Crime on the Streets of Dundee

The Industrial Revolution transformed Dundee’s industrial landscape forever. The revolution created many new industries in the city, the biggest of which was jute. As industry boomed, people flocked to the city looking for work but this created a huge problem. With so many people coming in to the City there wasn’t enough housing to go round.

Affordable housing was as scarce as hens’ teeth. Building new cheap places to live wasn’t a profitable option for landlords. But they soon found a solution and a way to make money. By subdividing tenements into smaller rooms it was possible to cram more people in. The landlords didn’t care about maintaining sanitary living conditions or overcrowding. So what if the result was slum housing. For them it was all about making money and exploiting desperate people.

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A typical view of overcrowded tenements in Dundee

A family couldn’t rely on the father’s sole wage to survive, the wife and children had to work too. Many people in Dundee were poverty stricken and didn’t have a penny to their name. There was no social security system back then. For many people there were two options: the poorhouse or commit a crime. Unfortunately many chose the latter.

In the urban jungle it was survival of the fittest. With so much poverty around crime rates soared. In the period 1820 to 1840 crime reached epidemic proportions in Dundee. Housebreakings, thefts, violent assaults and robberies were common occurrences. Men by far were the worst offenders but women were also guilty of their share of crimes too.

There was one offence that was particular to women. It was a quick and easy way of making money but it meant targeting the most vulnerable in society. Charles Dickens described the crime as a “lucrative trade in stolen clothing” by “debauched women who practiced the art of child stripping” where young children were “promptly divested of boots, clothes and anything else of saleable value”.

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Mary Jane Francey, a millworker, on the 16th of February 1866, committed an act of child stripping. Her victim was 3 year old Mary Ann Taylor. Francey took the child to an entry in South Lindsay Street where she removed the little girl’s frock. It was a cruel and heartless act as it left the little girl virtually naked on a cold winter’s day. At the trial the Prosecutor stated that crime of child stripping “was too common”. Finding Francey guilty, the Baillie jailed her for 5 days.

On the 12th of September 1868, the Dundee Courier and Argus reported on a case of child stripping. A woman called Mary Roy stood before the court accused of stealing clothes from children. She pleaded guilty to the following offences:

Friday – 14 August 1868

In Meadowside Mary Roy stole a jacket belonging to 4 year old Jane Douglas.

Monday – 17 August 1868

In Panmure Street, 2½ year old Mary Reid had her boots stolen by Roy.

Monday – 17 August 1868

Later the same day in North Lindsay Street, she stole a pair of boots belonging to 2½ year old Peter Leonard.

Tuesday – 18 August 1868

In Butchart’s Close in the Overgate Mary Roy stole a frock and pinafore belonging to 2 year old Janet Dow.

The Sheriff described child stripping as “a species of theft of the worst possible description” and jailed Roy for 12 months.

Although a common crime most child-stripping incidents were never reported to the Police. Stolen clothes ended up in the pawn shop.  In many cases the money received then used to buy alcohol. In 1885 nearly half of all the people arrested in the city were women. The charges against them were for assault, breach of the peace and drunkenness. We don’t know exactly how many were convicted of stealing clothes from the backs of children.

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1885 Dundee Year Book, Showing the Annual Dundee Police Statistics

Dundee Police statistics first appear in the 1881 Dundee Directory. They make for interesting reading but are a bit basic in their content. Unfortunately many early Police Court records that would cover these crimes do not survive. Find out what Dundee court records are available and where to find them.

If you are interested in old photographs of Dundee from this period, why not take a look at our Flickr Page.

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