Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Watchmen

I hope everyone was good last night and there were no altercations with the authorities while you were out celebrating merrily! Now if this was the early 18th century, the banter of St Patrick's Day would be just another night on the streets of London which were polluted not only with garbage, but noise and shady characters. All this, and no police force! So how was justice upheld on the dangerous streets of London?

It may be hard to believe now with police officers' 20 years and then retirement incentive, but those who patrolled the streets of London were volunteers. You could compare them to a neighborhood watch today. At the head of this operation was a constable. This man or woman was assigned the year-long post, without pay and without usually knowing exactly what they were doing. No prior experience needed. The constables set up the night watch or The Watch which would patrol the streets and apprehend any wrong doers and put them before the Magistrate or Justice of the Peace. The Watch would act as our police do now, but did so without pay. By 1737 George II began paying some watchmen for their much needed services.

Believe it or not, this system was not without its imperfections. One of the people taking note of the shortcomings was author Henry Fielding, who had penned Tom Jones. When Fielding was elected London's Chief Magistrate in the late 1740s he took the position seriously and attempted to implement a better system of keeping London safe. Using Magistrate money supplied from the government, Fielding paid a small group of men to police London. They operated out of his Bow Street Magistrates office so they were given the name The Bow Street Runners. The monetary incentive seemed to make for a better night watch than The Watch. The Bow Street Runners are sometimes created with the title of the first professional police force. They even went on to undertake missions that would take them across the country to make arrests.

The Watch and Bow Street Runners remained up and running into the 19th century. It wasn't until 1829 that the a government funded official police force appeared, although I suspect both of the prior enforcement organization hadn't completely diminished everywhere. You could always use some veteran crime-fighters to show you the ropes!


  1. So I thought the English didn't celebrate St. Pattys day like we do here in the US!

  2. Oh! Have you seen Channel 4's 'City of Vice'? It's a docudrama about this exact thing! I've seen a couple of episodes - looks like it's still on the 4oD website: Check it out for the Bow Street Runners in action (and some bangio 'fun' in the first ep).

  3. Unfortunately, channel4 won't play in the US. I'd love to watch that program!

    This kind of thing fascinates me.

  4. Was a woman ever constable? You said "At the head of this operation was a constable. This man or woman was assigned the year-long post...." If so, can she be a Tart of the Week?

  5. @gentlewomanthief, I have seen only the first episode. I did a post on it a while back. To bad the show never caught on!

    @Tulip, Yes women were appointed constables too but I have yet to find out any specifics. There could be some potential tarts out there!

  6. The Channel 4 website also has a Bow Street Runners game (that works in the United States) where you act as a Runner to solve a few crimes -
    Its a little graphic, but a fun way to pass some time!