British Crime Firms Research Paper

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Historically organized crime is a relatively new phenomenon in Britain that was only formally recognized by politicians and law enforcement in the 1980s and 1990s and emerged as a social problem that was heavily associated with transnationality (Hobbs 2013). However, there were precursors to this obsession with “transnational-organized crime,” which warrant attention, and they were very much home grown and embedded in the class relations and political economy of industrial society. The criminal firm emerged from the cultures of the urban working class as a form of localized organized crime that was central to the economies and cultures of traditional working class communities and were particularly prominent in London among those communities lacking the strict disciplines of industrial life.


Working class London was made up of, “a social patchwork of intensively localist culture and sentiment” (Robson 1997, 7), that lacked the homogeneity of cultures created by a single mode of production (Hobbs 1988, 87). London’s economic base was diffuse, and as a consequence the capital’s proletariat evolved as a complex and highly individualistic amalgam of class specific identities gleaned from localities sharing little in common with their neighbors other than socioeconomic deprivation. Even dock work, upon which vast swathes of south and east London were reliant, created working cultures dependant upon semiautonomous groups of workers hired by the day before shifting to another cargo, possibly on another ship, maybe in a different dock (Hobbs 1988, 109–111). The localism of Londoners manifested itself in a tendency to regard territories beyond their own with deep suspicion, maintaining exposure to those residing in adjacent neighborhoods to a minimum.

The strictly defined territorial parameters of industrial working class communities produced clusters of youthful collaborations who utilized territorial identity as a vehicle for recreational transgression before morphing seamlessly into adult pursuits, and if we take some of the better known criminal brands of the mid-twentieth century, youthful conflict was certainly important in forming identities, creating reputations, and molding communal distinctiveness in the face of opposition. These territorially based groups occupied spaces or interstices between sections of the urban fabric and were frequently situated within “delinquency areas” where youthful deviant collaborations were organized around working class territorial imperatives defined by the experiences of low income, poor housing, and poor health. It is here where criminal careers are nurtured and where youth formulate criminal associations. Then as now neighborhood-based groups abounded in working class London, territorial imperatives featuring individual, local, and family reputations were forged in youthful combat that was ideal preparation for the world of acquisitive gangsterism, where fractious networks came to define much of what came to be regarded as organized crime in the twentieth-century London.

Throughout the industrial era generations of youths forged reputations in defense of their neighborhood, as groups of young men drifted into adjacent territory in order to provoke violence. However, these groups emanated from a domain that was shaped, refined, and restrained by elements of social control that were lodged in the pragmatic realities of the local political economy and its associated cultures and institutions. For most participants these were temporary collaborations before engagement with the local employment market-enabled maturation into an unambiguously proletarian society where crime was normal (Hobbs 2013). However, certain individuals, groups, and families on establishing a monopoly of informal violence would commodify this monopoly and via the finely grained differential between security and extortion, exploit businesses, and individuals within their home territory. While most groups stayed within the cultural and economic frameworks provided by the industrial neighborhood, the most competent and ambitious sought out and colonized adjacent territories where the object was to create “protected enclaves” (Arlacchi 1986, 195), via the maintenance of a viable threat.

Examples of crime firms who succeeded in breaking out of the local neighborhood to occupy adjacent territories can be found in the three following cases.

Three Crime Firms

After the First World War, there was a boom in horse racing and many who wished to gamble were drawn to the opportunities for lawful betting at racecourses. However, groups of men with violent reputations exploited the numerous extortionate opportunities available at the racecourses, and these coalitions of violent men are significant for their willingness to pit local reputations within a national arena. The Sabini family emerged as defenders of Clerkenwell’s “Little Italy,” resisting incursions from equally deprived areas of the capital, and they soon commodified their growing reputations by organizing a moderately lucrative extortion business. However, the racecourses offered the richest prize to any group who could transcend the restricted opportunities of the working class territory where their reputations were formed and to enable this transcendence the Sabinis formed alliances with Jewish bookmakers and criminals, as well as some significant figures in the police (Hill 1955, 3).

Eventually, against a backdrop of considerable violence, the Sabinis established something approaching a monopoly at most of the major racecourses in England, progressing into the affluent West End of London, and “Bottle parties, clubs, public houses, cafes, restaurants, even ordinary shops had to pay protection money to the Sabini extortionists” (Hill 1955, 5). However, further progress was halted by the outbreak of the Second World War and the interment of many of the “Italian Firm” and the Sabinis never fully recovered their power. The Sabinis were a powerful criminal group who transcended their immediate neighborhood, briefly succeeded in dominating a wide territory that included most major English racecourses, as well as the affluent west end of London, and as a consequence Darby Sabini was “the nearest Britain got to an organising gangster” (Pearson 1973, 30. For further details of the Sabinis, see Hobbs 2013).

The Kray twins who emerged from the East London neighborhood of Bethnal Green during the post-Second World War era also utilized violent reputations forged in adolescence before commodifying this violence and extorting from local businesses. Changes in the British gambling laws opened up new opportunities in adjacent territories, and they were soon competing with neighborhood crime firms from across London for a portion of the lucrative West end market (Pearson 1973, 16–18, 27–28). Mental illness plagued the Kray firm, and delusional fantasies based upon the replication of Gangster scenarios with origins in Hollywood restricted their progress. Eventually reckless violence and murder made the Krays firm difficult to ignore, and by the end of the 1960s the police had imprisoned the entire firm, the twins making more money from nostalgia, bogus charity events, books, and a film than they ever did from crime (Hobbs 2013).

Charlie and Eddie Richardson were born into a traditional south London working class family, and like their East London counterparts the brothers endured a wartime childhood, enjoyed the vibrant streetlife of working class London and developed as talented young boxers and prominent street fighters. However, unlike the Krays, both Charlie and Eddie Richardson were hard workers and made good money from the postwar scrap metal trade. The Richardsons established an extortion business across a wide south London territory and moved into a number of disparate commercial areas, including wholesale chemists and mineral mining. The honey-pot of the West End brought them into limited conflict with the Krays and the Richardons diversified into long firm fraud (Levi 1981, 76–77), gaming machines, pornography, scrap metal yards, a perlite mine in South Africa, and control over car parking at Heathrow Airport. The Richardson firm was eventually closed down by the police after a fatal shooting at a club, a bizarre “torture” trial and Charlie Richardson’s dalliance with the South African Secret service (Hobbs 2013).

These three examples indicate the manner in which the British crime firm emerged from working class neighborhoods with commercially viable violent reputations forged in youth. The foundation of the crime firm is extortion or “protection,” and the elite were able to apply their reputations to colonizing adjacent territories. However, the local working class neighborhood was the platform that formed the reputations upon which subsequent operations depended, and when this territory was obliterated, the neighborhood firm was forced to adapt.

Deindustrialization eroded the traditional working class milieu from which the traditional crime firm emerged, and the fragmentation of working class neighborhoods created arenas that have made it difficult for family-based crime firms to establish the kind of parochial dominance they once enjoyed in the 1950s and 1960s. The new arenas for criminal activity are entrepreneurially orientated and consist of “.. .flexible, adaptive networks that readily expand and contract to deal with the uncertainties of the criminal enterprise” (Potter 1994, 12), and as a consequence, the family firm has had to adapt (Hobbs 1997). Although we should not assume that this constitutes redundancy, Lambrianou reminds us, “Brothers were your strength” (1992, 29).


The postindustrial drift of London’s traditional working class communities away from its urban heartlands was enabled by both public housing policy and the private housing market and resulted in the colonization of rural space, bloating the periphery with new towns and extending the suburbs with a rash of housing projects. Those involved in criminal enterprise were merely part of this migration, and the key to understanding their change of address rests not with their criminality, but with their status as part of a proletarian diaspora whose trajectories out of the working class city can encompass a wide range of possibilities. Yet the shift out of the old neighborhood is seldom total, for the restructuring of the old industrial neighborhood has created new opportunities for money making, and pubs, clubs, and gyms make good investments that will always benefit from being associated with an old established brand (Hobbs 2013).

As geographical location becomes a somewhat ambiguous concept around which to base an illegal business, criminal labor has taken on increasingly transient, characteristics. The ever-mutating interlocking networks of opportunity created by the late modern city (Ruggiero and South 1997), in common with its legitimate counterpart, features interactions negotiated within networks of small flexible firms that are characterized by short-term contracts and lack of tenure, where the workforce can be “.. .hired/fired/offshored, depending upon market demand and labor costs” (Castells 1996, 272).

Understanding local housing policies is crucial to reaching an understanding of the distribution of various forms of delinquency, and the emergence of potent postindustrial forces that have “emptied out” marketable labor from communities formed around the assumptions of traditional cultures has relocated criminal coalitions within decentered, unpredictable, and relatively fragile economies. As a result of the sanctioning of the sale of two million homes in the UK, working class council tenants were able to buy their homes at a massive discount before selling at a profit and heading for London’s periphery, which combined with deindustrialization, effectively drained working class London of much of its established human capital (Hobbs 2013). Municipal housing policy, along with the London’s private housing market combined with deindustrialization to relocate criminal coalitions within decentered, unpredictable, relatively fragile economies, spread over a wide, and at times seemingly inappropriate, terrain. By the late 1970s the traditional neighborhood had been decimated by regeneration, and most of the traditional family firms had become at least partly ensconced within London’s periphery, establishing new business ventures, and in particular engaging with the drugs trade (Hobbs 2013).

However, deindustrialization is not a homogenous process, and in an examination of the serious crime community in another part of Britain, housing policy deliberately retained traditional neighborhood structures, and as a consequence key aspects of the locales cultural inheritance such as the neighborhood family firm, along with the cultural territory that spawned them, remained relatively intact. These firms have of course adapted to the new market place, occasionally expanding beyond the old neighborhood, while striving to retain the traditional order through traditional means (Hobbs 2001).


Within the new serious crime community, relations between individuals vary according to demographic dispersion, familial composition, ethnic distribution and integration, commercial practice, trading routes and patterns, the economic backcloth of the legitimate culture, and the particular use of space (Soja 1989). As a consequence serious crime networks have been extended across time and space, its members residing upon an anonymous terrain that is apparently indistinguishable from that of the legitimate economic sphere. Yet these networks stand in stark contrast to their predecessors, particularly with regard to their dynamism, and the extent to which they impact globally via their ability to both exploit and undercut traditional cultures. This ambiguity that is located within the new family firm is highly instrumental and typified by “vertically disintegrated networks of small firms engaged in transaction rich linkages of market exchanges” (Lash and Urry 1994, 23). The family firm is historically and cognitively positioned among a habitus incorporating multiple chains of legitimate and illegitimate opportunity networks to exploit these linkages to the full. The scope and extent of their activity depends upon the degree of connectivity established between groups and individuals, and it is this connectedness rather than corporate identity that forms the structural connotation inherent in “organized crime.” The at times confusing list of the family firm’s contemporary activities, especially compared to the one dimensional nature of their forefather’s criminal clout, is indicative of the families’ ability to establish interactions that consist of infinite mutations that exploit geographic space without being confined to territorial imperatives.

The same mechanisms that contrive in the destruction of traditional communities are also liable for the creation of new forms of locality and identity, and the neighborhood firm is essentially a constantly evolving social system (Ianni 1971, 35), whose strength and longevity is derived from its continued identification with territory that retains a deep and enduring well of historical sentiment. For even when the material base for such a community is removed, and crime is located within loose collectivities of ad hoc groupings, the family firm survives as a functional touchstones of competence and honor (Hobbs 1997).

The sense of “retrospective unity” (Bauman 1992, 138) that is exploited by the family firm is reliant upon a generalized recipe of locality (Robertson 1995, 26) that enables a highly durable system of transposable dispositions, from which emerge practices that reproduce “the objective structures of which they are the product” (Bourdieu 1977, 72). The flexibility of contemporary serious crime collaborations, licenses engagement with new markets, and particularly when they are at least part populated by powerful individuals and proven practices from previous eras, they become somewhat more difficult to locate and pigeonhole than their predecessors. For while they may be steeped in traditional criminal cultures established and maintained by the precedents of indigenous markets, the contemporary criminal firm is not restrained by the parameters of specific neighborhoods, for they inhabit a universe that prioritizes the ability to perform successfully within a local class milieu that has not disappeared, but realigned according to the dictates of global markets.

Criminal career trajectories are no longer restricted to highly specific and essentially redundant geographic and cultural spaces within an urban “underworld” but are located “.. .all over the main streets and back alleys of the global economy” (Castells 1996, 168). The result is the creation of criminal firms typified by flexibility and unpredictability, operating within multilayered, networks of opportunity, “small, fragmented, and ephemeral enterprises (which) tend to populate illegal markets-not large corporate syndicates” (Potter 1994, 13). The illegitimate economic sphere now features interlocking networks of small flexible firms, which like all aspects of contemporary capitalism, is typified by versatility, and a degree of flexibility that were inconceivable during the industrial era (Lash and Urry 1987). While this is contrary to the popular notion of transnational crime corporations (Williams 1993), as Robertson (1992, 1995) has indicated, globalization has improved the viability of locality as a generator of a discrete social order. Indeed the dialectic between the local and the global brings to the fore markets where alliances between global and local spaces created enacted environments where “the methodologies for the integration of organised criminals into civil society are established” (Block 1991, 15).

This brings the family firm back into the spotlight, for by perpetually realigning local precedents in the context of global markets, some kind of continuity and long-term viability can be maintained (Hobbs 1995, Ch. 5). Globalization should not be allowed to override the particular (Ferguson 1992), for the result, as we see from any critique of transnational organized crime (Hobbs 2013), is an a-historical theory built upon a rigidly structured view of economic life drained of cultural resonance. Indeed such a concept could not possibly reproduce faithfully the experiences of the family firm, whose enacted environment is a blend of the local and the global, constituting a highly effective vehicle that enable both individuals and groups to move between these two interlocking spheres. For criminal career trajectories are no longer restricted to highly specific and essentially redundant geographic and cultural spaces within an urban “underworld” but are located “.. .all over the main streets and back alleys of the global economy” (Castells 1996, 168).

Serious crime should be understood in terms of interlocking networks which are metaphors for relationally and manifested as amalgams of family, neighborhood, region, and nationality. Indeed, kinship in itself should be regarded as a highly instrumental trust variable, assuring loyalty by appealing to something other than self-interest (Lupsha 1986, 34). This is particularly relevant to the family firms continued use of violence, which remains a tactic of the increasingly blurred personal and commercial domain, and serves to stress the importance of trust for, “The everyday presence of violence prevents personal and effectively neutral trust relationships. Where violence is paramount, interpersonal ties must necessarily be strong, intense and affectively connoted” (Catanzaro 1994, 273). The continued use of violence to create, protect, and maintain a slice of the market within a densely populated sector inhabited by a multiplicity of networked interfaces (Arlacchi 1986, 195) is an enduring characteristic of the serious crime market place (Arlacchi 1998, 205).


Criminals do not experience the world globally or transnationally, for these are essentially fields devoid of interpersonal relations, and although it has undergone major configurations and relocations during post-industrialism, the firm is far from obsolete. The firm operates both in the “inherited basic architecture” (Castells 1996, 146) of the industrial neighborhood, in their new suburban idyll, and across regional, national, and international boundaries (Hobbs 2013), constituting the embodiment of Rose’s belief that the individual, “can within the limits permitted by the culture define for himself somewhat new patterns suggested by the variation among the old ones” (1962, 14).


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