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The Uses of Facts: G. Kitson Clark: Language and Sources

Language

If you compare the language Kitson Clark uses to describe these incidents with the reality of drunken violence in a town centre on a Friday or Saturday night, which is the modern equivalent of the scenes he is describing, the restraint of his academic, rather elegant writing style becomes immediately apparent. The sight of a group of men in disguise, with firearms, attacking an isolated and defenceless turnpike-keeper’s cottage would be intimidating and frightening in the extreme (one thinks of modern bank robberies or assaults by angry motorists on traffic wardens or wheel clampers), but this reality is to some extent masked by the matter-of-fact tone of ‘armed bands dressed as women broke down the gates and drove off the gatekeepers’. The more detached tone lends Kitson Clark authority, though either party involved in the riots might think it does them less than justice. Elsewhere, his language to some extent smoothes over the violence he is discussing. He describes the authorities dealing with political violence ‘with ease, and so with humanity’; what, one might wonder, might have been the reality behind that rather throw-away phrase. It certainly sounds as if Kitson Clark is looking kindly on the authorities. On the other hand there is a touch of admiration for the rioters in the reference to a ‘spirited guerrilla campaign’, which suggests a certain level of organisation and co-ordination, though ‘the wilder streets of the towns’ might be thought a rather colourful description of a pretty grim and intimidating reality.

Sources

Kitson Clark makes it clear in his footnote where he has found the information that he is using, which appear to be detailed studies as different aspects of Victorian law and order. These in turn will be based on archival research. It is quite usual for such detailed works, which might not have much appeal to a general readership, to provide the examples upon which historians draw when writing for a broader readership. He also highlights some of his sources in the text (remember that this was originally a lecture, so his audience could not see the footnotes): he has got the details about arson attacks from Home Office papers, other reports of violence from newspapers and the detail of the attack on the gingerbread stallholder from the published memoirs of a circus owner, a man whose way of life took round the country a good deal. We might note that he does not give precise references in his footnotes for any of these sources he mentions; had he been writing a book chapter rather than a lecture he would have been expected to do this. He says quite openly that this evidence has not been subjected to any sort of statistical analysis. The claim that no such calculation has been made (by anyone) might be thought a way round the admission that he has not attempted it himself, as might his assertion that ‘probably no satisfactory calculation would be possible’. In fact, just such quantitative analyses of crime figures are standard practice among social and economic historians and became so even before the invention of computers; however, this sort of work within historical research lay in the future at the time Kitson Clark was writing

 

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