Remembering Old London And Its Epic Battle With Modern Crime

Thomas Rowlandson. Beadle and Barrow Women. 1819, illustration. British Museum.

Crime has a way of uncovering the soft and vulnerable facets of society. While most people rarely fall victim to misdeeds of others, maleficium does have a way of seeping out into the populace and infecting the larger framework of life. And once this criminality is expressed through murder, theft, rape, or general malevolence, it has both a direct and an indirect impact on the society and the lives within. In that way, many believe the study of regional crime can actually provide useful insight into what makes people tick–and to a greater extent, how society is supporting them. In fact, the nature of a crime can reveal all sorts of things about a society, including the weaknesses of its structure, the imbalance of power, and the deep, unfulfilled dreams of its people. Further, the way citizens react to crime in their communities reveals much about their ability to solve problems, create social networks, and establish more enduring civilizations. While most societies in the world still choose punitive measures to crime over analytical ones, the way criminals are handled says a lot about humanity–our fears, our desires, and our deep need for retribution. And as modern crime continues to shift in scope, sequence, and sophistication, history offers a fascinating perspective on the evolution of response.

Paul-Jacques-Aimé Baudry. L’Assassinat de Marat. 1860, oil on canvas. Musée d’arts de Nantes, France.

Nowhere in dark history has the curious evolution of police work been more visible than in old London, when a shocking wave of sophisticated crime began sweeping through the city. But what was most surprising about this outbreak was not the brutality or the escalation or the panic–it was the absence of any legitimate police force. As a terrifying criminal epidemic took hold of the city, it became painfully clear that the antiquated system in place was no longer going to be effective. The criminals had vastly outpaced British society’s ability to vanquish them, and this posed a seriously big problem. Highlighting the emergence of a new middle class and the unprecedented divide it would cause, this extraordinary spike in early modern England demanded a whole new breed of crime-fighter. And so, the “thief-takers” were born out of necessity, to fill the void of injustice with vigilantism and a hefty dose of corruption. Much like western bounty hunters, thief-takers were hired by grieved parties–who had no other legal option– to solve crimes and bring perpetrators to justice, no matter what. But while bounty hunters were usually paid by bondsmen to catch fugitives who did not meet their court obligations, thief-takers were paid by anyone–family, faction, or individual–who had an ax to grind. As crime fighters, they were tasked with sleuthing out information, mediating, negotiation the return of stolen goods, gathering evidence against perpetrators, or in more nefarious moments, extorting money for themselves from desperate subjects.

Augustus Leopold Egg. Past and Present, No. 1. 1858, oil. The Tate, London.

Like most societal curiosities, the thief-takers were a product of their shifting environment and the emerging complexities of a more modern age. England experienced grave political and economic unrest in the 1600s and 1700s, which instigated more public violence than ever before, particularly in the residential areas of London. The city was on fire as immigrants streamed in, buildings shot up along the waterfront, and people jammed themselves into every nook and cranny. With the emergence of so many disparate cultures, needs, and abilities, the job market and local resources began to disappear at an alarming rate. For a society typically concerned with class distinction, Londoners were soon living elbow to elbow with those of notably lower standings, which did nothing to encourage their sense of community. The boundaries between affluence–both physically and socially–were diminishing as wealthy and poor neighborhoods experienced less division and more forced proximity.

John Wilson Carmichael. The Port of London in the 18th Century. 1830, oil painting. British.

While this may not seem like a terribly alarming situation to the contemporary mind, it created a tremendous sense of “other” in certain factions, who longed to possess the money, opportunities, and sparkly trappings of the rich. Women with tremendous privilege were milling about the streets with those scrubbing their toilets, and the shop windows were filled with stylish, decadent wares of all kinds. Envy and resentment began to seethe beneath the surface of society, as desperate men and women struggled to feed their children amid obvious displays of wealth. This led to a noticeable spike in crime, as people began taking what they wanted, regardless of the consequence. Petty theft, arson, violent confrontations, public robberies, and even murderous plots became more common than ever. It was believed over 2,000 Londoners made their living solely through stealing from the wealthier factions in the neighborhood.

Nicolae Vermont. Slavic Slaves. 20th century, oil on canvas. Romanian.

Up until the 18th century, England’s laws around policing were surprisingly medieval and based mostly on the need for public “hue and cry” when a crime was committed. Although the city was moving towards social modernity, the crumbling facade of an antiquated civilization was still visible in many ways. The Statute of Winchester of 1285, first enacted by King Edward I, updated the use of mere watchmen by introducing legislation aimed at increasing “collective responsibility.” This shift intended to strengthen law enforcement through personal liability, so “no one could excuse himself on the grounds of ignorance.”Straight out of a Grimm’s fairytale, the king commanded “the gates be shut from sunset to sunrise” and strangers be arrested regardless of suspicion until the morning when no misdeeds were noticed. And if some crime had been committed during that time, the stranger would be readily handed over to the sheriff and proceedings brought against him, evidence or not.

William Logsdail.  Lincoln Cathedral. 1904, oil on canvas. The Usher Gallery, Lincoln, U.K.

“For the honour of holy church,” all landlords were expected to implement and pay for the widening and clearing of roads and highways leading into market towns so no one “with evil intent” could hide beneath the brush and prey on passersby. If lords of the realm did not comply, as well as keep a sharp eye out for ill deeds and arm themselves with weapons equivalent to their status, they would be held accountable by the king for any resulting crimes. Up until the more modern outbreak of crime in the 1600s, this was the last real attention paid to the issue of law enforcement.

Carl Spitzweg. The Night Watchman Has Fallen Asleep. 1875, oil on canvas. German.

With no real policing to speak of, the dingy labyrinth of pre-Victorian London soon became rife with violent, uncontrollable crime. At night, the city was lit only by burning flame, which allowed all sorts of shady figures to move about their business in relative invisibility. Although constables and night watchmen still had to patrol the general public, they were most expected to provide surveillance for petty crimes and raise the alarm of Stop thief! Murder! Fire! in the event of such a discovery. In this way, law enforcement was more about announcing the existence of a crime rather than actually handling it, a responsibility tossed in the general direction of any willing person standing nearby. As expected, his burden on the shoulders of the average person was not particularly effective, which was precisely why the thief-takers were formed. Comprised of willing men from the community, the group took up the helm of protection and eased the unrealistic burden of the past. Criminals, along with their misdeeds, had also shifted in appearance and were no longer as easy to detect. With the integration of so many immigrants and laborers into the city, perfectly innocent people on the streets often displayed the outward appearance of criminals in that they were dirty, shabbily dressed, and generally opportunistic. This reality made spotting crime and organized perpetrators more challenging for the average person, not to mention it was downright dangerous.

William Powell Frith. Poverty and Wealth. 1889, oil on canvas. The Royal Academy, London.

While this may not seem like a particularly earth-shattering moment in history, it’s worth noting the devastating condition of anyone who fell victim to a violent crime. This extraordinarily “fragmented and inept” period in the history of law enforcement left violated people, often terrified and injured, searching feverishly for any sort of help. Instead, what they likely found was the watery, confused stare of some old constable who could do little more than holler for backup that would never come. Aside from catching a perpetrator red-handed, there were little means of apprehension. And when faced with serious crimes like rape and murder, there were few souls brave and committed enough to take any real action, especially at their own risk. The choices for victims were few–post a reward in the local paper for anyone able to nab the culprit or pay handsomely for someone to investigate on their behalf, like a thief-taker. In that way, they soon became the biggest–and the only–law enforcement game in town.

William Frederick Yeames. The Death of Amy Robsart. 1877, oil on canvas.  The Tate, London.

From this crack of growing displeasure sprang forth the thief-takers, who were willing to take on the risk and responsibility of investigating and apprehending even the most vicious criminals. Essentially, the period from 1650 to 1910 in London witnessed a significant transition in policing from a reliance on private individuals to the development of a legitimate, paid police system. But unfortunately for them, this judicial “hang time” would also see its sharpest increase in the routine of sophisticated crime. As semi-officials of this interim, thief-takers were first incented by the government to go after individuals specifically accused of the two most dire crimes of the time–highway robbery and money counterfeiting, also know as “coining.” Despite the many inherent problems of this method, thief-takers soon became a valuable–and indispensible–part of the English judiciary structure, which was expanded in the 18th century to include rewards from private citizens when goods or information were successfully returned.

Rowlandson and Pugin. Marylebone Watch House. 1805, illustration. Lordprice Collection.

Much like a crooked cop uses his knowledge to exploit the system, many thief-takers used their connections in the underworld to catch criminals and make a personal profit. In fact, a lot of thief-takers were previous criminals themselves who sought to reduce their sentences by aiding the government through civic duty. By negotiating terms between a criminal and their victim, thief-takers could play two sides against the middle, increase their personal gain, and even collect government rewards by turning in criminals who did not comply. The more corrupt in the group went even further by blackmailing the actual criminals with their silence and then apprehending them anyway to collect on the back end. As a result, thief-takers had a tremendous amount of power and reputation in society, which of course led to the emergence of particularly naughty men.

Artist Unknown. Police Work In The East End. 1895, illustration. The Graphic, Issue 1361. British Library.

One such figure was Jonathan Wild, the self-proclaimed “Thief-taker General of England and Ireland,” who became one of London’s first organized crime bosses by dominating the city’s criminal underworld in the early 1720s. Operating on both sides of the law, Wild rode the crime wave in London to become an influential gang leader and master manipulator of legal systems, often collecting rewards from those he bribed, blackmailed, or threatened. As a convicted criminal himself who spent time in debtor’s prison, his familiarity with the city’s underbelly made him an effective thief-taker who received “the liberty of the gate” from officials. As an illustrious captain of the underworld and a known ladies man, Wild often swaggered through the streets of London with a diamond-hilted sword at his waist.

John Leech. Image from ‘The Comic History of England.” 1847, colored etching. British.

After meeting a prostitute named Mary Milliner who introduced him to her gang of thieving whores, he developed all sorts of corrupt skills and contacts for this purpose. Once he had sliced off Mary’s ear to show her who was boss, he guarded her progress as she skulked the London streets in search of a john, while she collaborated with him to fence stolen goods. Together, they developed a nifty system of organized thieves who would steal things, and when the theft was publicly announced, Wild would soon “find” the items and claim the reward, which was then split among all involved. Though lucrative, this position was dangerous and left Wild with two skull fractures, a metal plate in his head, and a jagged scar across his throat–all of which would seem pretty tame after his truth of his station was revealed.

Colonel Blood 7 Tower.jpg
Henry Perronet Briggs. Colonel Blood Stealing the Crown Jewels. 1832, oil painting. Royal Academy of Arts, London.

By 1718, his actions had thrown over 60 thieves in jail, a few of whom he actually helped break out after the fact. He was finally arrested for this crime in 1725 and after unsuccessfully trying to kill himself by drinking laudanum, he was hanged at Tyburn before a large and raucous crowd. Up until that point, he had been viewed as a hero who returned stolen goods and caught criminals, so his exposure led to considerable public scorn. His execution was a virtual city holiday, and tickets with an excellent view of his demise fetched a high price. He was fiercely pelted with stones as he ascended the platform to meet his death, and the public spat and shouted obscenities at him to express their betrayal. The noise from the crowd was so deafening, the priest could scarcely hear his final prayers.

Atkinson Grimshaw. Liverpool Quay by Moonlight. 1887, oil on canvas. The Tate, London.

Because the executioner had (oddly enough) attended Wild’s wedding some years before, he felt sympathy for the man and gave him time to stall a bit–that is until the crowd threated to tear him apart if he waited a moment longer. Wild was terrified to die and had pleaded and cried during his entire progress up the scaffolding. As the noose was tied around his neck and the floor dropped out from under him, he scrambled desperately to slacken the rope on his neck by pulling down on the man hanging next to him. This only delighted the crowd even more as they watched him die in fear. Although Wild was secretly buried in the dead of night, his grave was later desecrated and his body thrown into the Thames where it was retrieved and identified by the authorities, after which it somehow ended up at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. After his death, people tearing down and rebuilding houses around the city would occasionally stumble across one of the many caches of stolen treasure he had stored around the area.

Charles Knight. Jonathan Wild. 1850, book illustration. English.

As a nation, England was thrown into a most peculiar period of political and religious instability in the late 17th century, as the Glorious Revolution had shoved the Catholic King James II of England off his throne and placed his Protestant daughter, Mary II, and her husband, William of Orange there instead. (Note: Mary’s brother, James Francis Edward Stuart, would later go on to claim the English, Scottish, and Irish thrones for himself, supported by his Scottish followers and his cousin, Louis XIV of France. After instigating the failed Jacobite Rising of 1715 and the subsequent Battle of Culloden in 1745, he would earn himself the title of “The Great Pretender” who ultimately brought an end to the Highlander way of life.) This conflict in the monarchy stoked public fear around poor harvests and the threat of poverty, giving rise to regular violent conflict. As such, property became the most valuable of all things and the main target for thieves and robbers. A lack of clarity around Jacobite support– paired with a growing religious fear of sinners–also fed the general disquiet. Bolstered by edicts like the Society for the Reformation of Manners of 1691, anything of questionable morality, like homosexuality and prostitution, was aggressively targeted as socially liberal attitudes gave way to more censorious ones.

William Brassey Hole. Prince Charles Edward Stuart In Edinburgh. 1866, oil on canvas. British.

This rise in fear surrounding social mobility and personal assets led to an increase in shoplifting as well as more organized robberies on the King’s Highways by the infamous Highwaymen. Brutal and well organized, these thieving gangs held up unsuspecting travelers on the road with the classic command, Stand and deliver your purse! Despite their romantic reputation as well-mannered and charming interlopers, the majority of highwaymen were displaced soldiers from English and French wars, without purpose and capable of real brutality. Throughout the 17th and 18th century, they thrived in England and became a legendary facet of the larger chaotic crime wave. Great Britain had become involved in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1702, which imported a large number of armed ex-soldiers to London streets and bumped up the number of men looking for some kind of financial pursuit. In an age when travel was already a hazardous undertaking, the highwaymen increased the terror of movement tenfold. And as the 18th century took hold of England, crimes like those of the highwaymen culminated in one hell of a serious problem for authorities.

Clare Atwood. The Green Cross Corps. 1896, oil on canvas. Imperial War Museum, London.

As the Jacobite revolution continued to swell, subversive political dissent, conspiracies, and overall suspicion loomed large, while the South Sea Bubble threw the English economy in crisis. Many wealthy people in Great Britain were ruined by this shared collapse, and criminal attacks increased in their level of brutality and frequency, leading to the Black Act of 1723 designed to stiffen penalties for illegal offenses. Named after raiding poachers who blackened their faces while committing their crimes, this parliamentary action was a desperate attempt to quell social resentment through the threat of death. Exacerbated by the Gordon Riots of 1780, which led to public rioting and looting in the streets, this marked one of the most violent periods in English history. Because there was no real, accountable police force, demonstrators were killed without hesitation and the Old Bailey courthouse attacked and burned by angry citizens. This outbreak of craziness shocked the public and instigated the growing desire to find an alternative to the death penalty, which was the only punishment available for felonies at the time.

Francisco de Goya. Asalto al coche. 1786, oil painting. Private collection, Madrid, Spain.

Daily newspapers started documenting the spike in crime, and the role of the thief-takers became more important than ever. Because of the dire need for their services, magistrates generally turned a blind eye to their less honorable motivations and gave them considerable leeway to pursue criminal activities. For many “upstanding” citizens who had been robbed while in the midst of immoral circumstances–say at a brothel or a whorehouse–finding a thief-taker to handle the situation in a quiet and discreet way was the best choice by far. But in other circles, the execution of Jonathan Wild and a growing reputation for corruption began to cast thief-takers in a more negative light, who were sometimes labeled “informers” instead of authorities. They were known to control and direct criminal moves while gaining significant profit, which made the description of thief-maker far more apropos. It was a broken system at best, full of half-baked security and altruistic motivations, and continually emerging news of misconduct provoked the rage of the people who relied on thief-takers for their very protection.

Jean Béraud. 1875, oil painting.

All of this fear and confusion soon came to a head in 1754 during the Macdaniel affair, when an even greater miscreant was discovered hiding under a benevolent guise. A group of bounty hunters, led by Stephen Macdaniel, were found to have accepted payments from the British government for the prosecution and execution of certain criminals–which was all fine and well, except the men who died for the crimes were actually innocent. Macdaniel and his men had railroaded various individuals into a position of guilt and then profited from their untimely deaths. This realization spurred a massive scandal in Great Britain and inflamed public sentiment to the breaking point. When some of the Macdaniel crew were placed in the pillory at the Old Bailey–their head and hands inserted into holes in a hinged board and locked into place–a mob climbed the platform and savagely beat the men with rocks, killing a few with a well-placed blow to the head. The leader, Macdaniel, was so badly wounded, he died shortly after returning to his jail cell. This frenzy would lead to the demand for salaried public police forces who could work on the basis of professional integrity rather than on random, ill-gotten rewards.

The Pillory at Charing Cross. 1809, engraving. Published in the Microcosm of London. 

This new and improved method of law enforcement appeared in the form of the Bow Street Runners, who effectively became Britain’s first professional police force. Originally composed of just six men, the Runners hoped to erase the dark stain of the thief-takers from the minds of society and reinstitute a reliable form of police accountability. They gained quick approval through the defeat of a notorious gang of robbers in 1753, aided by complimentary sentiments in the local newspaper. Their formal attachment to the Bow Street magistrate’s office legitimized them to a large degree and offered a guiding principle in policing for decades to come. Plus, they were excellent crime fighters who were fabled to know the ins and outs of the modern criminal, including the difference between city and country mud on a highwayman’s boots.

John O’Connor. From Pentonville Road Looking West: Evening. 18th century, oil. Museum of London.

Over the next 80 years, the professional “force” of the Runners did away with the problematic arrests of the past and emphasized the importance of real public service. Because they did not receive government funding, the men were left to rely on the financial rewards of a conviction, much like the thief-takers; however, because they often served local constables with arrest warrants and apprehensions, they were indirectly supported by the state. Nevertheless, the Runners received minimal pay for dangerous work, and the government was soon forced to increase the magistrate’s stipend so as to better support the officers of Bow Street. The stakes were high if they failed, as British police work would return chaos and corruption. This increase in government spending also facilitated detailed record keeping akin to a criminal “database,” which later became wildly helpful in the investigative pursuits of London’s new, nastier problem–the serial killer.

Rebecca Morse. Bow Street Runner. 2007, illustration. American.

This forward movement soon led to mounted officers and nightly foot patrol, even in winter, and the replication of the Bow Street system throughout the city of London. By 1830, the Runners had been almost fully absorbed by the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force, or the “bobbies,” who ultimately became responsible for law enforcement in the greater London area. With their iconic black jackets and tall woolen hats with shiny badges, the bobbies roamed the city streets armed only with a short club and a whistle for summoning backup that would finally come.

And the rest is history.

Charles Frederick Tunnicliffe. 20th century, oil painting. British.


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