Penny Dreadful: From True Crime to FictionThe Madding Crowd: 18th Century LondonBloodletting: Barber Surgeons and Early MedicineThe Play's the Thing: From Melodrama to Musical

Unplanned Housing
Streets & Alleys
Water and Waste
Coal, Fog and the Smell of the Grave
Untimely Death
Learned Pigs and Other Diversions
Law and Disorder
Thief Taker, Constable, Police
Trial and Punishment
An ancient way to make stale bread tasty.
Sweeney Todd, The Demon Barber of Fleet Street in Concert
Thief Taker, Constable, Police

For most of the 18th century in England, the word "police" had the general meaning of the management of a particular territory, usually a town or city. Policing was perceived as a local government task, and like other areas of local government, it was a volunteer effort. Local men who took on the position of constable had only a rudimentary understanding of the law. They served in this position for a limited period, usually in their spare time and frequently without pay.

Essentially, constables were neither a preventive nor a detective police force. They had a variety of tasks, the most important of which was the collection of county taxes. Constables were charged with moving offenders from place to place, such as taking an accused prisoner to court. In the process, they sometimes had to house the offender temporarily in their homes.

There was a great deal of hostility to constables in the execution of their duties, and it did not always stop at verbal threats and abuse. And though some could be trusted, many were corrupt. More often than not, they were merely inept and ineffective.

Constables had an obligation to pursue any felonies reported to them and occasionally engaged in primitive detective work. Lucky victims might even find a magistrate, or judge, who was interested in prosecuting the crime committed against them. But this was rare. If a victim could not follow up in person, the offense was likely to languish unpursued. The only remaining choice would be to engage a thief taker. Thief takers were private individuals, much like bounty hunters, who lived off rewards from courts and victims for bringing offenders to justice. However, thief takers were not always trustworthy. Jonathan Wild was a notorious thief taker hanged at Newgate Prison for being in league with the very criminals he was charged with catching.

The first effective police force in England was organized by Henry Fielding (1707 - 54), the novelist and self-styled "principal Westminster Magistrate," and his brother, Sir John Fielding, "the Blind Beak." The brothers were disciplined, committed magistrates who were dedicated to the idea of justice and serving the public interest. They spurned the bribes that gave "the trading justices" their name and went to great lengths to reform the young offenders and prostitutes who came before them. They encouraged victims to come forward with descriptions of criminals and their deeds, they developed a primitive system of record-keeping, and they shared this information with other magistrates. Their methodical efforts effectively banded eight Westminster constables together into the pioneering police force that became known as the Bow Street Runners.

The Bow Street Runners gained the trust of a disillusioned public and soon became widely revered. Reports of crimes and descriptions of offenders flooded in from all over the country. The London office became a central clearinghouse for data about serious crimes. Information was collected and circulated throughout England in the form of a newspaper called The Hue and the Cry.

Additional Resources

Learn more about Jonathan Wild, thief-taker

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