W. L. Melville (William Lauriston Melville) Lee.

A history of police in England online

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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 Annoy-
ance 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
shpp 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 mem-
bers ; 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


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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it was repealed, but most of its provisions were at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 1 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 pro-

1 42 Geo. iii., c 76.

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' nounced enmity between the parish constable and
1 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
^tate of affairs, as is seen by the following evidence
given before the 1 8 1 6 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
Qf 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 the
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 appoint-
ing 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 establish-
ments, and had stopped short of the injudicious
meddling that went on. The magistrates might
surely have been trusted with the selection of their

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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 enume-
rated, 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 recently succeeded Sir
John Bridge, the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street
has 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

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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 " 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. They
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

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from the fact that Townsend left ;&2 0,000 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 pre-
decessors. 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 un-
savoury 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


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otKers : 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."

f 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" standing at £100 a-year and a guinea
a-week for forage and shoeing. 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 £8000 a year, not a
high price to pay for the suppression of those impu-
dent robbers " the gentlemen of the road." The foot
patrol policed the inner circle within a radius ot
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 environ-

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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 unde-
tected 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 1 801
and 1 8 1 1 the population increased some sixteen per
cent, and during the same period the number of
commitments rose nearly fifty per cent. 1 This in-
crease 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 ;

1 Between 1822 and 1828, die increase was about 38 per cent.

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every corrupting influence, and every criminal ten-
dency seemed to flourish unchecked and unrebuked in
the congenial 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
tenpence 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.

Mondays and Fridays were the great days for
bullock-hunting, an inhuman and • brutal sport that
throve in the neighbourhoods of Hackney and
Bethnal Green, with the sanction, if not with the
connivance, of the peace officers of those parishes.
The procedure of the bullock-hunters was as follows.

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A fee having been paid to a cattle drover, an animal
was selected from his herd, peas were put into its
ears, sticks pointed with iron were driven into its
body, and the poor beast, when mad with rage and
pain, was hunted through the streets with a yelling
mob of men, women, and dogs behind it ; the weavers
left their looms to join in the pursuit, and passers-by
continually augmented the crowd, until the exhausted
victim could no longer be goaded into any shew of
resistance or movement, when it was left to die where
it fell, or when sufficiently recovered, to be removed
to some butcher's slaughter-house.

On Sundays the favourite resort was a field adjoin-
ing Bethnal Green Church, and here some hundreds
of men and boys assembled during the hours of
divine service, to indulge in less exciting games, such
as dog-fighting and duck-hunting. On holidays and
fair-days these Saturnalian proceedings grew more
outrageous than ever. In a letter descriptive of the
occurrences that used to take place at an annual fair
held in the West-end of London, which the Receiver
of the Metropolitan Police wrote to Lord Rosslyn in
1 83 1, occurs the following passage : " It will hardly
be credited that within five or seven years . . .
people were robbed in open day . . . and women,
stripped of their clothes, were tied to gates by
the roadside ; the existing police being set at

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

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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 181 2, the crime of murder was so
common, and so much on the increase, that a Parlia-
mentary Committee was appointed to hold an inquiry
as to the best means of combating the savage ten-
dencies of the people. Offences against property
were even more prevalent than crimes of violence.
Spurious coin and counterfeit banknotes deluged the
country. 1 In the parish of Kensington alone there
were sixteen successful, and three unsuccessful, at-
tempts 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

1 It has been calculated that at this time there were as many as fifty
fraudulent mints in the metropolis alone.

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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

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 organized 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 informa-
tion, 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
pfficer, 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 restitu-
tion 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, accept-
ance 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 advis-
able 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 black-
mailers by bankers alone, " accompanied by a clear-
ance from every risk, and perfect impunity for their

Between 1 805 and 1 8 1 8 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 sup-
posed, by force of arms, was one of the most
dangerous symptoms of the age. The Food Riots
of 1800, the Luddite disturbances of 181 1- 181 6,

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Spafield ( 1 8 1 6), Manchester ( 1 8 1 7), Peterloo (181 9), 1
and the riots throughout the manufacturing districts
in 1828-9, 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 minis-
ters, 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 in-
fractions 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 require-
ments of the times. There was a period when the
vendetta was the natural defence adopted by semi-

1 In the hope of suppressing the seditious spirit so rife at this period,
six coercive measures generally known as the " Six Acts " were rushed
through both Houses of Parliament in a special autumn session of 1819.
These Acts sought to preserve the peace by placing restrictions on the
press, by forbidding the training of unauthorized persons in the use of
arms, by empowering Justices of the Peace to search for and confiscate
weapons, and by other repressive measures of a similar nature.



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civilised communities to diminish the frequency or
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 indi-
vidual or the family to perform duties which could
be executed with greater discrimination, impartiality,

Online LibraryW. L. Melville (William Lauriston Melville) LeeA history of police in England → online text (page 14 of 34)