Crime, Security and Technology: Safe-Breaking and Safe-Making in Britain before 1914

This paper explores the relationship between crime, security and technology in historical perspective, via a case study of safe-breaking in Victorian and Edwardian Britain.

Firstly, it reveals how serious property criminals were perceived at this time. Representations of such offenders in security product marketing, and in contemporary discourse more generally, tended to portray burglars as peculiarly calculated, ‘daring’ and technically proficient, and to situate them at the summit of the imagined criminal underworld. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the burglar’s mastery of technology, even his ‘scientific’ learning, which was understood as a perversion of contemporary intellectual and material progress.

Secondly, building on sociological work on criminal organisation, this paper will reconstruct the relationship between changing techniques of burglary and advances in security product design. As criminals adapted to new security devices, manufacturers responded by designing against a series of apparently new modes of illicit entry. This was the origin of the modern ‘arms race’ between criminals and the security industry, which fascinated observers at the time and has continued to do so ever since. In these ways, this paper provides a major contribution to the history of the security industry and modern patterns of criminal offending, and provides a valuable historical context for debates concerning the escalation of security in contemporary society.


Dr David Churchill is a Research Fellow in Criminology and Criminal Justice at the School of Law, University of Leeds.

This seminar is co-hosted by the Centre for Criminal Justice Studies (CCJS) and the Security and Justice Research Group (SJRG).