Thief Takers - and Their Unlacing of Innocent Misses!
I'm delighted to welcome Margaret McPhee to the guest spot to talk about Unlacing the Innocent Miss, the sixth of the Regency Silk and Scandal continuity. Margaret's dark and very Alpha hero, Wolf, is a thief-taker and here she shares some fascinating background to the story -
Before the second half of the eighteenth century there was no police detective force in existence. If victims of theft wanted the return of their stolen goods or the thief brought to justice they often resorted to offering a reward. This was done by word of mouth, by the local town crier, by the distribution of handbills to local pawnbrokers, or by advertising in newspapers. Thief-takers came into being to provide a service to meet this need.
In terms of catching thieves the reward was only paid if the suspect was convicted in a court of law by a magistrate, so thief-takers often obtained confessions to be used in evidence or traced character witnesses to speak against the suspect. Professional thief-takers therefore frequented magistrates' Public Offices and the court room itself.
A Corrupt and Dangerous World
The nature of thief-taking was a dangerous one, which necessitated working with criminals who could be violent in the extreme. Thief-takers straddled the polite world of the judicial system and the murky underworld of crime, with contacts in both.
The reward/compensation system was open to abuse and many thief-takers were corrupt (just as some magistrates were too). The infamous "Thief-taker General", Jonathan Wild, ran a profitable business claiming the rewards for the return of goods his gangs were responsible for stealing. Wild was hanged at Tyburn in 1725. A variety of new laws were passed in an attempt to counteract the corruption and it became a capital offence to accept a reward for assisting a person in the recovery of their stolen goods. Nevertheless thief-taking continued.
The Forerunners of Police Detectives
In 1748 the novelist, playwright and magistrate, Henry Fielding, took over the Bow Street Public Office and set about recruiting men who would detect and bring to justice the perpetrators of crime. Just like thief-takers, "Mr Fielding's People" earned their money mainly from the rewards offered by victims and the courts but the difference was that they were also paid a wage from the public purse. The wage was paltry but, in effect, its payment meant that Fielding's men were the first publicly funded thief-takers. They were the forerunners of what were to become known as the Bow Street Runners, the first London police detectives.
As well as runners, or detectives, the Bow Street Office developed a preventative police force in the form of a Foot Patrole and a Horse Patrole. In 1815, the time of Unlacing an Innocent Miss, there were a total of eight such police offices in London, each manned by three magistrates. This is in addition to the existing old traditional system of Parish policing, a large force that included beadles, constables and night watchmen. Parish police were in place to keep the peace rather than pursue thieves or recover stolen property. The constables were unpaid and were obliged to fulfill their parish duty.
In Unlacing the Innocent Miss, Will Wolversley, also known as Wolf, is a rugged ruthless thief-taker operating in London. When quiet and respectable dowager’s companion, Miss Rosalind Meadowfield, turns thief and escapes to Scotland, Wolf is sent to retrieve her.
Even though Bow Street Runners were in operation in the City at the time of the story Rosalind’s employer chooses not to use them because of the extreme sensitivity of the stolen item. He opts, instead, for a safer option and one with a better chance of success: Wolf.
Wolf has a reputation as the best thief-taker in the business. He and his sidekick, Campbell, are tough, strong men, both physically and mentally, with a network of shady connections within the criminal world, and, unlike their competitors in the profession, they are strictly not open to corruption. Wolf can afford to be picky about the cases he accepts and he charges a high price, which is, of course, only payable upon a successful recovery. He would have taken this particular case even were the reward not so very generous, for he is a man with good reason to despise women like Rosalind. But neither Wolf nor Rosalind has anticipated the attraction that ignites between them or the “unlacing” that is to come.
Thank you, Margaret, for a fascinating insight!