Regency and Research

Regency Cops and Robbers: Pt 1: The Cops

Watchmen Source:

While the Regency is often remembered / thought of in relation to Jane Austen, the social activities of the ton, and perhaps some connection to Waterloo and the Peninsular Wars, it’s also an interesting time socially. And it definitely has a dark side.

Now, I’m not going to get into all the details about the legal system, but I did want to talk about policing in the Metropolis (London) during the Regency. Mostly ’cause it means I get to introduce you to the Bow Street Runners. 🙂

So, while socially balls and swanning around through London as you pursued the marriage mart during the London Social Season was lots of fun during the Regency period, was often gets neglected is the high levels of crime during this same period. Especially following the Peninsular Wars and Waterloo, you had the return of soldiers back to England. Problem was, there wasn’t provision for what to do with all of them, and many were left impoverished and on the street. This only added to the pressure in London already brought about by the influx of newcomers moving from the countrysides into the city. Unfortunately, many found lives of destitution and want in the poorer districts. And of course, when you have lots of people, lots of poverty, you also have an increase in crime as desperation drives people’s actions.

I have read descriptions where some people installed bars on their carriage windows to prevent muggings. Traveling through the countryside, there was a fairly substantial opportunity for highway robbery – and ending up dead in a ditch if you were especially unlucky. The East End of London, with narrow side-streets and twisting, turning alleyways with poor lighting – along with the Southwark district across the river from the fashionable West End – were considered particularly ripe with crime. But, even if you lived in the West End in a fashionable district, it didn’t mean you were safe. Your house could be burgled, you could be pick-pocketed, or perhaps conned by a “sharp” (conman).

Now, while in modern times high crime generally means higher investment in policing, this isn’t what happened in Regency London – at least, not until the end of the period. Englishmen feared having what they saw as a militarized state and living under martial law, where their rights and freedoms were at risk. Better, they thought, to put up with the crime and handle it as they could than lose their freedom. Law then came under a “hue and cry” system, whereby if you saw a crime being committed, you set up the hue and cry and chased down the perpetrator (or got help doing so), before turning them over to the local law, often the magistrate.

There were, however, two legal parties at work in London: The Watch, and the Bow Street Runners.

The Watch (Watchmen or “Charlies” as they were known) were organized throughout the districts of London, and essentially were expected to patrol or stand in their “watch boxes” out in the streets – available to hear the hue and cry and hopefully come to your assistance. They were a fairly ancient London institution. If you wanted someone arrested for something, if you cried for help and someone answered, it was probably going to be the Watch, somewhat like modern “beat cops.” (You could also apply to the parish constable, a position appointed for the year, but also often of dubious utility.)

The problem with the Watch is that they had a reputation for being lazy, too old, overweight, and generally useless. That is not to say they were – but such was their reputation, and sometimes deservedly. For most ordinary citizens, this is what you had to help you. They were often selected from the humblest of classes, and this was often the only money they could bring in. It was their job to keep order, receive offenders (and deliver them to magistrates), and watch for fire.

Then there are the Bow Street Runners. They were set up near the mid to late 18th century by the Fielding brothers, and started out as something of a “thief-takers” – that is, they were paid for each thief that they brought to justice. That system inevitably led to corruption. By the Regency, the Bow Street Runners had nine divisions, were paid a salary, and had something of a uniform to identify them (as it was feared they could be government spies otherwise). While we know them all now as “runners,” senior Bow Street personnel considered this derogatory, and referred to themselves as Principal Officers. Runner really was used to describe a messenger or minor member of the organization, and dates back to at least the 17th c. (Cox, 1.)

The Police Offices operated on three levels: first, it was a judicial center, the site of the magistrates where people from the City of Westminister could bring or defend charges. Second, it was the hub of executive law enforcement. And finally, it acted as an administrative center where victims from throughout Britain could apply for the services of a Principal Officer (Cox, 32). By 1805, the Horse Patrol was re-established to patrol the turnpike roads – and generally rid the area of highway robbers. Most often Bow Street would be called in for the case of a felony, as they were better at investigating than the Watch. And, while they did gain their own reputation for corruption, there were many excellent officers. When the Metropolitan Police came into being in 1839, the detective branch was largely made up of Bow Street, since the shiny new police force otherwise wasn’t very good at investigating. 🙂

So, interesting? Any questions? Is there anything you’d like to know specifically about Regency policing? I can try to answer – or at least point you in the right direction. 🙂

Thanks for reading. Next week: the criminals and some crime. 🙂 Hey, like the post? Why not follow the blog.

My sources for this are generally as follows:

Cox, David J. A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A history of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839

Babington, Anthony, et al. A House in Bow Street: Crime and the Magistracy, London 1740-1881.

Goddard, Henry. Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner.

Pringle, Patrick. Hue and Cry.