When we call 911 in the States and 999 in Britain, we expect an operator to answer within seconds. After assessing the emergency, either a police car or a fire truck will be dispatched. Police services now communicate with the people they serve through newspapers, television, Facebook, and Twitter. But how did we get to twenty-first-century policing? That story will be told in a series of blog posts beginning with the Night Watch.
The Night Watch
Throughout its history, Londoners have resisted all calls for an organized police force, viewing such a force as tyrannical. Instead, they relied on every male householder to police the streets of his neighborhood. If a crime was witnessed, a hue and cry would go up. Upon hearing the cry of “Stop Thief” or “Murder,” citizens were required to join in pursuit. Hopefully, the miscreant would be caught and taken to a watchhouse where the suspect would be detained until brought before a justice of the peace who would determine if the accused should appear before a magistrate.
At that time, London was divided into 26 wards. Each ward was responsible for its own policing. Every householder (that is, the man who owned the house) was required to patrol certain streets between the hours of 9:00 p.m. and sunrise. In a world lit only by fire, the householder’s only light was a lantern and his only protection a staff.
Due to growing prosperity, London experienced an increase in criminal activity. As a result, a system of watchmen, beadles, and constables was established. However, there was no guaranty that these guardians of the peace were any better equipped to deal with criminals than the householders. In fact, those charged with keeping the peace were often as crooked as the criminals themselves. As a result, several Watch Acts were passed by Parliament in which parishes were authorized to tax its residents in order to hire salaried watchmen.
According to London Lives 1690 to 1800,* “The first two parishes to obtain such an act, in 1735, were the wealthy Westminster parishes of St. James, Piccadilly and St. George, Hanover Square. In 1774, the Westminster Watch Act set minimum standards in terms of the number of watchmen and their duties… [Eventually], every metropolitan parish acquired a Watch Act, so that by 1800, the vast majority of watchmen in London were paid a salary…”
After the Gordon Riots in 1780 (more about riots later), a city-wide patrol was created in which the men were armed with staff and cutlass. They were recognizable in their swallow-tail blue coats and top hats meant to distinguish them from soldiers in their red coats. This attire would eventually evolve into the tunic uniform and hat of London Bobbies in the Victorian Era.
To be continued…
*London Lives Version 1.1 | April 2012