Tuesday, 3 July 2012

"A sort of excessive domestic brawl with not more than a couple of paragraphs in it."

This is something I happened to run across this week while reading through the Spectator in 1926 looking for something else altogether. 

The discussion of what makes for an interesting murder (as opposed to a 'dull murder') -- at least as far as the press was concerned -- seems relevant to the cultural context in which the Pace case would soon cause a sensation.

Though the Pace Case, of course, took place far away from the north side of the Thames.

The Topography of Crime

One day, when I was in prison, the chaplain talked to me on the topography of crime. He said: “It is a strange fact that nearly all the murders in London are committed north of the Thames.” I recalled as many murders as I could, and was astonished to discover that all those I remembered had been committed, as the chaplain asserted, above and not below the Thames. I hastily resolved to remove myself to the Surrey side of the river.

“When a murder is committed south of the Thames,” the chaplain continued, “it is nearly always a dull murder.”

I interrupted him with a literary allusion: “What Pegeen Mike in The Play-Boy of the Western World calls ‘a sneaky kind of murder.’”

“I don’t know the piece, he replied, “but the description is good, though it would be more accurate to say accidental than sneaky! What I mean is, that there is nothing sensational about murders committed south of the Thames. There isn’t an editor in London who would say “Thank you” for the murders we get. They have no news value. I mean, a husband hits his wife harder than he meant to and kills her. That’s the kind of murder that is committed south of the Thames.”

“A sort of excessive domestic brawl,” I suggested, “with not more than a couple of paragraphs in it.”


“How do you explain the fact?” I asked.

“I don’t,” he replied. “I merely state it. One can account for the fact that nearly all the sensational company-promoting crimes are committed north of the Thames. If a financier starts to go wrong he has to do it in the City, and the City is north of the river. But no one can account for the fact that the more imaginative and sensational murderers commit their crimes above the Thames. Interesting financial criminals are sent first to Wormwood Scrubs from the Old Bailey. 

I remember being told by an officer at the Scrubs that three of the most accomplished scoundrels in the world of high finance were in the prison at one time! Three of them at once! Most interesting! I should say that the level of crooked intelligence at Wormwood Scrubs is very high, but south of the river, at Wandsworth, say, the general level of crooked intelligence is low. North of the Thames you get good poisoning cases or crimes of passion—all guaranteed to fill columns of the newspapers for days at a time; but south of the Thames you seldom get any but mean, uninteresting felonies: wife-beating, house-breaking, unpremeditated murder that is really manslaughter or aggravated assault, and any amount of petty larceny. The Bywaters and Mrs. Thompsons, the Seddons, the Crippens, all of them either inhabit the northern suburbs or commit their crimes there.”

I thought the chaplain spoke with some feeling, as if he resented the habit sensational murderers had of working outside, so to speak, his jurisdiction. There he was, incessantly toiling for long hours every day, among prisoners, not one of whom could provide him with an interesting passage for his reminiscences of prison life. His colleagues on the north of the Thames had all the luck.

By St. John Ervine, Spectator, 13 November 1926, p. 851.

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