Parochial Police of the Eighteen Century

Before proceeding to a narration of the successive steps that culminated in the radical reorganisation authorised in 1829, it is necessary to describe the nature and extent of the various police establishments as they existed at the close of the eighteenth century. Exclusive of Special Constables, who, though legally available, were but rarely if ever employed, there were, at this time, five distinct classes of Peace Officers

(i.) Parochial Constables, elected annually in Parish or Township and serving gratuitously.

(ii.) Their Substitutes or Deputies serving for a wage voluntarily paid by the Principals. 

(iii.) Salaried Bow Street Officers, and Patrols expressly charged with the suppression of highwaymen and footpads. 

(iv.) Stipendiary Police Constables attached to the Public Offices established under “The Middlesex Justices Act.” 

(v.) Stipendiary Water-Police attached to the Thames Office, as established by Act of Parliament in I798.

It will be noticed that of these five classes, numbers

i. and ii. were common to the whole of England, whilst numbers iii. iv. and V. were peculiar to London and its immediate neighbourhood, but, for our present purpose, it will be more convenient to consider the provincial constabulary as altogether distinct from the various Metropolitan Police bodies. Theoretically and constitutionally, there should have been little or no difference between the policing of London and that of any rural district, but the stage of development reached in the Metropolis already foreshadowed the impending changes, whilst in the country the standard of police had as yet deviated hardly at all from the mediæval pattern. 

Leaving the London police establishments, therefore, for future consideration, we find that in rural districts, and in provincial towns, High Constables and Parish Constables, acting under the direction of the Justices of the Peace, continued to exercise the time-honoured powers which had been handed down to them from forgotten generations. To get a clear idea of how the old-time system adapted itself, more or less, to the changed conditions that prevailed in the nineteenth century, the best way is to turn to what we may call the police text-books of the period such as the “Treatise on the Functions and Duties of the Constable,” by Colquhoun (1803), or “The Churchwardens and Overseers’ Guide,” by Ashdowne, published at about the same time. “The High Constable,” says Colquhoun, “has the superintendence and direction of the petty constables, headboroughs, and other peace officers in his hundred or division. It is his duty to take cognisance of, and to present, all offences within his hundred or division which lead to the corruption of morals, breaches of the Lord’s Day, Drunkenness, Cursing and Swearing. To bring forward sufficient number of constables to maintain decency and good order during the execution of malefactors or the punishment of offenders, and to attend in person to see that the peace officers do their duty. To summon petty constables to keep order in the Courts of Jus……tice &c.”  With regard to tumults and riots, “to do all in his power to arrest offenders, and so  to dispose of his constables as to suppress the disorders in question, also to give assistance to neighbouring divisions . to present all persons exposing for sale unwholesome meat and to take cognisance of false or deficient weights and measures.”

In another place he declares that petty constables should regularly perambulate their districts once at least in every twenty-four hours, and visit all alehouses once a week “to see that no unlawful games are permitted, and that labouring people are not suffered to lounge and tipple until they are intoxicated.” The duty of petty constables when riots are threatened is thus described. “The instant a constable hears of any unlawful assemlbly, mob, or concourse of people likely to produce danger or mischief within or near his `constablewick or district (he must) give notice to the nearest Justice, and repair instantly to the spot with his long or short stave, and there put himself under the  direction of such magistrate or magistrates as may be in attendance.” 

“The Churchwardens’ and Overseers’ Guide and Director” is arranged in the form of a vocabulary, and in alphabetical order gives explanations of the principal matters with which Parish Officers are chiefly concerned. “Constables,” we learn, “are to make a Hue and Cry after the offenders where a robbery or felony is committed, to call upon the parishioners to assist in the pursuit : and if the criminal be not found in the liberty of the first constable, he is to give notice to the next, and thus continue the pursuit from town to town, and from county to county ; and where offenders are not taken, constables are to levy the Tax to satisfy an execution on recovery against a Hundred, and pay the same to the Sheriff &c…..” 

“Hundreds or Wapentakes,” according to Ashdowne, “are generally governed by a High Constable, under whom a Tythingman or Borsholder is generally appointed for each Borough or District within the Hundred. Hundreds are liable to penalties on exportation of wool, liable also for damages sustained by violently pulling down buildings ; by killing cattle ; cutting down trees, by destroy- ing turnpikes, or works on navigable rivers ; by cutting hopbines ; by destroying corn to prevent exportation ; by wounding officers of the Customs ; by destroying woods &c……Hundreds are also bound to raise Hue and Cry when any robbery is committed within the Hundred ; and if the offender is not taken, an action may be maintained against the Hundred to recover damages.  Of Tythingmen the same author writes “There is frequently a Tythingman in the same town with a constable, who is, as it were, a deputy to exercise the office in the constable’s absence ; but there are some things which the constable has power to do  that tythingmen cannot intermeddle with. there happens to be no constable of a parish, the office and authority of a Tythingman seems to be the same under another name.”

If anyone should be inclined to doubt the remarkable stability of the Constable’s office, and all that pertains to it, he may find it instructive to look back a few hundred years, and refer to what Lambard and others have to say about Tythingmen and Constables, part of which is quoted in the third chapter of this book. To the scope and intention of the functions exercised by parish officers as stated by Colquhoun and Ashdowne, if somewhat old-fashioned, no exception need be taken. The trouble was, however, that the office-holders did not live up to the standard inculcated by their teachers. The commonsense and reasonableness of the whole system fell to the ground whenever ignorant and unworthy agents were entrusted with its administration, and such, unfortunately, was the character of the large majority of the police personnel. The parish constable was incompetent, and the duties imposed on him were either evaded, or performed in a purely perfunctory manner. Under the circumstances such a tendency was perhaps inevitable, for it is not to be expected that unpaid services will be well performed without constant supervision. Struggling men, who have to work hard to provide for themselves, and for their families, are not likely to overtax their energies in the service of the State without reward, and those substitutes who received a few shillings a year from their principals were only careful not to exceed the minimum amount of labour which could be exacted from them compulsorily.

Further consideration of the Rural Constabulary must be postponed until we come to deal with the reorganisation which was set on foot in 1839. For the present we must return to the Metropolis, where the doomed parochial system was now tottering to its fall, and where the need for reform was more pressing than elsewhere. At the time we are considering, London boasted a variety of police establishments, all more or less disconnected. The City had one organisation, Westminster another, the public offices distributed justice after a fashion in their respective districts, and Bow Street prided itself upon holding a position of complete isolation and independence. Nor was this all-the whole of the metropolis was split up into parishes, and each parish made its own arrangements for keeping the peace, or dispensed with police altogether, as it saw fit. Twelve London parishes were thus entirely unprotected : St James’ and Marylebone employed Chelsea pensioners, the City supported 765 watchmen, Edgeware had no policeman and no patrol, Camberwell armed its night watchmen with blunder-busses, whilst St Pancras had no less than eighteen distinct Watch Trusts, a source of weakness rather than of strength, because they never cooperated with each other. In Kensington the police force consisted only of three headboroughs, excellent men perhaps ; but as Peel remarked,  “if they had been angels, it would have been utterly impossible for them to fulfil the duties required from their situation.” Deptford, being without a single professional watchman, was at one time patrolled by the inhabitants, who enrolled themselves into companies twenty strong for that purpose, quickly disbanding, however, as soon as the robbers moved into another district. In some parishes, again, there were patrols and no beats, and in others there were beats and stands but no patrols, despite the recommendations of Special Commissions and the provisions of Acts of Parliament.

The degree of security extended to the ratepayers by the local authorities was thus a very variable quantity; but it is not too much to say that without exception the constitution of all the parochial police bodies was antiquated and unsound, and that Watch and Ward was at this time more indifferently kept than had previously been the case throughout the whole history of the Metropolis. In the year 1800 Parish Constables were generally permanent deputies and of inferior origin ; nor was any trouble taken to secure officers of the right stamp. The wages paid to Parish Watchmen were miserable, and the men usually engaged were those whose antecedents and qualifications precluded them from obtaining more lucrative or reputable employment. These “Charlies ” (as they were popularly called, after their predecessors the Bell-men, instituted in the reign of Charles the Second) were for the most part infirm from age and starvation, drunken, the creatures of publicans rather than servants of the public. Dressed in heavy capes, muffed up to the ears, provided with long staves and dim lanterns, they issued from their watchboxes twice an hour for a minute or two to call the time and the state of the weather. As clocks and barometers they may have been of some service; or, as somebody once put it, to wake a man up after his house has been robbed to tell him the bad news ; but for the prevention of crime, they were worse than useless. Striking their staves on the pavement, and shewing their lanterns, they gave timely warning of their approach; and if the thieves thought it worthwhile to take any notice at all of such a trivial interruption, they had only to remove themselves temporarily into the next parish to be secure from pursuit.

As an object for practical joking, and as a theme for ridicule, the Charlies provided some amusement to the Jerry Hawthorns and Corinthian Toms of the period, but this was the extent of their usefulness. Quite a considerable literature hinged on their grotesque incompetency, but in their praise not a syllable was uttered ; everyone made fun of them. They were humorously described as “persons hired by the parish to sleep in the open air,” and another topical saying was to the effect that “Shiver and Shake ” ought to be substituted for “Watch and Ward,” because they spent half the night shivering with cold and the other half shaking with fright. was a popular amusement amongst young men of the town to imprison watchmen by upsetting, their watchboxes on top of them as they dozed within and the young blood who could exhibit to his friends a collection of trophies such as lanterns, staves, and rattles, was much accounted of in smart society. The newspapers were never tired of skits at the expense of the parochial watch : the following extract from The Morning Herald of October 3oth, 1802, will serve as an example : “t is said that a man who presented himself for the office of watchman to a parish at the West End of the Town very much infected by depredators, was lately turned away from the Vestry with this reprimand– I am astonished at the impudence of such a great sturdy strong fellow as you are, being so idle as to apply for a watchman’s situation, when you are capable of labour:”  Another publication calling itself “The Microcosm of London ” gives its readers a satirical account of the nightly watch in these words. “The Watch is a Parochial establishment supported by the Parochial rate, and subject to the jurisdiction of the magistrates : it is necessary to the peace and security of the metropolis, and is of considerable utility : but that it might be rendered much more useful cannot be denied. That the Watch should consist of able-bodied men, is, we presume, essential to the complete design of its institution, as it forms a part of its legal description : but that the watchmen are persons of this character, experience will not vouch : and why they are chosen from among the aged and incapable must be answered by those who make the choice.  In the early part of the last century, an halbert was their weapon : it was then changed to a long staff: but the great coat and lantern are now accompanied with more advantageous implements of duty – a bludgeon and a rattle. It is almost superfluous to add, that the watchhouse is a place where the appointed watchmen assemble to be accoutred for their nocturnal rounds, under the direction of a constable, whose duty being taken by rotation, enjoys the title of Constable of the Night. It is also the receptacle for such unfortunate persons as are apprehended by the watch, and where they remain in custody till they can be conducted to the tribunal of the police office, for the examination of a magistrate.” 

The watchhouses here referred to were dirty and insecure hovels, with an underground cellar secured by a grating, behind which prisoners were confined, sometimes for forty-eight hours, but in the case of minor offences a tip of half-a-crown to the constable was generally sufficient to secure release. In 1804 there were 2044 parochial constables and watchmen in the Metropolis, including the 765 employed by the City, that is to say, about one watchman to every seventy or eighty houses. The City of London was much better policed than the rest of the Metropolis. It was said that so superior were the arrangements eastward of Temple Bar to those of the more westerly districts, that a pickpocket was easily recognised when he came to the City boundary, because he always walked so fast, and so often looked over his shoulder, as if he suspected that someone was after him. The watchmen appointed by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen were selected from a better class of men than were those who held office in Westminster and other parishes ; they were also better paid and more carefully superintended. In 1815 the Lord Mayor himself, on more than one occasion, visited the watch by night and had the men mustered, charging on the spot those whom he considered unfit. Briefly the organisation was as follows – the City was divided into four divisions with three day patrols to each division, in all twelve patrolmen at one and a half guineas a week each. By night, whilst the constables and watchmen were on duty, the patrols were reduced to eight, two to a division ; their duties were, to visit the watchhouses at least twice a night, to see that the constable of the night was not absent from his post, signing their names at every visit in a book kept for the purpose at the several watchhouses. The Constables of the Night were paid no salary, but were generally in receipt of fees from the elected householders whose deputies they were. They were bound to be present with the watch all night long, and were held responsible that the watchmen did their duty. In time of riot, or when disturbances were apprehended, the Lord Mayor had power to summon them, together with the watch, at any hour, by day as well as by night, for the maintenance of the peace. The task of super-ising the City police was entrusted, not to a High Constable, but to the two City Marshals, whose duty it was to pay surprise visits to the watchhouses at uncertain hours, to certify that the patrolmen’s books were duly signed up, and to report every morning to the Lord Mayor concerning the “internal quiet of the City of London.” They also bound themselves on oath to proceed against no man through malice, and to screen no man through favour or affection. 

Both in the city and in other parts of London, the management of the traffic was in the hands of special officials called Street-keepers ; but beyond the regulation of vehicular traffic within the limits of the parishes where they were employed, they had no general police duties to perform, and were not under the control of the magistrates, nor subject to the police authorities. The Burgesses of Westminster still suffered their police administration to be bound by the ecclesiastical traditions of bygone centuries ; and if we make an exception in favour of the  “Jury of Annoyances,” established in 1755, we may say that little evidence of progress was discoverable within the Liberties of the Western City. The Act creating the Annoyance Jury was passed in the twenty-ninth year of George II., and two years later was amended and enlarged. The Court of Burgesses was now empowered to maintain forty-eight inhabitants of Westminster for the suppression of public nuisances : members of this jury had authority to enter any shop or house, and if they found any unlawful or defective weight or measure therein, to destroy the same, and to amerce the offender a sum not exceed- ing forty shillings for each offence. In 1764 the Jury was divided into three divisions, called St Margaret’s Division, the St James’ Division, and the St Martin’s Division, each containing sixteen members ; at the same time it was ordained, that all presentments had to be in writing under the hands and seals of at least twelve jurymen. In 1800 the Annoyance Jury was still nominally responsible for the cleanliness, sightliness, and sanitary condition of Westminster, but, as a matter of experience, the removal and prevention of nuisances was left almost entirely to the discretion and taste of the more fastidious householders. 

As has already been said, the Middlesex Justices Act was at first an experimental measure ; in 1801 it was repealed, but most of its provisions were at once re-enacted by a statute which placed the public offices on a more permanent basis, and raised the salary of the magistrates and the wages of the police officers. There were now ten of these offices, viz., Mansion House, Guildhall, Hatton Garden, Worship Street, Whitechapel, Shadwell, Southwark, Queen Street Westminster ; Great Marlborough Street, and Wapping. Mansion House and Guildhall belonged to the City proper, and Wapping was the headquarters of the River Police. To each office were apportioned three magistrates, eight constables, and a clerk or two. The magistrates sat in rotation, and, within the limited areas of their respective jurisdictions, acted independently of their colleagues. There was little uniformity or co-operation. Each office had a general duty of apprehending and punishing any criminals found within its boundaries, but had no connection with the Nightly Watch. The different parishes concerned had transferred to the public offices the duties connected with Hue and Cry, whilst retaining in their own hands the responsi- bilities of Watch and Ward. The relations existing between the parochial and stipendiary authorities were not cordial, in fact there was frequently a pronounced enmity between the parish constable and the police constable, whilst the amateur peace officer not infrequently set at defiance the professional magistrate. 

The impossibility of controlling the local watchmen conduced to a very unsatisfactory state of affairs, as is seen by the following evidence given before the 1816 Committee by Mr Robert Raynsford, the magistrate of Hatton Garden. “At present, as the law now stands,” he said, “we have no power at all over the parish watchmen : but when this question was agitated on a former occasion, the parishes had so rooted an aversion to the interference of the magistracy, that I believe there were petitions from most of the parishes : at the same time there are offences committed in the streets, close by a watch-box, and we are told that the watchman was fast asleep, or would give no assistance : we have no power of sending for the watchman, or if we did, we have no power of punishing him. I think it would be an improvement if they were put under direction of the Police.” 

It will be remembered that the Middlesex Justices Act had placed the police offices under the control of the Home Office, which had the power of appointing and dismissing the magistrates : this was right and proper, but it would have been far better if any further supervision exercised by the Secretary of State had been confined to the larger and more general issues connected with the police establishment meddling that went on,, and had stopped short of the injudicious surely have been trusted with the selection of their own constables, but, for some occult reason, successive ministers seem to have thought it their duty to diminish the authority of the magistrates by actively interfering with the nomination and election of the rank and file. Under these circumstances it is strange that the magistrates were as well served by their subordinate officers as they seem to have been, yet, everything considered, the stipendiary policeman proved so superior to the amateur constable that Maurice Swabey, the magistrate at Union Street, declared, that he would rather have six additional officers than fifty parish constables. 

From the list of the Public Offices above enumerated, the most interesting has intentionally been omitted, because its unique position calls for separate and more detailed notice. Besides being of earlier date than the other offices, Bow Street exceeded them also in importance, and was distinguished as the centre of the police activities of the time. From Henry Fielding, who presided in 1753, to Sir Franklin Lushington, who succeeded Sir John Bridge, the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street had nearly always been a man of mark amongst his brother stipendiaries, and in their day the Bow Street Runners (as the officers attached to this Court used to be called) were of quite a different type from their comrades employed in the junior offices. Though only eight in number (afterwards increased to twelve) these runners exerted a preponderating influence, which largely altered the aspect of the contest between the professional thieves and the helpless public on whom they preyed. The Bow

Street policemen were the first peace officers to make a serious study of the art of detecting and running down criminals : they were experts whereas all their predecessors had been amateurs ; no longer dull officials performing routine duties in perfunctory fashion when ec not otherwise engaged ” ; but keen hunters with all their faculties stimulated by the prospect of the blood money and other rewards they hoped to earn. 

When they appeared on the scene the professional depredator no longer had things all his own way ; instead of the parish constable who could be outwitted and bamboozled at every turn, the cracksman or forger found himself confronted by a wary adversary, well armed, and up to every move on the board. That the Bow Street Runners achieved much good in breaking up predatory gangs, and in bringing notorious offenders to trial, is not to be denied, but it is no less certain that they were the source of much evil. Actuated by the hope of gain rather than by any sense of duty, their motives were as ignoble as their methods were shady. played only for their own hand, and all their best endeavours were bent towards the arrest of the particular criminal whose conviction would bring the greatest profit to themselves, and not to the pursuit of the fugitive from justice whose capture was chiefly desirable on public grounds. Prevention did not enter at all into their conception of police duty, and their services were of course only at the disposal of those who were rich enough to pay handsomely for the privilege.  The extent to which this system of feeing was carried may be guessed from the fact that Townsend left £20,000  behind him, and that Sayer’s heirs divided no less than £30,000 at the death of their benefactor. 

In order to obtain information, the runners made it a rule to frequent low “flash-houses,” as the resorts of thieves were called, and to associate with the vicious and desperate characters to be found there. When examined before a Parliamentary Commission, several of these officers freely admitted that it was by the employment of such tactics that they expected to obtain the most valuable information, and gave it as their opinion that flash-houses ought to be encouraged rather than suppressed, on account of the facilities they afforded the runner in his search for a man who was “wanted.” There were, no doubt, many honest men amongst the Bow Street Officers doing their duty to the best of their ability after their lights, and although their methods would not be tolerated for a moment at the present day, they were much in advance of their predecessors. Certain of them attained a wide celebrity. Such men as Lavender, Nelson and others – unique characters in their way – made it their business to go everywhere and know everybody they carried a small baton surmounted by a gilt crown, and this badge of office admitted them not only to such unsavoury dens as “The Dog and Duck ” and “The Temple of Flora,” but even into the Royal Palaces, where two officers, we learn, were constantly stationed “on account of the King being frequently teased of lunatics” 

Runners were often specialists, occupying themselves in one line of business to the neglect of others : thus, whilst that well-known gossip Townsend chiefly confined himself to safeguarding the property of his wealthy clients, and to capturing noble duellists, Keys devoted himself to circumventing coiners and forgers of bank notes, and a third was principally engaged in the detection and apprehension of “Resurrectionists.” There is no doubt that more than one of the Bow Street policemen were actually in league with the depredators they were paid to catch, though they were generally too alert to be found out ; but the confidence of the public in their thief-takers received a rude shock when Vaughan, of the Horse Patrol, was proved to have arranged a burglary for the sake of the reward that would have come to him on the conviction of the felons. 

“Set a thief to catch a thief” may sometimes be good policy, but it is nearly always bad police. The Patrols, Horse and Foot, which were attached to the Bow Street Office, had been in existence some fifty years or so, but had only consisted of a handful of men quite insufficient for the amount of work that was expected of them. In 1805 Sir Richard Ford, the Chief Magistrate, obtained permission to extend the system of mounted police so as to provide patrols for all the main roads to a distance of about twenty miles from Bow Street. The strength of this new force was fifty-two patrols, two inspectors, and a clerk : they were recruited almost exclusively from retired cavalrymen, and were familiarly known as Robin Redbreasts on account of the red waistcoat that was a conspicuous part of their uniform. They were better paid than their predecessors, the wages of a “patrol”being twenty-eight shillings a week, with allowance for horse keep, and the salary of a “conductor “ Their energies were principally directed against highwaymen, and they quickly cleared Hounslow Heath and other infested localities from this class of plunderer. The Horse Patrol cost the Government £8,000  a year, not a high price to pay for the suppression of those impudent robbers “the gentlemen of the road.” The foot patrol policed the inner circle within a radius of about four miles. The legal powers of Bow Street were never very strictly defined, but it was generally understood that the jurisdiction of the Office was confined to the County of Middlesex (the City of London excepted), and to the main roads in the neighbourhood of the metropolis which were patrolled by Bow Street Officers. Under the direction of the Home Secretary, the Chief Magistrate had, in fact, the control of a small and independent force applicable to the general police requirements of the capital and its environment.

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