Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Life of Crime

I was perusing a book about crime in London the other day and this paragraph struck a cord:

'Crime in the metropolis had reached epidemic proportions, and there seemed little prospect of bringing it under control: every kind of criminal offence known to man appeared to be committed in and around town, from petty theft to armed assault and murder. In particular, property was safe nowhere. A man could scarcely walk down a main thoroughfare at midday without running the risk of being robbed of his handkerchief, pocket-book or watch. A stallholder in any of the great markets might have his goods taken from under his nose at any moment. Forgery was rife, and house-breaking so common that it was no longer possible to go away for any length of time without taking elaborate precautions.'

Clearly not much has changed in the last two-hundred years or so since the book I was reading was not about life in modern-day England but about the Regency underworld.

Patrick Colquhoun, a Scotsman and previous Lord Provost of Glasgow, attracted by the Middlesex Justices' Act, became a leading magistrate at the Worship Street Office. He undertook his duties with vigour and in 1797 transferred to the Office in Queen Square, where he published his 'Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis', a catalogue of the criminal and dangerous classes in Britain, in which he contended that no fewer than 115,000 persons were engaged in criminal pursuits in London alone, including a staggering 50,000 'Unfortunate Females of all descriptions who support themselves chiefly or wholly by prostitution.'

Colquhoun's contentions were widely criticized but also helped to form the basis of the 'Police Board', the Metropolitan Police as we know them today, and demonstrated the ineffectiveness of The Watch - The Charleys as they were more popularly known - described by some as old men, armed with a staff, rattle and lantern, who shuffled along the darkened streets after sunset calling out the time and the state of the weather, thus warning criminal elements of their approach.

Wendy Soliman

1 comment:

Kate Allan said...

I did some criminal history at University from the Anglo-Saxons up to the 19th century and one common theme would appear to be that in every age there is someone who thinks society has reached a zenith of lawlessness!