The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London

As measured by the rule of Thumb

Anthony Trollope

From Writings for St Paul's Magazine January 18681

Everett Wharton garrotted, Ferdinand Lopez rescues him, Pallisers 10:21, from The Prime Minister

OUR attention has been specially called to the subject above named by the fact that, after a somewhat prolonged and minute inquiry, we have been unable to meet with anyone who has been garrotted; and that subsequently, finding ourselves unable to approach the subject in the first degree, we have not even succeeded in coming upon any man, woman, or child who has known anyone that has been so maltreated. Then, having failed in this, which we may perhaps call a matter of magnitude, our attention has fixed itself upon a much smaller thing, and we have examined our own experience as to -- pickpocketing, We ourselves have never had our pockets picked! The classical and observant reader will, no doubt, quote against us that well-worked Latin line, – "Cantabit vacuus," &c. But we do carry a watch, plainly indicated by the dangling of a chain; and never yet has sacrilegious hand been laid on that trinket in any of our not unfrequent wanderings through the streets, either by day or night.

And following up our inquiries still further, we have found but few sufferers from this certainly not uncommon vice, who are personally known to us. Our maiden aunt lost her silver snuff-box in an omni bus, and the Wife of our bosom opines that her handkerchief was once taken from her as she was extricating herself from the thraldom of a cab. To us, who know the habits of the latter lady, it seems unjust that this case should be allowed to swell the list of crimes which are recorded against the population of our metropolis. We always thought that that handkerchief had been left upon the cab-seat. Among our male acquaintance we can find hardly one who will acknowledge that within the last five years he has become a victim to the skill supposed to have been so widely taught in Professor Fagin's establishment.

We own at once that we began this inquiry in a spirit differing greatly from that which now animates us. Having heard and read much of the predatory habits of our immediate neighbonrs, and of the rowdyism, barbarity, and what we have ventured to call the uncontrolled ruffianism, of those among whom we live, – and who is there that does not hear and read so much on the subject as to make the hair of the head stand on end from time to time? – we went somewhat deeply into the statistics of the metropolitan criminal population, intending to harrow up the very souls of our readers by such a description of the danger to which they were daily subjected as would, at any rate, have entitled us to the merit of having produced a first-rate sensational article. But when we came to the digestion of these statistics, – for which process we acknowledge that the digesting materials bestowed upon us are hardly sufficiently strong and trustworthy, – we found ourselves wandering in a wilderness of facts which required a great many more facts to make themselves in the least useful. What did 4,738 pocket-handkerchiefs a year mean? Our imagination tells us at once that such a mass of silk and cambric brought to the repository of Professor Fagin must, to him and his, have been sufficient proof of a very lively trade; – that there was enough here, joined with the 598 watches and other articles enumerated, to fill the repositories of many other professors.

But then came the question of population and the work of comparison. Those who had talked so much and had written so much of uncontrolled ruffianism, had intended to signify to us that ruffianism among us is more uncontrolled now than formerly, – is more uncontrolled among us than among others, – French shall we say, and Americans, – whom we regard as walking along with us, pari passu, on the road towards perfected civilisation, but whom we should most unwillingly acknowledge to be in advance of us. We found ourselves, as we say, in a wilderness, when we came to sift the matter after this fashion, and to digest the statistics with which we had surrounded ourselves.

A certain number of persons had been garrotted annually in London during the past eight years. We decline to state the number on which we alighted. Not intending, in this essay, to work on statistical principles, we will not subject ourselves to the annoyance of having our statistics questioned. But the percentage on the population of London was very small indeed, – so small that when we came to add garrotting to the other crimes of the citizens, it showed a result hardly to be appreciated. Surely it could not be necessary for everybody to stay at home o' nights, or to walk always in the middle of the streets, to avoid a danger that was so minutely infinitesimal!

And on comparing our present selves with our past selves, it seemed to us that garrotting had come up in place of other offences of violence, – indicating, by its nature, fear of the police, and therefore an efficient police, rather than an increase of uncontrolled villany. That there should be villany among three millions of people herded together, we take to be a matter of course. Whether there was an increased percentage of villany, and an increased percentage of the want of control ; – that was the question; and finding our digestive organs weak for the manipulation of pure statistics, which require a good deal of chucking backwards and forwards, we acknowledge that we gave up the idea of exhaustive instruction to the public in that form.

As to the comparison between ourselves and our neighbours in the matter of uncontrolled ruffianism, – between ourselves and the French or the Americans, – we again found ourselves involved in similar difficulties. To make any comparison of avail we should take the cities of Paris and New York, and ascertain whether in them life and property are less safe than in London. No other cities can afford ground for such comparison, – even if such is given by Paris and New York, – for the scoundrelism of the earth will of course gather itself together where wealth and numbers offer it the best chance of a livelihood. In the little town of Muzzlegoose on the Downs, with which we are connected, street violence is unknown, although a Muzzlegoose butcher was hung some years back for sticking his knife into a young woman who would not become his sweetheart. When we were in the thick of these inquiries there came to be that ill-timed march of militiamen through the north of London, and they who are loudest in pointing out to us that we have fallen upon bad and violent times had a great deal to say about that. The roughs seem to have had a day of it, and though we again could not find any personal acquaintance who had materially suffered, no doubt a great many ruffians had been enabled to come together, and to set the police for a time at defiance.

But it occurred to us that even within our own time there had been rows of a much worse description both in Paris and in New York; – rows which must have gone much further in making the timid portion of the population afraid to walk abroad. Nor did it seem to us to alter the case that these French and American rows had formed themselves on a basis of political feeling. We thought, indeed, that it was the same with us, – only that here the political feeling of the people is so much less obdurate, less hostile, less unconvinced, less spasmodically successful; – and on that account so much more malleable and easily governed than it is in Paris or New York!

And, moreover, if your head be broken, or your purse stolen, it matters little to you whether the injury came from uncontrolled political, or uncontroIled non-political, ruffianism. What does matter is that the ruffianism should be brought under control; and it seems to us that that which is non-political is more easily handled, is more manifestly made odious to the eyes of the multitude, is more quickly made to appear as a thing clearly damnable and injurious to all concerned in it, than that which strives to make itself respectable with the excuse of politics.

But we will confess that all that had been said of the insecurity of London had made us fear that we could not hold up our heads in this matter of police control against our French neighbours, Of the rowdyism of New York we have always entertained so strong a conviction, that we have never feared a comparison there; but was it the fact that Paris was more orderly than London? Statistics appeared from time to time which seemed to show that, at any rate, as regards England and France, and therefore, doubtless, as regards London and Paris also, serious criminality was much more prevalent with us than with them. This was very terrible to us, and seemed to go so far towards proving the correctness of that sensational but uncomfortable view of the matter, which would teach us to believe that we English are all gradually tumbling into a great Golgotha of crime, in which the innocent will be eaten up and swallowed by the criminals.

We were almost in despair on this matter, when there came out a most startling but comfortable article in the Pall Mall Gazette, --see the paper of 28th November last, – laden with statistics, all of which show conclusively, if statistics can ever be conclusive, that we are at any rate not worse than our neighbours. And there is here also a direct comparison between London and Paris. In London the summary convictions in a year were 58,849, as placed against 85,690 in Paris, with probably nearly a third less of population. In London, indeed, the convictions for drunkenness and disorderly conduct exceeded those in Paris for similar offences by nearly five to one. This is very bad, and should be looked to. But we are inclined to think that the men and women taken up for being drunk do more harm to themselves than to their neighbours.

Finding ourselves thus somewhat bewildered by the statistics which we had collected on the subject, and thinking that, as far as we understood them, or could, as we say, digest them, they tended rather to show us how quiet and safe our streets are than the reverse, we resolved upon applying ourselves to that rule of thumb which we have attempted to explain in the opening lines of this short essay. We had been told that we ought to stir no whither after nightfall in the streets of London without carrying with us, at the least, a huge knobstick wherewith to assail, on the instant, any garrotter by whom we might be attacked; – whereas it is our custom and our comfort to be accompanied by a somewhat soft and ancient umbrella, which we love well. Moreover, though we do not know that we are lacking in proper manly vigour, we doubt our own alacrity with that knobstick. And as for a revolver, which has been suggested, we are free to acknowledge – that the danger of being garrotted, if it were assured to us, would loom less to us than that which we should anticipate from walking about with a loaded pistol in our own pockets. They who take delight in wandering about through strange lands, among lions, savages, and nomadic thieving tribes, whose business it is to go hither and thither with their lives in their hands, --they may look upon the proposed state of constant preparation under arms as one of pleasurable excitement; but for us, who are accustomed to regard the security of our pockets and persons as an affair of the police, – to us, such suggestions are more terrible than the evils supposed to be so general. If that be necessary, then, – for us, – farewell London! And it has been very generally pointed out to us, that if we do venture out at nights, we should walk ever in the middle of the streets, as far as may be from skulking corners, and that we should walk quick and watchful, remembering ever that we are in the midst of rampant uncontrolled ruffianism.

As we thought of these plain, and certainly cheap instructions, it appeared to us that we were too old to alter habits long adopted. On an occasion or two we might remember to rush down the centre of Great Russell Street as we made our way home Bloomsbury-wards, returning from the mild dissipation of our club. But it is our wont to saunter listlessly along, thinking of the Magazine, thinking of our articles, thinking often of an ungrateful, – sometimes, too, of a grateful public. The streets which are very pleasant to us would cease to give us pleasure if it became needful for us to be ever on our guard, – to hurry along, looking over our shoulders to the right and to the left, mindful always of the cudgel in our hands. And then, too, as to that proposal that we should carry with us, in these our night-rambles, no watch and no money, we demur to it altogether. Our wants are not heavy, but we like to go prepared for the perhaps necessary cab, – for the little supper arrangement which may, perchance, be suggested to us, – for that loan of half-a-crown which it is possible that our friend may require of us. We decline altogether to denude ourselves of our slightly-stocked purse, and will even continue to carry with us the means of knowing at what hour we insert our latch-key in the lock, so that feminine vigilance, – ever watchful on our behoof, – may not find us without an answer in the morning.

Thus, in doubt and suffering, we applied ourselves to what we will call the rule of thumb, and made personal inquiry as to the damages, which had accrued to those whom we could approach at first, at second, or even at third hand. The result has been to assure us that we need not look for the knobstick, and that we may go mooning along the pavements, – as we have done every day for the last thirty years. And we venture to think that, after all, this mode of inquiry is the most efficacious for those who want to bring home a truth to themselves for their own guidance and conduct in life. Statistics must, as we have said, be knocked hither and thither, and sifted, and pulled to pieces, and digested, before a plain man can use them for his private purposes. A Chancellor of the Exchequer can regulate the expenses of the nation by statistics, but the gentleman who has two hundred and fifty pounds per annum for the maintenance of him, self and family will find that he can stretch his money much further by the rule of thumb, well administered, than he can do by the use of any statistics.

And then, too, the public statements, which meet us loudly in the newspaper' from time to time, cautioning us against this horror and against that, are apt to delude us much if we accept them without the necessary grain of salt. If all those cautions were taken by the letter, in whom or in what could we trust? Is not every justice a nincompoop? Is not every man in office either a knave or an idler? Are not our clergy a poor, weak set of drivellers? Are not our tradesmen pilferers, our merchants swindlers, our doctors quacks, our scholars shallow, and our servants slatternly hirelings? Alas! we know that, in the general, such is the case, – guided to that knowledge by the oft-repeated cautions of our daily and weekly monitors. But for ourselves, when we proceed to administer that rule of thumb , – when we come to judge of the neighbouring magistrate who is so kind to us; of the Post Office clerk who is our friend; of the dear vicar who lives near us, and whom we almost adore; of that excellent fellow, Brisket, who has never refused us credit in our sorest need; of our great and beneficent neighbour from the Lombard Street firm who gives coals in winter to all the paupers around us; of the hard-worked practitioner who feels our pulses at a most moderate pecuniary remuneration; of our young cousin who has just been elected a fellow; and of the neat, light-handed Phillis who waits upon us so deftly, – for ourselves, we say, when we thus measure our own little world by gauge of thumb, we find that we are surrounded by an extremely honest set of fellows.

Having, therefore, after our own fashion, measured the ruffianism of London in our own scales, and by our own weights, we decline to recognise any necessity for altering our usual mode of living. And even though we were throttled in consequence in the course of the coming winter, we do not think that our readers should accept that as any evidence that our observations are unfounded.

1 Anthony Trollope, “The Uncontrolled Ruffianism of London.” I have taken the liberty to subdivide paragraphs for the convenience of reading. The original text as printed has a few very long paragraphs.

Phineas garrotted attempting to save Mr Kennedy Pallisers 4:8, from Phineas Finn

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