Police at the Dawn of the Nineteenth Century

In the year 1801, the population of London and Middlesex hardly exceeded a million, but how many of the individual units that went to make up this total were engaged in criminal pursuits, it is of course impossible to estimate with any degree of accuracy, because the bulk of the crime was undetected and consequently unrecorded. From such data as we possess, however, it is certain that the proportion of thieves and other delinquents to honest men must have been alarmingly high. Between 1801 and 1811 the population increased some sixteen per cent., and during the same period the number of commitments rose nearly fifty per cent. This increase in the number of rogues whose careers were cut short by capture, speaks well for the Bow Street Runners from one point of view ; but it also indicates no less surely that these officers were making no progress at all in the art of preventing crime, which instead of diminishing as time went on, continued to grow in volume year by year. Indeed the state of the metropolis was such that social reformers might well have despaired of ever seeing an improvement:  every corrupting influence, and every criminal tendency seemed to fourish unchecked and unrebuked in the congènial atmosphere of the London slums: children, neglected by their parents and uncared for by the State, got their only schooling in the gutter, where they educated themselves, and each other, in all the tricks of vice and dishonesty. 

Night after night, undisturbed by watchmen or other peace-officers, hundreds of urchins of both sexes huddled together for shelter and company under the fruit-stalls and barrows of Covent Garden Market. Day after day, these homeless and unhealthy vagabonds quartered the town, street by street, and alley by alley, in search of any prey that they might be able to lay their hands on. Their pickings and stealings were turned into money with fatal ease at the shop of any one of the eight thousand receivers of stolen property, who were supposed to ply their trade in London and however meagre might be the income realised by the juvenile criminal, drink in plenty, with gin at tenpenny a pint, was within the reach of all. Such licensing laws as existed, were seldom enforced, and even after the scandalous public lotteries had been suppressed, public-houses continued to hold minor lotteries, called “little-goes,” for all comers, men, women and children.

John Sayer, the Bow Street officer, stated before a Parliamentary Committee, that there were streets in Westminster, especially Duck Lane, Gravel Lane, and Cock Lane, infested by a gang of desperate men, and so dangerous that no policeman dared venture there, unless accompanied by five or six of his comrades, for fear of being cut to pieces. These are not highly coloured fairy-tales, but actual facts as recounted in the Blue-books of the period, recounted moreover without exciting any particular notice at the time. In 1812, the crime of murder was so common, and so much on the increase, that a Parliamentary Committee was appointed to hold an inquiry as to the best means of combating the savage tendencies of the people. Offences against property were even more prevalent than crimes of violence. Spurious coin and counterfeit banknotes deluged the country. In the parish of Kensington alone there were sixteen successful, and three unsuccessful, attempts at burglary in six weeks, and John Vickery, an experienced Bow Street officer, calculated that in one month property to the value of £15,000 was stolen in the City of London, without one of the guilty parties being either known or apprehended. Thieves and receivers, drivers of hackney coaches, and sometimes toll-gate keepers, conspired together to rob the travelling public. Their favourite modus operandi was as follows- the thief climbed on the back of the conveyance, unfastened the ropes that secured the luggage, and with the assistance of an accomplice, removed the trunk or other booty when close to the house of the confederate receiver. As soon as the loss was discovered, the coachman repudiated all knowledge of the affair, and having at the first opportunity put away the false and resumed his registered number, became to all appearance an honest cabman, against whom the police could prove nothing. The transformation was not difficult, because numbers were not then painted on the coach as on hackney carriages they now have to be, but were displayed on a removable iron label.

Still more serious were the conspiracies in which solicitors and police officers were concerned, which had for their object the levying of blackmail from bankers and others. In this organised system of fraud the following method was usually adopted- – a man of education, with money behind him, would plan a bank robbery, purchase the necessary information, and hire expert thieves to do the actual work. The robbery having been duly effected, some time would be allowed to elapse, and then the prime mover in the affair, through his agent the police officer, would notify to the manager of the bank that the stolen notes or securities had been traced, and might be recovered, if a large enough reward was forthcoming. This offer was invariably coupled with the proviso that, in the event of the proposed restitution being carried out, no further questions should be asked, nor further proceedings taken. The trick seldom failed, because the parties who had been robbed knew, that in the absence of any detective police agency worthy of the name, acceptance of the terms offered them was the only chance they had of recovering their property. Under the circumstances, they could hardly be expected to be public-spirited enough to incur the heavier loss, and at the same time, through advertising the affair, suffer some diminution of credit, for the sake of the principles involved. 

The Committee which sat in 1828, and which investigated the whole question, considered it advisable not to publish the evidence brought before them, but stated that they had abundant proof that frauds of this description had for years been carried through with almost uniform success, and to an extent altogether unsuspected by the public. They were satisfied  “that more than sixteen banks had been forced to pay blackmail, and that more than £200,000 worth of property had, in a short space of time, been the subject of negotiation or compromise,” and stated that about £1,200 had been paid to blackmailers by bankers alone, “accompanied by a clear- ance from every risk, and perfect impunity for their crimes.”

Between 1805 and 1818 there were more than two hundred executions for forgery alone, that is to say at the rate of one execution in every three weeks. When one considers that only a few of the forgers were caught, that of these not all were convicted, and that of the convicted but a moderate percentage were hanged, we get some idea of the prevalence of this particular offence. The alarming frequency with which mobs began to appeal to violence to compel attention to their grievances, real or supposed, by force of arms, was one of the most dangerous symptoms of the age. The Food Riots of 1800, the Luddite disturbances of 1811-1816, Spafield (1816), Manchester (18 17), Peterloo (18I9), and the riots throughout the manufacturing districts in I828-9, were all cases in point which convinced the thoughtful that, unless something better than the shoddy defence, which was all that the civil power could then muster, was quickly forthcoming, the mob would soon obtain a complete mastery, to the destruction of all law and order, just as had recently happened in France. The mania for duelling, again, which was now at its height, was an indication that the prevailing spirit of lawlessness was not confined to the masses. When hereditary lawgivers, and even Cabinet ministers, could find no better way of settling their differences than by calling each other out, little wonder that the rank and file followed suit, and took the law into their own hands. It is no valid argument to say that duelling was merely a passing fashion ; by the Law of England any duel is a gross breach of the peace ; and that such deliberate infractions should have become fashionable only proves that the law was held in contempt, and that the police system which failed to compel people to keep the peace was totally inadequate to the requirements of the times. 

There was a period when the vendetta was the natural defence adopted by semi-civilised communities to diminish the frequency of murder, and to protect the honour of their women: in time blood feuds gradually died out, not because any great change had overtaken human nature, but because there was no longer any need for the individual or the family to perform duties which could be executed with greater discrimination, impartiality, and thoroughness by judges and policemen. After the disappearance of the vendetta the custom of duelling remained. It was felt that personal honour was too delicate a matter to be delegated to any outsiders, and that questions in which honour was concerned must continue to be settled by the principals themselves. Eventually however, the same influences that rendered blood feuds unnecessary removed the excuse for the practice of duelling under modern conditions, a man can usually vindicate his honour by an appeal to public opinion, or, in the last resort, by an action for slander, without having to submit his cause to the uncertain arbitrament of the rapier or the pistol. On the whole, there is no exaggeration in saying that, at the dawn of the nineteenth century, England was passing through an epoch of criminality darker than any other in her annals ; the resurrectionist atrocities of Burke and Hare, the more inhuman villanies of Williams and Bishop the cold-blooded depravity of Vaughan and his accomplices, and the other lurid crimes which belong to this age, surpass in enormity anything before or since.

Such then was the desperate state of society at the dawn of the century. What arrangements did the country make to protect itself against the consequences of this accumulation of crime? What organisation was provided for the enforcement of order, and for the protection of life and property? For its first line of defence England trusted to the supposed deterrent effect of a rigorous penal code ; the more humane and effectual method, prevention, being lost sight of in the mistaken belief that it was possible to extirpate crime by the severity with which it was punished, a belief that survived in face of the fact, that as punishment increased in bitterness, so did offences grow in frequency and in violence. The penal laws were written in blood. Colquhoun estimated that there were 160 different offences which were punishable by death, without benefit of clergy a man could be hanged for larceny from the person if the value of the article stolen was more than one shilling . Townsend stated before the parliamentary commission of 1816, that he had known as many as forty people hanged in one day : on another occasion seven persons, four men and three women, were convicted at Kingston of being concerned in robbing a pedlar, “they were all hanged in Kent Street, opposite the door.” Such indiscriminate infliction of the extreme penalty of the law could serve no useful purpose, on the contrary it undoubtedly aggravated the very offences it was intended to check. The punishment for a trivial theft being identical with that meted out for the most heinous crime, all sense of proportion in the different degrees of moral guilt was lost. “As well be hanged for a sheep as for a lamb ” represented a point of view not unnatural under the circumstances, and expressed the actual mental attitude of the average criminal. It can easily be demonstrated that an inverse ratio exists between the efficiency of police and the severity of sentences. The more difficult the commission of crime is made, the less necessity will there be for deterrent measures that savour of vindictiveness. 

The intimate knowledge that an effective police have of the habitual criminal class is not only a safeguard against the conviction of the innocent, but renders it possible to deal leniently with the juvenile, and with the casual,offender. Within reasonable limits, the fear of almost certain detection is a far stronger deterrent than the distant prospect of severe punishment. Sir Samuel Romilly speaking in the House of Commons in 1810 said, “if it were possible that punishment, as a consequence of guilt, could be reduced to an absolute certainty, a very slight penalty would be sufficient to prevent almost every species of crime, except those which arise from sudden gusts of ungovernable passion. If the restoration of the property stolen, and only a few weeks, or even but a few days imprisonment, were the unavoidable consequence of theft, no theft would ever be committed. No man would steal what he was sure he could not keep.” Romilly made strenuous efforts to persuade the government to reduce the number of offences punishable by death, but without immediate success. Sir James Mackintosh followed in his footsteps, and in 1822 proposed to the House that measures should be adopted “for increasing the efficiency of the Criminal Law by mitigating its vigour:” It is worthy of remark that, at this time, Peel opposed the principles advocated by Mackintosh and Romilly, though seven years afterwards he was the author of the Act that gave effect to a part of Romilly’s ideal, “a vigilant and enlightened police, and punishments proportioned to the offender’s guilt.” The savage rigour of the penal code defeated its own ends in many ways. People would not give evidence that might condemn a man to such barbarous treatment ; juries would not always convict, even when the evidence was perfectly clear. Consequently the law often became a dead letter, and the prospective criminal had many inducements to tempt him to break it ; for, in the first place, he probably would never be caught ; and in the second place, the chances were, that the jury would evade the responsibility of giving a verdict, that might lead to a sentence, that would be an outrage to their humanity. 

With crime so increasingly prevalent, there might have been some justification for great severity of punishment, if it had been found by experience that strong repressive measures had invariably been followed by a permanent reduction in the number of criminals ; but this is not the lesson that history has taught. It is true that exceptional cases have arisen from time to time in which signal severity meted out to a prominent offender has proved the safest and best course. Prompt and exemplary punishment, even in excess of his deserts, inflicted on a ringleader, has often been the only way to enforce discipline or to prevent the spread of dangerous mutiny ; but such cases are rare, and owe their success as deterrents to their rarity, and to the attention that they excite at the time ; whereas a consistent course of excessive severity has never been a lasting success, unless combined with powerful preventive measures,  and then such a course is no longer necessary. Highway robbery and sheep-stealing were common when they were capital offences, and the thieving that invariably went on at the foot of the gallows was sufficient proof that the popular belief in the deterrent value of public executions was a popular fallacy.

The futile cruelty of the frequency with which capital punishment was inflicted was equalled if  not exceeded by the manner in which the secondary punishments were administered. Transportation was introduced in the reign of Charles II., but at first was not, strictly speaking, a legal punishment, but rather an exercise of the royal clemency towards those in “the King’s Mercy “; and it may be said to have taken the place in the social scheme of the old system of outlawry which, in former times, enabled a capital felon to save his life by abjuring the realm. Labourers were required to develop the resources of America and the West Indies, and to this end criminals under sentence of death were often pardoned on the understanding that they transported themselves to those colonies. Several convicts, however, were clever enough to secure the pardon and yet avoid fulfilment of the condition on which it was granted. By 1717 so many of these persons were at large, that arrangements were made by which felons were to be kept in prison until they could be handed over to agents, who were required to give security that the undesirables in question were really deported. Fifty years later the practice of transportation was common, and had come to be esteemed as an easy and profitable means of getting rid, once and for all, of offenders caught transgressing the laws made by society for its protection. Though called transportation the system really amounted to “perpetual slavery” ; it could nominally be inflicted for fourteen years, but was almost invariably for life. 

The second line of defence upon which the country relied for the diminution of crime was an unpaid parochial police, sometimes assisted, and sometimes thwarted, by the various stipendiary establishments already described, and this combination, as we have seen, was almost as untrustworthy as the penal system had proved itself to be. The constables or headboroughs, and the thief- takers, or as we should now call them, detectives, were more vigorous than the watchmen, but in some respects they were also more dangerous to society ; the former lived largely by blackmail and the latter on blood-money. The salary of the headborough for Shoreditch was only ninety shillings a year, the post was not one of honour, and the stipend surely too insignificant to be an attraction ; yet there was no lack of applicants, who by the diligent gleaning of perquisites and by the industrious collection of blackmail, saw their way to make a good living out of the office. As much as thirty-six shillings a day could be earned by a headborough by appearing in a prosecution at the Old Baily, and bribes from those employed in the liquor traffic were a still more profitable source of income.

In 1815 alone, eighty thousand pounds was given in blood-money, an expenditure that might almost be considered as a Government subsidy for the encouragement of felony. Forty pounds was the reward offered for the conviction of certain offenders, obviously to the advantage of the and it was thief-taker not to interfere with a promising young criminal until he should commit a forty pounds crime ; premature detection was tantamount to killing the goose that should lay the golden egg, and the common phrase of the day, when referring to a juvenile offender, was, “he doesn’t weigh forty”. The mischievous tendency of this “pounds yet.” system of rewards cannot be exaggerated, it vitiated the whole police constitution ; nor was there any chance of recovering property until a sufficient reward was advertised to stimulate those who alone were familiar with the haunts and methods of thieves and receivers.

“Officers are dangerous creatures,” said Townsend, after more than thirty years’ experience as a Bow Street Runner ; “ they have it frequently in their power (no question about it) to turn the scale, when the beam is level, on the other side : I mean against the poor wretched man at the bar ; Why P this thing called nature, says profit is in the scale : and being melancholy to relate, but I cannot help perfectly satisfied that frequently that has been the means of convicting many and many a man. I am convinced that whenever A is giving evidence against B he should stand perfectly uninterested. Nothing can be so dangerous as a public officer, where he is liable to be tempted.” 

The law being powerless to prevent crime, and the police being unable to give protection, people exerted themselves to safeguard their own interests in their own way; shopkeepers combined to provide patrols to watch the fronts of their shops, householders armed themselves for the defence of their houses, whilst steel man-traps and spring-guns were set up in gardens and coverts. In consequence of the number of innocent persons maimed and killed by these not very discriminating agencies, Lord Suffield, in 1825, introduced a Bill with the object of making their use illegal, but it was not until May 1827 that an Act was passed, prohibiting the setting of spring-guns, man-traps, and other engines calculated to destroy human life, or inflict grievous bodily harm.

It is not too much to say, that a survey of all the institutions of England, as they existed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, would reveal the fact, that whereas many departments of government were feeble and many corrupt, in no department were ignorance, corruption, and inefficiency so pronounced as in that of police. If, however, any should wish to find a rival institution to share this unenviable position of discredit, he would not have far to look, but could discover the object of his search in the disgraceful mismanagement that pervaded every corner of our gaols, from prison-gate to condemned cell. If the criminal, whilst at large, could count on a minimum of interference with his career of depredation, he had at the same time to reckon with a maximum of ill-treatment if ever he was deprived of his liberty. It almost seemed as if the authorities, piqued at their ill-success in the departments of prevention and detection, were determined to wreak their vengeance on the unfortunate few who fell into their hands. Neglect was the keynote in every part of the penal administration, the public suffered through the neglect that failed to provide a modicum of protection, and the prisoners suffered through the neglect of the governors and warders to provide them with the necessaries and decencies of life. A description of the extortions, inhumanities, and crimes against the most elementary laws of sanitation, that were rife in prison-houses and convict establishments, would here be out of place. A full account is to be found in the interesting volumes in the pages of which, Major Arthur Griffiths has exhaustively dealt with the subject ; but to show with what reckless disregard for consequences prisoners were treated, and how little attention was paid to the reclamation of juvenile offenders, it is sufficient to mention the fact that in Newgate, a felon, who had been sentenced to transportation, was retained in England, to act as a schoolmaster to the boy prisoners. Under the unreformed prison system, gaols were little better than universities of crime, that conferred the diploma of “habitual ” on the criminals who graduated there, and it was said that half the burglaries that were committed in London were planned in Newgate.

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