Author Archives: Eleanor Bland

PhD Work in Progress: Policing and the Identification of Offenders in Metropolitan London, 1780-1850

My PhD research explores changing policing strategies, and how these affected who was arrested, and why. The period between 1780 and 1850 witnessed extensive changes to the English criminal justice system, and London was at the forefront. The Metropolitan Police force was established in 1829, and is viewed by many as the first recognisably ‘modern’ police force. However, the older local policing systems such as the night watch, parish constables, the Bow Street Runners and magistrates changed considerably over the course of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in response to the needs of the communities that they served. This is why I repeatedly refer to ‘policing agents’, a term which encompasses not only the new Metropolitan police officers, but also watchmen, constables, marshals, patrols, and the officers attached to magistrates’ courts.

I am also particularly interested in those who were arrested by these policing agents. The idea that a subset of society was responsible for the majority of criminal activity; a ‘criminal class’, was emerging as a powerful contemporary perception in late-eighteenth and nineteenth-century London. Historians have examined how contemporary commentators expressed and shaped this idea, but there has been little focus on the roles that policing agents played by choosing who to arrest and re-arrest. My research examines the relationships between policing agents and the communities that they policed, and how these changed according to different policing agents and strategies.

As a case study, I have been using the Old Bailey Proceedings Online to examine ‘proactive’ arrests made by policing agents. The majority of trials at the Old Bailey between 1780 and 1850 did not feature policing agents at all, and of those that did, policing agents were mainly responding to information given to them. Proactive arrests were those made based upon the suspicion that an offender had, or was about to commit a crime. I developed a searching strategy to find a collection of these cases, searching terms for policing agents in combination with terms relating to the reasons for arrest. So far, I have identified a collection of 680 cases featuring policing agents in proactive roles; I am continually adding to this collection as I find more cases.

Fig. 1 Rowlandson the Old Bailey

Fig. 1: Thomas Rowlandson, The Old Bailey, from Microcosm of London (1808) © London Lives

The vast majority of offenders in the dataset are male – (90%), higher than the proportion of males in all the Old Bailey trials in this period (78%) (see fig. 2). This confirms my supposition that those who were viewed as ‘suspicious’ by those who policed the streets of London were disproportionately male.

Fig. 2 Gender in my dataset and OBP overall

Fig. 2: bar chart showing proportions of male and female defendants in the Old Bailey Proceedings overall, 1780-1850, and in my collection of cases

The age profile of my set of offenders is broadly similar to the age profile of defendants in the Old Bailey Proceedings overall, with the majority aged 18, and the next most commonly-occurring ages clustered around that (16, 17, 19 and 20). Comparing the recorded ages in my cases with the recorded ages of defendants for all Old Bailey cases, it is clear my collection of cases contains a disproportionate number of offenders aged between about 15 and 21 (see fig. 3). Young men, therefore, were disproportionately viewed as suspicious by policing agents.

Fig. 3 updated defendant ages OBP overall and my dataset

Fig. 3: bar chart showing the ages of defendants (grouped at 3-year intervals) in my dataset, compared with the ages in all cases in the Old Bailey Proceedings (number of cases divided by 100 to scale)

The vast majority of cases in my set are trials for theft, since theft was probably the most straightforward crime for policing agents to detect and notice on the streets. For example, the policeman who arrested Lazarus Hart in 1830 stated ‘the prisoner had got a bundle, and I thought it my duty to see what he had’.[1] Merely carrying a large or unusual-looking object was sufficient grounds for a policing agent to stop and question a suspect, and often to make an arrest. Offenders were stopped for carrying stoves, firkins of butter, sides of bacon, and even a tart stolen from a pastry shop.[2] However, clearly not all goods being carried were stolen; so other factors contributed to the suspicious appearance of these individuals. Not only were young men disproportionately suspicious, but their behaviour, or the circumstances they were found in, could arouse suspicion.

Policing agents were generally expected to know the residents of the area that they policed, and knowledge of a defendant was often used to explain the arrest. Metropolitan Police Constable John White stated at the trial of Lydia Prior, Martha Eldridge and Mary Davis in 1846 that ‘I have seen the prisoners associating together before’, and so ‘suspected’ and watched them until Eldridge came away from a shop with a print concealed under her apron.[3] Policing agents often explained they knew defendants because of their bad character; in the trial of Robert Ransom in 1813, a constable stated that ‘knowing the prisoner to be a reputed thief, I followed him’.[4]

Even if the policing agent did not know the prisoner, they often made arrests because they saw them behaving ‘suspiciously’. This was often either because they believed that the offender had recently, or was just about to commit a crime. For example, John Christmas was arrested by Henry Crocker, a Bow Street patrol in 1794, who stated that ‘if I see a man lurking in the fields, I always go to him’.[5] He discovered some iron next to the prisoner, and took him into custody to investigate.

Suspicious behaviour was sometimes exacerbated by the time of day at which it took place. A constable saw Edward Lowe and William Jobbins in a passage at an ‘unseemly hour’ in 1790, and explained that ‘it would have been decent in the day, but at night there was no such necessity’ for them to be there; he took them into custody and they were later found guilty of arson. Loitering, running, or carrying objects late at night was viewed as more suspicious than if these activities were carried out during the day, when they could be part of legitimate working practices.

Fig. 4 Rowlandson Arrest of a Woman at night

Fig. 4: Thomas Rowlandson, Arrest of a woman at night, ©The Courthauld Gallery

Policing agents who proactively arrested those whom they recognised and saw behaving suspiciously, fostered and shaped the emerging contemporary perception of a criminal class. Although it was not explicitly expressed in such terms until the mid-nineteenth century, the young men whom policing agents arrested and re-arrested were clearly viewed by them as a distinctive and ‘suspicious’ group. The majority of policing agents’ work involved investigating and arresting offenders based on information provided to them by witnesses or victims, but proactive policing of ‘suspicious’ persons, albeit a small proportion of the total number of arrests, had important implications for policing, criminal justice, and individual offenders. In the rest of my PhD research, I will examine these themes in different sources, including newspaper reports, and use case studies of particular repeat offenders to explore their relationships with policing agents over time.

 

[1] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.2, 10 June 2016), May 1830, trial of LAZARUS HART (t18300527-6).

[2]OBPO, December 1827, trial of JOHN ALDGATE HENRY JOHNSON (t18271206-76); OBPO, October 1796, trial of JEREMIAH VANDESPUNCH, alias VANDERPUMP (t17961026-27); OBPO, September 1836, trial of RICHARD HARDY (t18360919-2134); OBPO, April 1830, trial of JAMES JONES CORNELIUS HAYES (t18300415-50).

[3] OBPO, May 1846, trial of LYDIA PRIOR MARTHA ELDRIDGE MARY DAVIS (t18460511-1175).

[4] OBPO, January 1813, trial of ROBERT RANSOM (t18130113-52).

[5] OBPO, January 1794, trial of JOHN CHRISTMAS (t17940115-32).

Short bibliography:   

John Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750- 1840 (Oxford; New York, 2012)

Gregory J Durston, Burglars and Bobbies: Crime and Policing in Victorian London (Newcastle, 2012)

Andrew T Harris, Policing the City: Crime and Legal Authority in London, 1780-1840 (Columbus, 2004)

Elaine Reynolds, Before the Bobbies: the Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830 (Basingstoke, 1998)

Heather Shore, London’s Criminal Underworlds, c. 1720-c.1930: A Social and Cultural History (Basingstoke, 2015)