Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Policing before 1829

The policing of towns and the countryside before the nineteenth century was based on a system established in the Middle Ages. In charge were the Justices of the Peace appointed by the Crown. Constables and watchmen helped them.

  • Constables were appointed by Quarter Sessions. The high constable of a hundred was in effect a servant of the JPs. Appointed for between three and ten years, the constable faced a heavy fine if he refused to serve. The person appointed constable could pay someone to do the job for him. This became widespread in the sixteenth century and meant that, in some places, almost permanent ‘professionals’ were at work. The constable had to report to JPs on the state of roads and on public houses. He relied on his petty constables, operating in town and village, for his information. The constables had to use their own initiative and make regular presentments [reports] to the court. They had no uniform or weapons.
  • In towns, but also in some villages. Watchmen patrolled the streets at night. In London there were also two provost marshals whose job was to arrest vagrants. In larger towns, like London, parish councils appointed paid beadles whose job was to organise the night watchmen. In theory all male citizens had to take it in turn to act as unpaid watchmen. In practice most prosperous people paid someone else to do the job.

Maintaining law and order depends on some form of policing. By the early eighteenth century this medieval system of policing was increasingly unable to cope with the rising population and the rising tide of crime. The only national police force that existed was the revenue or customs officer force that specialised in catching smugglers. The major problems were:

  1. The old constable system was cheap to run and the government continued with it. However, it could not cope with the size of the new industrial towns like Birmingham, Manchester and Sheffield. What existed was a medieval system of policing in a modern world.
  2. Watchmen were poorly paid. Patrick Colquhoun, a critic of the system, argued that “the old and infirm were thus employed to keep them out of the workhouse”. The City of London employed 1000 night watchmen so it was an important source of employment. Some watchmen were in league with criminals. They were rarely efficient in dealing with criminals and usually gave up the chase when a criminal went into a neighbouring parish.
  3. Some large towns employed thief-takers like Jonathan Wild. They pocketed reward money after the successful prosecution of criminals.
  4. Large-scale disturbances or riots were deal with either by the professional army or by the local militia or yeomanry.

The problem of policing was at its most severe in London. In 1730 the government decided to appoint a chief magistrate for London to hold court at Bow Street. The first was Sir Thomas de Veil. He was followed by two half brothers, Henry and John Fielding. Henry Field had little faith in petty constables or watchmen and he appointed six men to act as full-time ‘runners’ or thief-takers. They were paid a guinea a week plus a share of the reward for each successful prosecution. Later the blind[1] Sir John Fielding, who succeeded his brother, established the Bow Street Runners[2] on a permanent basis and ran it from 1754 to 1780. They could be called on to investigate any crime committed in London. He also began a system of publishing information about serious crimes committed in London with descriptions of wanted criminals. In 1772 he called for the collection, collation and circulation of information on a national basis. This was published as The Hue and Cry and Police Gazette and is still published today. The Thomas river police was set up in 1800 to police the river and its banks.


[1] It was said that Sir John could recognise 3,000 criminals by their voices and that they were unnerved by this talent.

[2] In 1805 some of the runners were issued with blue coats and trousers, black boots and hats, white gloves and scarlet waistcoats – hence the name ‘Robin Redbreasts’. Each carried a pistol, cutlass and truncheon.

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