Freundschuh on Moss, 'Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968'

Eloise Moss. Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019. 272 pp. $35.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-884038-1.

Reviewed by Aaron Freundschuh (City University of New York - Queens College)
Published on H-Urban (September, 2020)
Commissioned by Alexander Vari (Marywood University)

Printable Version:

Eloise Moss presents this study as the first to tackle burglars and burglary in modern London. Her central claim is that burglary “acted as a focal point for articulating national values about citizenship, family, and lifestyle, and the ‘perils and pleasures’ of modern urban living” (p. 2). Burglary has a distinctly modern history, in that its legal and cultural significance transformed during the rapid urbanization of the nineteenth century. Between the early 1700s and 1861, the nominal penalty for a convicted burglar in English common law was death—even if the burglar had stolen nothing. Moss picks up the story in the subsequent period, when the Larceny Acts (of 1861 and 1916) narrowed burglary’s definition to break-ins of residential spaces that occurred only at night, a distinction of time frame with important implications for this book.

Considering the strong resonance of burglary as a cultural theme in contemporary cities, one might expect this infraction to have been a major drain on the resources of London’s criminal investigators. But according to Moss, there were 516 burglaries recorded in London in 1893; in 1938, this number stood at 277. During the postwar era the figures climbed somewhat, but London never recorded more than 1,625 burglaries in a single year throughout the long period covered here. Such an incidence rate, in proportion to Greater London’s population of several million inhabitants, indicates that burglary was a rather small-bore issue insofar as the courts were concerned. Moss cites one telling statistic from 1968:  97 percent of the burglar alarms to which British police responded that year were false alarms. At bottom, then, Night Raiders is a cultural history of urban fantasy and anxiety.

Indeed, given the gap between modern mythologies of burglary and the rare factual occurrence thereof, Moss’s methodological approach is both fitting and necessary. Influenced by poststructural historians like Judith Walkowitz, Moss digs into a trove of print culture, drawing out the multiple meanings of the burglar as she locates him in fictional, parliamentary, popular, bureaucratic, and related records. The author links concerns about burglary to a variety of pressing political and social questions over time. The 1880s, for example, brought sharp criticisms of the police from some corners of London, mostly due to perceptions of institutional incompetence and graft. In this context, Moss suggests that the putative problem of uncontrolled burglary could be understood as a condensation of these tensions.

In London as in other capitals, enterprising newspaper editors could keep a crime as transgressive as burglary in the news with whatever narrative crumbs were at hand. In this way, the murderer and serial burglar Charles Peace, the subject of chapter 1, offered token evidence of an allegedly widespread phenomenon. Peace, despite his arrest and hanging, gained notoriety as a “master criminal” (p. 22) thanks to a collective impulse to imagine a city under siege. His subsequent romanticization “drew energy from the state’s perceived failures at controlling crime, or addressing the economic and social conditions that cultivated it, especially surrounding poverty” (p. 23). 

Before long, images of the burglar as an artisanal figure, an athlete, and a warrior became commonplace. For example, chapter 4 traces the rise of the rooftop “cat” burglar and his acrobatics, which captivated the interwar public. Moss notes interesting gender dimensions in all of this. Since modern burglary was about encroachment into private space during the dark hours, the law “implicitly recognized that burglary presented the threat of violence and rape, not just the loss of material goods” (p. 5). Could women, on the other hand, become expert burglars themselves? Moss raises this question in chapter 3; her findings show that Londoners struggled to conceive of a female burglar who could be as “clever, strong, athletic, and virile” as the male archetype (p. 71). The author takes contemporaries to task for dismissing female burglars as “rarities” (p. 67), arguing that “combined efforts to frustrate women’s links with burglary simply echoed” the broader struggle to keep women from voting and from entering “masculine” occupations (p. 70). These parallels are enticing, and doubtless contain more than a grain of truth. Still, the interpretation of a “cultural resistance to the idea of women as burglars” (p. 78) would have more bite if indeed women had, statistically speaking, been responsible for more than a handful of burglaries per year. 

Night Raiders will be of interest to urbanists, but not for the book’s breathy promise to pursue “the trail of burglars as they pick up their blow-torches and diamond cutters before heading out into the darkness” (p. 2). With the exception of Peace, one learns little about the burglars themselves, and while the eight chapters each begin with cameos of real-life cases drawn from police and newspaper reports, these nuggets offer little insight into the themes explored. On the other hand, some truly wonderful cultural analyses may be found in chapters 5-7, where, having enumerated Londoners’ fevered dreams of burglary, Moss examines how residents’ fears were monetized by home insurers and other peddlers of home “security.” Readers of these chapters will find a dazzling discussion of a peculiar modern industry.

Printed in advertisement pamphlets, the frightening pitches for burglary insurance targeted customers who had been primed by sensationalist tales of theft in the press. A range of new commercial products and antiburglary gadgets made their way into the modern home: electric signal alarm prototypes triggered by sensors, switches to activate and deactivate home alarms, supplementary locks, and home safes. “Such innovations redefined the domestic interior,” writes Moss, “modelling it for use as both home and well-disguised burglar trap” (p. 133). It is a brilliant turn of phrase, and Moss goes on to show how practices of burglar-proofing had ripple effects outside the home. Alarms brought police and entrepreneurial investigators, potentially at least undermining the very security that the services and devices promised.  Homeowners willingly surveilled themselves in the name of safety, conceding their privacy to corporations in a manner that prefigured CCTV cameras and the whole of the present-day security industry—a thief in the night if ever there was one.


Citation: Aaron Freundschuh. Review of Moss, Eloise, Night Raiders: Burglary and the Making of Modern Urban Life in London, 1860-1968. H-Urban, H-Net Reviews. September, 2020.

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