Archibald’s Liverpool Gangs, Vice and Packet Rats: 19th Century Crime and Punishment is an intriguing account of the history of crime in what is now one of the largest metropolitan areas in the UK. The book seems to be thorough and well-researched, and does an excellent job of using stories of Liverpool’s criminal enterprise to construct a short history of the city – from its initial development and the introduction of the police force, right through to the end of the 19th Century, when immigration, most notably from Ireland, shaped the landscape of the city.
The presentation of Liverpool’s criminal history not in isolation, but in the wider context of a diverse and fast-growing city, makes the book far more interesting. It helps to give depth of knowledge to British history as we know it, highlighting the surprisingly significant role that law-breakers have played in shaping the nation. We hear, for example, of the unusual criminal group colloquially known as ‘bodysnatchers’, who went to great lengths to unearth dead bodies before selling them to researchers and teachers.
Archibald’s easy, anecdotal style ensures that tales of the ‘resurrection men’ finding creative ways to drag bodies from their graves are simultaneously gruesomely entertaining and educational as we learn of the role they played in the development of modern medicine. He moves readily from individual to holistic by using short narratives about individual events to build up the wider plot of Liverpool’s history. Within each section are various fragmented stories that add excitement to what could quite easily have been a lifeless anthology of facts. Archibald has a very easy-to-read style, often making the book read more like a work of fiction; the characters come to life in a way that helps to embellish the overarching narrative.
Some of the sections offer extremely minute details, right down to dialogue or a blow-by-blow account of a particular chase. It’s sometimes hard to tell how far the retelling is strictly historical, and what has been added or left out for effect. This style also has the disadvantage of feeling rather fragmented: whilst the individual sections independently contribute to the overall story of Liverpool, I often found myself pondering a plot cliffhanger whilst the narrative soldiered on through the next section of history.
Overall, this was an enjoyable and well-written book, anecdotal in style and easy to read, if a little fragmented at times. It offers an interesting new angle, a refreshing way of learning more about the history of Liverpool and the UK as a whole.
Liverpool Gangs, Vice and Packet Rats: 19th Century Crime and Punishment by Malcolm Archibald
(Black & White Publishing, 2015)
Photo credit: Beverley Goodwin