class employment was precarious, with rapid fluctuations in the unemployment rates which in certain industries, such as shipbuilding, regularly reached heights that have not been experienced in this country since before the Second World War. But police forces were being established. The housing stock was being improved. Public health measures were put in train. Art galleries, parks, municipal baths and libraries were being founded. From 1870 elementary schooling was universal, and before the end of the century education was compulsory for young children, and the Board schools were free. What the figures showed, commentators confirmed. We discern this even in the fiction of the period. In the first of the Sherlock Holmes stories, A Study in Scarlet, the great detective explains his lethargy and drug taking to his new flat mate Dr Watson by saying that London was no place for a detective. There was no crime. I should like to be shown any contemporaneous comment that suggests during this period crime in England was increasing.

Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales

per 100,000 population


excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under'


1860 438

1870 357

1880 373

1890 276

1900 249

1900-10 258 (annual average)

1910-14 271 (annual average)

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales

annually from 1857

After the Great War, through the depressions of the 1920s, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and the Second World War and its aftermath, the crime rate rose fairly steadily. By the early 1950s it was about four times its lowest rate of 1911. But by present-day standards even the figures for the 1950s were still extraordinarily low.


Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales

per 100,000 population


excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under'


1920-24 282 (annual average)

1930-34 489 (annual average)

1950 1,094

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales

annually from 1857


Those are the statistics. Were they confirmed or contradicted by the reports of contemporary observers? In 1944 George Orwell wrote approvingly of the ‘gentle-mannered, undemonstrative, law-abiding English’:

An imaginary foreign observer (he wrote) would certainly be struck by our gentleness; by the orderly behaviour of English crowds, the lack of pushing and quarrelling ...And except for certain well-defined areas in half-a-dozen big towns, there is very little crime or violence.

A few years later a noted anthropologist, Geoffrey Gorer, set out the problem he had to solve if he were to give an adequate account of the English national character. In public life today, he wrote,

the English are certainly among the most peaceful, gentle, courteous and orderly populations that the civilized world has ever seen ... the control of aggression has gone to such remarkable lengths that you hardly ever see a fight in a bar (a not uncommon spectacle in most of the rest of Europe or the USA), [and] football crowds are as orderly as church meetings.

Still in 1955 it was this, to use Gorer's words, ‘orderliness, gentleness, and absence of overt aggression’ that puzzled the anthropologist and called for an explanation.

K.B. Smellie, a professor at the London School of Economics respected by and popular with the students of the late 1940s and early 1950s wrote of the English man [and woman] that:

The life of the town has given him [and her] a discipline, which is unsurpassed because for the most part self-imposed and which has made him amenable and loyal to sensible leadership in new conditions or in any emergency. The pattern of life in a wartime air raid shelter was as orderly as that of the group of pilgrims in Chaucer's Canterbury Tales.


(Yet if in the 1940s or 1950s there had been a breakdown of social order, and there had been then a steep rise in the crime and violence among and from young men, there would have been no difficulty in ‘explaining’ it. The inevitable and irresistible causes of burgeoning crime and violence would have been the Great War and the unemployment and poverty of the 1920s and 1930s--and the Second World War and the second aftermath within the space of thirty years at that. That would have been a reasonable basis for a consensus among social-affairs intellectuals. But there was no breakdown in social order, and no crime wave.)

Professor Smellie continues:

There can be little doubt that the life of towns has steadily improved. ... Drunkenness has fallen steadily. So too has public violence. ... From the Yahoo habits of eighteenth-century London we have passed into an almost Houyhnhnm rationality of orderly processions and patient queues. And, almost certainly with the passing of violence, drunkenness and squalor, has gone much cruelty as well. Personal relations are more gentle and, as one observer has said 'the contemporary English would appear to have as unaggressive a public life as any recorded people'.

Professor Smellie’s version of the English man and woman of the time was not at that time the subject of sneering scorn and indignant disbelief.

I was in school in the most inner city of Sunderland’s inner city schools in the 1930s, Green Terrace Elementary. As boys and girls we were taught to be honest and honourable far more than we were taught to be ‘clever’. We learned by heart the ballad that celebrated the conduct of Private Moyse. Moyse, was killed and his body thrown on a dung heap because when he was taken prisoner he refused to perform the Kowtow to the Chinese authorities.

Vain mightiest fleets of iron framed;

Vain, those all-shattering guns;

Unless proud England keep, untamed,

The strong hearts of her sons.

So let his name through Europe ring—

A man of mean estate,

Who died, as firm as Sparta’s King,

Because his soul was great.

Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, ‘The Private of the Buffs’

Criminals were despicable. Under the old elementary School Codes boys like me learned by heart the ballad of the sinking of a troopship that was carrying civilians, the Birkenhead. It was claimed (and by we boys and girls believed) that the troops lined up in unbroken ranks and went down with the ship so that the women and children could use the lifeboats.

There rose no murmur from the ranks, no thought,

By shameful strength unhonoured life to seek;

Our post to quit we were not trained, nor taught

To trample down the weak.

They sleep as well, and roused from their wild grave,

Wearing their wounds like stars, shall rise again,

Joint heirs with Christ, because they bled to save

His weak ones, not in vain.

Sir Francis Hastings Doyle, ‘The loss of the Birkenhead’.

From simple rhymes we even learned our first lessons in geography within the context of the man’s duty to unselfishly sacrifice his own interests for his home and for everybody’s home:

Night sunk upon the dusky beach, and on the purple sea;

Such night in England ne’er had been nor ne’er again shall be,

From Eddystone to Berwick bounds, from Lynn to Milford bay,

That time of slumber was as bright, as busy as the day;

For swift to east, and swift to west, the warning radiance spread-

High on St. Michael’s Mount it shone- it shone on Beachy Head:

Far o’er the deep the Spaniard saw, along each southern shire,

Cape beyond cape, in endless range, those twinkling points of fire.

The fisher left his skiff to rock on Tamar’s glittering waves,

The rugged miners poured to war, from Mendip’s sunless caves,

O’er Longleat’s towers, o’er Cranbourne’s oaks, the fiery herald flew,

And roused the shepherds of Stonehenge- the rangers of Beaulieu,

Right sharp and quick the bells rang out all night from Bristol town;

And, ere the day, three hundred horse had met on Clifton Down.

Lord Macaulay, ‘The Armada’.

Fancy pumping that into boys! Well, what is pumped or is seeped into boys today?

Think of the contrast today! Anyone who claims to find virtues in the ‘manliness’ of fatherly responsibilities, or even to suggest that such manliness is a sociological possibility is classified at worst as an dangerous males supremacist, and at best as a superannuated romanticist yearning for- how often we see and hear the tired cliché!- ‘a golden age that never existed’.

Anyone who tries to say that the English man in the 1950s and for decades before was at all like what Orwell and other contemporary observers say he was like, is dismissed as an unpleasant crank or decrepit Victor Meldrew buffoon.

Once established in the public mind, the increasingly denigrated image of the man as brutal husband and father was then unthinkingly and repetitiously presented as fact by clever-silly intellectuals in the universities and the media, and by naïve ‘progressives’ in politics, religion and the law. As a typical example the enlightened Cambridge don Peter Marris can be quoted. Dealing with a famous study of the slums in Salford, Marris says that the study showed that ‘fathers were petty tyrants, remote and harsh’. Those are this Marris’ words. What the book on the Salford slums actually said about slum fathers was that

Despite poverty and appalling surroundings parents brought up their children to be decent kindly and honourable and often lived to see them occupy a higher social place socially than they had ever known themselves; the greatest satisfaction of all. It is such people and their children who deny indignantly (and I believe rightly) that the slum life of the industrial North in this century, for all its horrors, was ever so mindless and uncouth as superficial play or novel would have later generations believe.


The book on the Salford says that the dwellers in the slum had, en masse, little education. But there was ‘abundant evidence’, it says, of ‘intelligence, shrewdness, restraint and maturity’, and that very many families even in the worst districts remained ‘awesomely respectable’. Presumably Robert Roberts, the author of the Salford book, did not envisage that not only explicit fiction, but purported social-scientific fact from Cambridge dons would before long not only repeat the same falsehood, but should actually use his book to do so. What people like Marris depend on is a caricature of the ‘cruder and more moronic’ men who, in Roberts’ words, ‘set no standards’ and when they were sober knew their place as pariah’s, even in the slum. Home, however poor, Roberts wrote, was the focus of all the child’s love and interests, and (quote) ‘songs about its beauties were ever on people’s lips’.

A favourite poem at Green Terrace school was by a woman, Felicia Hemans.

The free fair homes of England,

Long, long in hut and hall,

May hearts of native proof be reared

To guard each hallowed wall.

And green for ever be the groves,

And bright the flowery sod,

Where first the child’s glad spirit loves

Its country and its God.

I am the very first to admit that years of relentless and ultimately wholly successful propaganda, aimed at denigrating men in general and fathers in particular, have relegated to antiquarian interest only such education and the effects it had on the pupils subjected to it before, during and for some years after my slum boyhood. What I do object to is the Orwellian efforts, again largely successful, to induce historical amnesia or alternatively to create the historical untruth that men were always created by their upbringing to be, and in general were, selfish, violent and unfaithful husbands and cruel and incestuous fathers.

Three or four weeks ago the Sunday Telegraph reviewed an unusual book that drew a favourable portrait of the national character of English men. The proof that the writer was wrong, according to the reviewer, was that 400 years ago ‘foreigners’ (unspecified in number, nationality and reliability) regarded the English as violent and quick to take offence!

Is not that amazing? The reviewer is objecting to stereotyping!

Talk about his own feeble evidential base for a national stereotype 400 years ago! (Talk about his own feeble evidential base for asserting that this was the way that stereotyped ‘foreigners’ stereotyped ‘the English’ 400 years ago!)

This typically debunking reviewer refers to Hogarth’s famous picture of Gin Lane (‘Drunk for a penny. Dead drunk for twopence. Straw free’). Gin Lane records the depths of a phenomenon that was almost entirely confined to London, and lasted for about forty years only, from, say, 1710 to 1750.

The reviewer’s unhistorical and irrelevant drivel is representative of what is published routinely now, even in the broadsheet press, and even in the Torygraph, as Private Eye calls it.

But even if he could show that ‘violence’ on some definition and some computation was as high at some time in the past, which he cannot, what kind of an argument is it that therefore the English have always been the same? The problem is that in the space of two generations, from about 1955, there has been, beyond argument, a dramatic rise in criminal violence from the low rates of at least the previous hundred years. It is, by the way, highly amusing to me that the reviewer typifies the ‘English’ and not ‘English men’ as being unalterably through the centuries quick tempered and violent in their private, personal relationships. His automatic deference to the current language of the politically correct leads him to use the generic term ‘English’. He therefore carelessly includes English women. I doubt whether even by his standards he could muster the slightest wisp of ‘evidence’ for that generalisation.

My colleague the distinguished anthropologist Ahmed Al-Shahi tells me that to this day people in the Third World tend to imagine England as being the home of universally civilized, reasonable and-again—manly ("gentlemanly") conduct, and are inclined to say to him, ‘Can this be true? Do people in England actually riot, then?’

After about 1955, following and then contemporaneous with the lowering in public estimation of the father’s role, something quite extraordinary begins to happen to the crime rate in England. By 1960 it had increased to over 1,700. The increase in the annual crime rate in the 1950s- and mainly from 1955 to 1960- was more than the total annual crime rate had been for year after year before the Second World War.

Much worse was soon to come. In the 1970s and 1980s what had formerly been only a gradual, insidious undermining by insinuation of the prestige of the father’s role turned into the explicit disparagement of married fatherliness by vociferous pressure groups. With ominous rapidity the views of the anti-married-father pressure groups were taken up by politicians of the left and right, by lawyers, by judges, and by the most senior as well as the most junior of clergymen and clergywomen. Not surprisingly, anti-married-father views found their fullest and most mindless consolidation among the paid professionals of state social work and the paid professionals of charitable counselling.

What, in this new period, was happening to the crime figures? The rate of acceleration was such that, within a few years of 1955, the graph of the whole previous historical series from 1857 to 1955 (with the whole of the increase from 1911 to 1955, that had been thought of at the time as the ‘serious social problem of the rise in crime’) came to look like a low, flat line. The increase in annual crime rate the single year 1990-1991 was almost as much as the total annual crime rate in 1960.

Notifiable offences reported to the police England and Wales

per 100,000 population


excluding throughout 'other criminal damage valued at £20 or under'


1960 1,742

1970 3,221

1980 5,119

1990 8,630

1991 10,007

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales

annually from 1857


The general crime rate then peaked in 1992, levelled off and dropped during the rest of the 1990s. It has risen again by 6 per cent in the last year. One of the reasons that the crime rate dropped was that until the early 1990s the social-affairs intelligentsia, almost to a man and woman, denied that the crime rate had increased at all. On thoroughly specious and ignorant arguments the annual volumes of Criminal Statistics England and Wales were dismissed by academics and commentators in the public-service media as totally unreliable as indicators of trends. Ordinary people’s belief that crime was increasing rapidly was all ‘moral panic’. A prime exponent of the ‘moral panic’ argument was the editor of The Times, Simon Jenkins, now well known to a wider public through his prominent advocacy of the splendours of the Millennium Dome.

Three things broke the ‘moral panic’ argument. The most important was that even the most sheltered academic, broadsheet journalist and politician began to be directly affected by crime. The second was successive findings of the Home Office’s British Crime Survey. This was first undertaken in 1981. A cross-section of the population was asked what crimes had been committed against them personally, whether they had reported them to the police or not. The figures of the British Crime Survey confirmed the broad picture that the police figures of recorded crime had been painting for years. Throughout the period 1981-2000 the British Crime Survey trends, and the trends shown by the annual volumes of Criminal Statistics England and Wales, continued to broadly coincide. The third thing that broke the ‘moral panic’ argument, or rather in this case meant that it ceased to be put, was that by the early 1990s the increase in crime could be blamed on ‘Thatcherism’. That argument, of course, was and is absurd. The dramatic upward surge in crime certainly preceded Thatcherism by twenty or thirty years. Speaking as a life-long Labour party supporter of what might be called the |R.H. Tawney or in later times the John Smith tendency, with rarely lapsed membership since my days in the Labour League of Youth in the late 1940s, and having done my stint as a Labour city councillor in Sunderland, I have to reluctantly recognise that Thatcherism could plausibly be said to have eventually brought crime down.

Be that as it may, organised and respectable society showed some success in controlling at last what had seemed to be, for the forty years from the mid- to late-fifties, an inexorable rise in the crime rate.


Notifiable offences reported to the police

England and Wales


1992 5.6

1993 5.5

1994 5.3

1995 5.1

1996 5.0

1997 4.6

1997-98 4.5

1998-99 4.5

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1998, Cm 4649, London: The Stationary Office, March 2000

Revised counting rules came into effect on 1 April 1998. The figures above are on the basis of the old counting rules.

But very little such mitigation made an appearance in the statistics of crimes of violence, and none at all in more serious crimes of violence against the person. If we consider only the years since 1990, by which time, of course, the figures on violence far surpassed anything that had been dreamed possible thirty years before, these are the figures:

Violent crimes reported to the police

England and Wales



1990 250

1991 265

1992 284

1993 294

1994 310

1995 311

1996 349

1997 347

1997-98 353

1998-99 332

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1998, Cm 4649, London: The Stationary Office, March 2000

Revised counting rules came into effect on 1 April 1998. The figures above are on the basis of the old counting rules.



‘More violent crimes against the person’ (not sexual offences)

reported to the police

England and Wales



1990 15

1991 16

1992 18

1993 18

1994 20

1995 19

1996 22

1997 24

1997-8 24

1998-9 27

Home Office, Criminal Statistics England and Wales 1998, Cm 4649, London: The Stationary Office, March 2000

Revised counting rules came into effect on 1 April 1998. The figures above are on the basis of the old counting rules.


According to the latest Home Office figures, that compare April-June 2000 with April-June 1999, cases of violent crimes in Suffolk rose in a single year by 44 per cent, from 1,274 to 1,839. In Hertfordshire they rose by 23 per cent. In Warwickshire they rose by 8 per cent. They also increased in Essex, South Yorkshire and Thames Valley. In London the figure for violent crime rose in the year 1999-2000 to a level of 16,000 to 17,000 violent crimes a month.

In discussing the rise in violent crime Anne Widdecome, the shadow Home Secretary, has blamed such short-term (and no doubt operative) causes as the fall of 3,000 in the number of policemen and the release of 23,000 prisoners under tagging schemes. The Sunday Telegraph puts part of the blame on the decline in the number of suspected street criminals being stopped and searched since the procedure was criticised in the report into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Again, the figures shows that that is very likely to be a factor. But these recent causes do not explain the steady rise in violent crime since 1955 through periods of low unemployment, high unemployment, the gap between the rich and poor widening and the gap narrowing, Labour governments and Tory governments, boom and slump.

The fundamental question, therefore, is not what explains any short-term fluctuation from one recent year to the next. The fundamental question relates to the whole period from about 1955. What force has operated since then that has had the effect of steadily multiplying crimes of violence to such a remarkable extent through all economic and political vicissitudes? That is the question I shall try to answer on 28 October, empirically and theoretically, in terms of the steady exclusion by Parliament and the courts of men from their social role in the married family.

Norman Dennis is the author of Families without Fatherhood and Rising Crime and the Dismembered Family. The latter is now out of print, but the new, third, edition of Families without Fatherhood (co-authored with George Erdos) can be obtained from Civitas, The Mezzanine, Elizabeth House, 39 York Road, London SE1 7NQ. Tel. 020 7401 5470. email Norman Dennis also deals with these issues in The Invention of Permanent Poverty, where he disputes the theory that greater poverty, either absolute or relative, can explain the rise in violent crime. This, too, is available from Civitas.