The oldest definition of burglary can be traced back to the late Sir Matthew Hale – an English barrister, judge, and jurist. The definition is featured in his book, ‘The History of the Pleas of the Crown’, which was released in 1736.  

In the book, Sir Matthew suggests that ‘’burglary is when a person in the nighttime breaketh or entreth’’ into the ‘’house of another’’ and has ‘’intent to commit some felony’’, ‘’whether the felonious intent be executed or not’’. 

The mere existence of Sir Matthew’s definition during the 1700s is proof that burglary has been a long-term issue within the UK. Various discrepancies are also mentioned in his book, with these views illustrating a sharp contrast in how society viewed burglary – in terms of definition, prevention, and punishment – at the time, compared to today. In light of this development, this blog aims to explore the history of burglary within the UK, so that we may better understand the roots and psychology of the felony and use this knowledge to prevent and eradicate burglary in the future.   

History and punishment of burglary in the UK 

The term burglary comes from the German word ‘burg’, which means ‘house’, and ‘laron’, meaning ‘thief’. Although the etymology of the words themselves is easy to discern, the social attitudes towards and the severity of the punishments for burglary have undergone countless changes over time. This section addresses these changes, outlining contemporary social attitudes to crime and burglary, as well as discussing how it was punished during each time period.   

Before 1450:  


Finding out what the actual crime situation was like during this time period is no easy task, as court records are the only source of information detailing crimes and criminals. Court records from the time have limited credibility as a source, as they only inform about the criminals that have been caught and convicted and fail to consider the statistics of those who were not caught in the act. That being said, of the crimes that were on record, over 73.5% were reportedly theft related.  


Before 1450, crime prevention was the sole responsibility of the local community. As a result, punishments were simple and had to be seen as generally fair. Religion played a huge role in morally influencing communities at the time and often provided the guiding principles for what was and wasn’t considered a crime.  

Around this time, mutilation was rarely used. With the absence of policing, serious offences within a community had to be dealt with quickly and firmly. As a result, the death penalty was used frequently. This was typically done by hanging and would be used for other offences such as murder, arson, and forgery, as well as burglary of goods valued at over a shilling. Execution by means of beheading was usually reserved for those of noble or royal birth who had been convicted of treason.   

Prisons at the time were referred to as ‘gaols’ and were typically found in the dungeons of castles. However, they were rarely used, owing to their high-cost implications. Instead, fines were given for the pettiest offenses. Those criminals who were felt to have offended the public were put into the stocks if they were male, or the ducking stool if they were female. These were called ‘shaming punishments’, as they humiliated the offender in front of his or her neighbours. Trial by battle was introduced into England by the Normans from 1066 onwards, where those that lost the fight in combat were hanged.  

1450 -1750:  


There are a host of contextual influences during this time period, which will have influenced the social attitudes towards crime and punishment at the time.  

The rising prosperity of the country during this time brought about elements of peace. This was temperamental, however, as there were disruptive events such as ‘the reformation’ – conflict between the Roman Catholics and Protestants – as well as a bloody ‘Civil war’ from 1642-1651. The rising population was also a contributing factor, as it forced thousands of people into poverty, bringing about rebellions and tension between the class divides. The government also gained power in the UK at this time. The newfound power was often abused by rich allies of politicians, with the introduction of new laws and crimes to make specific people criminals.  

Highway robbery was a common crime during this time period. There were very few banks, which meant that few people carried their money around with them. Britain was largely a rural country at the time, with very few large towns and a lack of road infrastructure. As a result, roads were often very quiet and many country villages were isolated, without a police force. Highway robbers took advantage of this and rode on horseback in order to stop, chase, and escape from their victims effectively.   


As highlighted previously, the early years of this time period were largely defined by the religious and political disturbances of the national reformation and the Civil War. Rebellions and treason plots were born from the sheer chaos of these incidents and brought with them savage punishments, including hanging, drawing, and quartering.  

From the late 17th century onwards, the country was generally at peace. Royal power was brought under control and transferred to the government and the property-owning rich. They began ruling the country as MPs in parliament and JPs in local areas. In order to better exert their control and reduce the national crime rate, the ‘bloody code’ and the ‘houses of correction’ were introduced.   

The bloody code:  

From 1660 onwards, the number of offences penalised with the death penalty increased enormously and began to include six new offences known as ‘the bloody code’. This meant that people at the time could be hanged for: stealing goods worth five shillings (25p), stealing from a shipwreck, pilfering from a naval dockyard, damaging Westminster bridge, impersonating a Chelsea pensioner, and cutting down a young tree.  

There was no police force at the time, and as a result, the Bloody Code was introduced in order to serve as a threat that prevented people from considering crime. Many of the death sentences dealt were made public and would draw thousands of people to come to watch – further supporting the deterring effects of the bloody code.   

Houses of correction:  

Houses of correction were built in many areas throughout the late 16th century. These were often referred to as ‘bridewells’. Bridewells were similar to prisons in many ways. However, the inmates in a house of correction were forced to work, typically either by spinning or weaving. Many citizens who were thought to be overly idle or lazy were also sent to these facilities, to learn the virtues of hard work.   

1750 -1900 


Britain went through extraordinary changes from 1750 to 1900. For one, the population rose dramatically from 10 million people in 1750 to a whopping 42 million people in 1900. With this population increase, many people began to move away from villages in the countryside to towns and cities such as Liverpool, Manchester, and Preston. The main reason people did this was to take advantage of the higher levels of freedom that could be achieved, as in villages, your employer would likely have owned your place of residence and, as a result, would have wanted to know what you were up to at all times.    

The industrial revolution transformed British industries and transformed the economy so that industries such as textiles, iron, metal goods, and pottery were no longer facilitated by skilled workers making small scale-items but were instead moved into large-scale factories. Workforces were densely populated at the time and often had to endure unsafe working conditions, uncertain employment security, and rivalling with the landowning classes. Railways and canals were also introduced, providing fast and cheap transport for the general public.  

Crime reporting was much more reliable during this time period, as newspapers were introduced and began to flourish. As a result, criminal statistics from the time are much easier to quantify and provide more accurate insight into the criminal situation at the time.  

From these, it becomes clear that the changes to Britain’s economy had a huge impact on crime, presenting many new opportunities for criminal activity. Warehouses were stuffed with goods to sell, banks began to hold huge amounts of money, and the huge houses of the upper class presented new and tempting targets for burglars.  


In early 19th century London, a police force was set up, comprised of 450 constables and 4500 night watchmen. Numerous complications arose throughout the introduction of the police force, as people feared that they would begin to suppress protests and support military dictatorship. Furthermore, people did not think it was the job of the government to set up and control the police force, believing that it should instead be under local control.  

Shaming punishments such as the stocks and pillory fell out of use. This era also saw the eradication of whipping as a punishment, in addition to a reduction in the number of hangings. Public executions started to become rowdy and lawless occasions, which subsequently affected the social attitudes towards them at the time, as people began to think of them as barbaric. As a result, public hangings were abolished and were transferred to the confines of prison.   

During the 18th century and at the start of the 19th century, transportation of prisoners to America and Australia became a regular occurrence. This was eventually brought to an end, as crime rates continued to increase and Australia became further agitated that their country was being used as a criminal depot. In response, the UK was forced to develop its prisons on a larger scale. Until they were finished with the prison building process, there were not enough prisons to house the surplus of convicts. As a result, the government began issuing disused warships known as ‘hulks’ to hold the prisoners temporarily. It was believed that hard, boring work in total silence on these ships would force criminals to think about repentance.  

Those prisons that were built – including the famous Pentonville Prison – were modelled on the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia and followed the ‘separate system’. The ‘separate system’ involved the regimentation, direction, and observation of a convict’s day in meticulous detail. Prisoners were forbidden to communicate with one another and were locked in their cells for 23 hours a day to eat, work, and sleep. Each time they were moved through the prison, their faces were covered by hoods – and the only time they were allowed out was to be seated in chapels in separate stalls or to exercise in separate airing yards. At the time, prison was the punishment issued to 90% of serious offenders – including those that committed house theft. However, they were eventually shut down, as they became associated with the regular mental breakdowns amongst the

growing prison population of the UK.   

20th Century onwards:  


By the early 20th century, much of Britain’s industrial supremacy was in decline. A great depression hit hard in the 1930s, causing a national unemployment rate of 22%, in addition to forcing some people to go jobless for over 20 years. At the same time, electricity, radio, cars, and household goods were all introduced into society, creating a huge class divide throughout much of the century and encouraging people to move around the countries in search of work. This made communities less stable and people were less likely to know one another.  

The two world wars that took place in this century not only contributed to the destruction of homes, towns, and family life but also provided the government with new levels of power to intervene in people’s lives. Religious beliefs also began to decline at this time, with societal attitudes shaped more and more by TV and newspapers than by churches.  

The introduction of motor cars had a negative impact on robbery crimes, as it provided criminals with a faster getaway vehicle and a culture for stealing cars as a means of joyriding. As a result, by 1939, 60% of all crimes car related.  

The crime rate in early 20th century Britain was lower than that of the early 19th century, with the terrible poverty and unemployment of the 1930s bringing only a small increase in crime, until the 1960s onwards, at which point crime began to skyrocket. In all, throughout the 1900s, there were 3,812 burglaries and 63,604 reported thefts.  


The 1900s paved the way for universal education, better housing, and for police to become an accepted part of British life. Capital punishment was abolished completely in 1965. Penal qualities throughout the century began to emphasise reform rather than punishment, pushing for prisoners to lead somewhat normal lives during their sentence – through more meaningful work, pay, and easier family visits.  

Unfortunately, things took a turn for the worse in the latter parts of the century, as crime began to increase, with young people increasingly involved in violent crimes from football hooliganism. Detention centres, which supposedly gave people a short, sharp shock, were introduced as a mediation technique and typically involved community service orders, which allowed convicts to repay their debt to society through many hours of socially beneficial work. Detention centres had a horrendous reputation for abuse of inmates, in verbal, physical, and sexual terms, eventually leading to their demise.   

Tagging was introduced in the 1990s as a way of keeping offenders out of trouble. In some areas of the UK, offenders were brought face-to-face with their victims, in an effort for both constituents to get over the crime and move forward. More offenders and longer sentences during the 20th century led to an increase in prison populations once again. This resulted in ridiculous levels of over-crowding, which consequently worsened the improving living conditions and the previous efforts for bettering prison education, workshops, and family visits. The famous prison riots of the 1980s and the 1990s are believed to have been a result of this.  

The current situation?  

At present, seven houses are broken into every day. A burglary often takes less than 10 minutes but can cost a homeowner on average up to £3,030 – with one-third of the value solely based on the emotional cost to victims. In 2021, England and Wales’s police force received over 235,000 crime reports for burglary. This is a decrease of 17% from 2020’s figure of 274,000 reports for burglary but is still a humongous decrease from the 1,100,000 reports for burglary in the year 2000.  

A suggested cause for the dramatic drop in theft statistics is reportedly a result of improved home security systems, including the introduction of security cameras and alarm monitoring. It is suggested that 77% of people with at least a basic home security system are not burgled. There is further evidence to support this, as 60% of thieves have suggested that they wouldn’t burgle a property if it had an alarm. Despite this, only 32% of British householders have a burglar alarm and just 40% have a security camera.    


As made evident throughout this blog, burglary, crime, and punishment have come a long way over the years. Initially, theft crimes made up 73.5% of reported crimes, with the burglary of goods valued above a shilling resulting in the death penalty. There have been numerous contextual influences that served as catalysts in this development, from national reforms, Civil and World Wars, the industrial revolution, the great depression, the invention of cars, and the flourishing of newspapers. As a result, the justice system has moved from being locally determined and unpoliced to one of a less barbaric nature.  

It can be argued that in light of the reduction in penal severity, convicts have gained confidence in committing crimes, which could explain the influx in reported burglaries from 3000 incidents during the 1900ss, to over 1.1 million incidents in 2000. The rates of burglary have since depleted, likely in response to the introduction and social adoption of monitored home security and security camera systems.  

If you have any questions on how you can better equip yourself against the modern burglar or would like a quote for monitored home security and security camera installations, then please do not hesitate to get in touch! Our team are experts at what we do and would love to help!