Magazine article History Today

'Naming and Shaming' in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain

Magazine article History Today

'Naming and Shaming' in Late-Victorian and Edwardian Britain

Article excerpt

* Wandsworth Borough in south London is no place for the owners of pets who foul the footpath. In November 1996 the Tory council introduced a policy of `naming and shaming' any of its tenants found guilty of anti-social behaviour. The first batch of miscreants to have their crimes publicised included twenty-three such dog-owners, three residents guilty of noise pollution and four families who had been deemed to be `bad neighbours'. A list of their names and addresses was displayed prominently in council literature and circulated to local newspapers. Margaret Mervis, chair of the housing committee, was happy enough with the decision remarking that `This is what decent tenants want'. Others were less impressed. One dog-owner threatened the council with legal action, whilst the National Council for Civil Liberties was concerned that the policy infringed on civil liberties and could lead to vigilante attacks.

Notwithstanding the storm of controversy that followed the council's actions, there is little new in the idea of using publicity as a means of punishing criminal or anti-social behaviour. The disciplinary power of the stocks and pillories -- medieval devices of punishment that managed to survive into the nineteenth century -- relied heavily upon the presence of a hostile crowd willing to subject transgressors to a barrage of stones, rotten vegetables, dung and verbal abuse: shaming the criminal was an essential part of the process. The use of the pillory declined rapidly in the early years of the nineteenth century and it was finally abolished in 1837. A few magistrates continued to sentence drunks and other unfortunates to the sobering experience of a spell in the stocks, but by the mid-1860s this `shaming machine' had also fallen into disuse. In a Britain that prided itself upon its modernity there seemed little room for such barbaric practices.

Nevertheless, if these particular technologies of shame had been declared obsolete, the principle of exposing wrong-doers to the withering gaze of the public remained in place. `Publicity' was still seen as a means of both punishing and deterring; a way of regulating behaviour in the great towns and cities of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as sociologist Nikolas Rose has emphasised, all manner of new techniques and technologies were developed to further this end.

In the light of Wandsworth Council's decision to send its list of anti-social tenants to the editor of the Wandsworth Borough News, it is interesting to note that local newspapers began to take on the attributes of a shaming machine during the Victorian period. Two developments facilitated this transformation. Firstly, the local paper came to occupy an increasingly important position within the cultural life of British towns and cities. With the abolition of the `newspaper tax' in 1855, the removal of the paper duty in 1862, and ever rising rates of literacy, the way was set fair for a massive expansion in the newspaper industry. The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed prodigious increases in both the numbers and the circulation figures of metropolitan and provincial papers. There were no daily papers outside London in the mid-1840s: by the early 1880s there were almost 140. Weeklies experienced similar rates of growth. As a consequence, by the 1880s and 1890s every town in Britain worth its salt possessed a local paper; most boasted at least two or three.

Secondly, this proliferation of papers occurred at a time when there was a decided shift in the content of the local newspaper. Instead of being primarily a vehicle for national and international news (often simply reprints of stories that had first appeared in the London journals), the late-Victorian provincial paper became much more a focus of truly local news. From the 1850s editors became more adept at gathering local information as enthusiastic amateur contributors were joined by a new breed of journalist, the professional local reporter. …

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