This post aims to provide some historical context to homicide statistics across England and Wales, based on publicly available data. It will hopefully be updated every year.
Firstly, when we talk about homicides we count not only murder but also manslaughter and infanticide. A significant proportion of cases are investigated as ‘murders’ but end up as manslaughter cases because of a lack of intent to cause serious harm, the suspect’s diminished responsibility due to mental illness at the time or some other legal defence such as loss of control.
Also we have to recognise that the recording of statistics varies in consistency over the years for many different reasons (for example, are we are better at detecting homicides now than 100 years ago?) Having said that, homicides are perhaps the crime statistic least open to manipulation by police or other agencies. It’s therefore worth having a look how homicide has changed over time as it might help us to work out why it varies and how we can go about driving the number of homicides down towards the ideal level of zero.
The available statistics for homicide in England and Wales from 1960 onwards show the number of recorded offences peaking in 2003 before decreasing to a low point in the 2014, followed by an another peak from 2017 onwards (before the Covid pandemic came into play). Note that there was a change from counting by calendar year to financial year in the late 1990s, presumably so it matched the annual budget period for police etc.
This graph also shows the effect of major events on statistics gathered by the government, as it includes major events involving large numbers of homicides.
- 15 victims of Michael Ryan (1987)
- 58 people who suffocated in a lorry on the way to the UK (2000/01)
- 172 victims attributed to Harold Shipman (2002/03)
- 20 cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay (2003/04)
- 52 victims of the London July 7 terror attacks (2005/06)
- 12 victims of Derrick Bird (2011/12)
- 96 victims of Hillbsorough (inquest verdict in 2016/17) and 4 in Westminster Bridge terror attack
- 31 victims of Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks and 11 victims of Shoreham air crash
- 39 human trafficking victims found dead in a lorry in Essex (2019/20)
The red line shows what the totals would have been without these incidents included.
If you examine the 100 years between 1898 and 1997 you can see how homicide remained pretty steady (apart from spikes in 1942 and 1945) until the 1960s, when it shot upwards.
The population of England and Wales has grown steadily over the last two hundred years (there was no census data for 1941).
If we look at homicides per million population since 1970, to try and take account of this growth, we can see that there is still a rise to around 2003 before a drop (and then recent rise). As one commenter below has suggested, it would be interesting to see whether changes in specific age groups are more relevant given that there is a high proportion of murder victims (and suspects) aged between 16 and 30. This also applies to crime in general and is known to academics as the age crime curve – as in the number of crimes committed peaks at between 16 and 20 before decreasing through adulthood. If you look at the statistics page on the 2022 murder map you can see this in the age range graph of homicide victims.
So what caused that rapid growth in homicides from the 1960s onwards? Was it population change, the state of the economy, the new ‘permissive society’, a breakdown of ‘family values’, or the effect of hard drugs like heroin and cocaine? Or a complicated combination of these factors (and others, such as the way the data is recorded)? And why did that trend reverse from 2003? Heavier sentences? Better policing? Improvements in emergency medicine?
It has been suggested that the downturn since 2003 is down to a sustained fall in the level of domestic violence, given that a significant proportion of murders are carried out by partners, former partners or family members. (For the year 2021/22 the number of victims in England and Wales who knew the suspect was 301 out of 696 (of which 78 were partner or ex-partner and 71 were family of some kind). Perhaps there now seems to be less tolerance of violence in society.
Another possible factor is the improvement in the level and quality of “security” in society. Although this may apply more to other crimes which decreased from the 1990s onwards, such as burglary and theft (think car immobilisers, alarms, CCTV, phone locks etc), you can see how improvements in technology also help to detect and deter murder. Police can now link suspects to the scene of the crime by mobile phone location data and CCTV images as well as by witness statements and forensic evidence (which has also improved).
This post was originally published in 2012 (as you can see from the comments below). It was updated in March 2022 with recent statistics and will be updated every year. Future updates will hopefully involve charts for age ranges, weapons, relationships etc for recent years.
Another post (yet to be completed) will look at the historical data for London only, although at the moment it is only readily available from 1960.
Statistics from the ONS, Homicide in England and Wales, and Population estimates.