BA Film Studies and History / Course details

Year of entry: 2024

Course unit details:
Defining the Deviant: Crime and British Society, 1888-2000

Course unit fact file
Unit code HIST31592
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 3
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Available as a free choice unit? No


This course explores the history of Britain during the late-nineteenth and twentieth century through the prism of debates about the nature of crime and criminality, policing and regulation. By historicizing how those considered ‘deviant’ were identified and contained — from murderers to political or environmental protesters, and those tried for sexual assault and war crimes to those fighting against colonial rule or to advance civil rights — this course invites students to consider how broader social, cultural, and political processes were understood in relation to the actions of those who transgressed the ‘norm’. Additionally, it interrogates the circulation of ideas about crime: through various kinds of media (such as fiction, theatre, film, and the press); and transnationally between police forces and governments. Key themes: gender, sexuality, race, class, governance, media, urban space, the environment.


  • To encourage students to critically examine the ways in which historians have approached writing histories of crime and society to date and through what media.
  • To enable students to identify the role of the global and transnational in shaping modes of regulation historically via new technologies of surveillance, communication and mass media.
  • To challenge students to assess prevailing attitudes towards, and practices of dealing with, those defined as ‘criminal’ or ‘deviant’ through a range of secondary readings and primary sources: including legal and criminological texts, fiction and filmic accounts of detective work and daring ‘capers’, press reports, case files from the police, the Race Relations Boards, war tribunals, and other organisations.

Teaching and learning methods

Seminar activities (various)


Assessments (1 x case study analysis, 1x essay)

E-learning tools: Old Bailey Online archive of trials at London’s central criminal court; British Pathé newsreels; Gale Primary Sources and the Making of Modern Law databases (both accessible through John Rylands University Library e-resources).


Knowledge and understanding

  • Critically assess the relationship between crime and social, political, and cultural change in Britain during the late-nineteenth and twentieth century.
  • Understand the development of new techniques of policing public and private space.
  • Identify the role of the media in shaping contemporary attitudes towards crime and criminals, particularly where this has served to reinforce patterns of discrimination and exclusion of marginalized groups.
  • Explain how British legal and penal systems have evolved in tandem with those of other countries, and within the British empire.Demonstrate sensitivity to, and evaluate, historic emotional responses to different types of crime.

Intellectual skills

  • Students will be able to understand and critique the existing historiography on crime and policing in Britain in the nineteenth- and twentieth century.
  • Students will demonstrate the ability to relate these insights to their examination of the primary sources, and students will have acquired key skills of intertextual analysis through learning to interpret both visual and written material.
  • Students will critically analyse how systems of law, policing, and governance evolve over time and are shaped by prevailing social, cultural, political, economic, and technological changes/processes.

Practical skills

  • Team work and leadership through group activities in seminars

  • Project planning skills

  • Essay writing: the ability to articulate a clear, sustained, and coherent argument with appropriate references to both primary and secondary sources; the alternative essay assessment option (first assessment) affords students the opportunity to write a blog post on a particular subject, enabling them to experiment with writing for audiences beyond the academy in a critical and accessible way

  • Communication skills: the ability to participate in group work and seminar discussions in a sensitive and collegial manner

  • Research skills: the ability to search online databases of newspapers, trials, and films (e.g. The Blue Lamp (1950), Victim (1961)) for contextual and biographical information on the events and historical actors we will study

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Empathy and sensitivity to the experiences of marginalized groups who have encountered criminalization, stigmatization and oppression;
  • Ability to collaborate and work independently;
  • Written and oral communication skills will be developed through group activities, discussions, and sometimes presentations.
  • Students will acquire research experience through identifying useful primary and secondary literature to contextualize the topics we discuss.

Employability skills

· Teamwork · Independent learning and research skills · Oral Presentation skills · Analysis of extensive written material and synthesis for diverse audiences · Ability to critically integrate ideas from other disciplines, including Law, English, Sociology, Media Studies · Ability to marshal supporting evidence and scholarship into a compelling argument

Assessment methods

Case Study Analsyis (short analysis or blog post): 40%

Essay: 60%

Feedback methods

Oral feedback on (non-assessed) group presentation and seminar activities


Written feedback on source commentary and essay (returned electronically)

Formative and summative

Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultations and office hours)



Recommended reading

Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in Twentieth Century England (London, 2011).

Anindita Ghosh, Claiming the City: Protest, Crime and Scandals in Colonial Calcutta, c. 1860-1920 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016).

Christine Grandy, ‘The Empire and Human Interest: Popular Empire Films, the Colonial Villain, and the British Documentary Movement,’ Twentieth Century British History (Feb 2014).

Stuart Hall, ‘Scarman to Stephen Lawrence,’ History Workshop Journal 48 (1999), 187-197.

Shompa Lahiri, ‘Uncovering Britain’s South Asian Past: The Case of George Edalji,’ Immigrants and Minorities 17:3 (1998), 22-33.

Elizabeth Carolyn Miller, Framed: The New Woman Criminal in British Culture at the Fin de Siècle (Michigan, 2008). Frank Mort, Capital Affairs (Yale, 2012).

Frank Mort, Capital Affairs (Yale, 2012).

Matt Houlbrook, Queer London (Chicago, 2005).

Joanna Bourke, Rape: A History from 1860 to the Present Day (London, 2008).

Judith Walkowitz, City of Dreadful Delight (Chicago, 1992).


Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Eloise Moss Unit coordinator

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