Part of Pen & Sword’s guides for family historians, exploring and analysing a variety of sources, Jonathan Oates’ latest book, Tracing Villains and their Victims (Pen & Sword, 2017) is not to be confused with Stephen Wade’s Tracing Your Criminal Ancestors (Pen & Sword, 2012) – as Oates himself makes clear.  Wade looked at specific offences, whereas Oates focuses more on types of record.

Oates, who like Wade has written several previous books for the publisher, is an archivist and local history librarian, but his P&S books show two clear areas of interest – Jacobean history and early 20th century true crime.

His interest in the latter is obvious in the majority of case studies he uses in Tracing Villains and their Victims. It would, however, have been good to have more case studies from a wider range of eras, to demonstrate the problems and limitations of sources over the centuries, and how these have changed.

Oates writes well, and has obviously done a good amount of research. There is, perhaps, not enough recognition either of change over time or of regional differences (he states at one point that JPs were ‘amateur’ without looking at the increasing professionalisation of magistrates over time, or the existence of stipendiary magistrates; there is little exploration of the fact that Quarter Sessions were held more frequently in the metropolis due to a greater number of cases needing to be heard – he simply notes that ‘in the 19th century, some counties had intermediate sessions which met in between these four times’ (p.6) without looking at the unique pressures of London courts and magistrates).

He also writes about advertorial trials and how the accused and defendant are represented by barristers – but there is no mention of how this hasn’t always been the case, or of the impact of the economic status of the accused and how this might have affected their representation.

The assumption here seems to be that readers will be researching late 19th/early 20th century trials – but what of earlier eras? It would have been nice to have a reference, too, of how the onus was previously on the victim to pursue a case, and how the founding of the modern police gradually changed that.

There are a few generalisations that aren’t backed up with sources – ‘the occupation of the defendant, until the late 18th century, will be “labourer”‘, we are told, in relation to Assize level indictments – which is a very assertive comment, and it would be good to know how wide a range of Assize indictments were used to make this very broad assertion.

Elsewhere, Oates tells us that the term ‘police court’ was:

‘a common term used in the press and an erroneous one. It actually means a magistrates’ petty sessions court – the police do not operate courts’ (p.97).

In fact, it is the older, former term for a magistrates’ court (the London Metropolitan Archives refers to it as such, so does The National Archives, and so too do crime historians such as Drew Gray, my former PhD supervisor, who really knows his onions in this area), so it is not correct to say it is a ‘press’ term. Neither does the name mean that the police operated such courts – but they were normally housed alongside the magistrates in or near the court, such as in the case of the Bow Street Police Court.

My main gripe with the book comes towards the end, however. The chapter on ‘Books’ as a resource states that it will refer both to contemporary books and more recent books written by historians, but ‘both should deal with criminals and their victims’ – why ‘should’? Some don’t, they’re still useful, but they may reflect an interest in the psychology of perpetrators, for example, rather than crimes.

Instead, though, Oates focuses on the usefulness of ‘True Crime’ books – such as his own (even including a helpful photo of him holding one of his previous books, taken by his unnamed wife)! – and Pen & Sword‘s books, even though he then criticises his publisher’s Foul Deeds series of books for ‘tend[ing] to repeat what has been written in other books’. As the author of one of the books in this series, I can assure Oates that I undertook my own research and did not just ‘repeat’ what has been written elsewhere.

More academic history books are dismissed in a sentence as useful to ‘”read around the topic” as history teachers at A-level and university lecturers are forever (optimistically) exhorting their students to do’ (p.119), which is neither a good advert for historians, nor for his opinion of students’ abilities either. To ignore the brilliant work being done by crime historians recently, which can be very helpful in understanding both individual cases and the wider social, economic and political context of crimes and criminality, seems a bit short-sighted.

Despite arguing that ‘the bibliography, if there is one, can be the best part of the book’ (p.140), Oates only includes a single-page bibliography in his own book, which primarily focuses on similar types of book to his own, with no academic history included – again, a shame given the work currently being, or recently, done by historians. He also notes that ‘books inevitably focus on well-known crime and criminals’ (p.140) but if he’d ventured beyond True Crime books, and into the academic world, he’d find this wasn’t the case.

Old Bailey Online – a valuable resource

More problematically, Oates also notes that he wasn’t brought up with ‘the internet as a key research tool’ and therefore ‘remains sceptical of its use as a primary research mechanism’; and that the British Newspaper Archive is limited in its use for researching cases from the past half century, perhaps highlighting his own research interests.

Personally, I’ve found the BNA to be incredibly helpful in researching 19th century crime, and in being ‘sceptical’ about the internet, Oates fails to recognise the usefulness of such sites as Old Bailey Proceedings Online, and the soon-to-launch Digital Panopticon; the former is invaluable in researching historic cases at the Old Bailey, and also has research guides by academics; the latter will make it easier to research those sentenced to transportation.

In summary, then, this is a book with some helpful background and ideas for research, written generally well, but let down slightly by the author’s own interests and beliefs, and hampered by the need to write generally about history, rather than fully recognising the changes over time, and differences and quirks from area to area. This is perhaps also reflected in the ‘catchy’ title – a more nuanced approach would recognise that sometimes there aren’t just villains and victims; the situation may be more complicated than that.

However, for an individual researching crime in their family history for the first time, they will find plenty of suggestions for primary research here, and information on the courts and criminal justice system that they might like to follow up elsewhere.