Lawlessness and bounty hunting in the late-Georgian

The Bow Street Magistrates Court

(This is a repeat of an article I wrote for Caroline Warfield’s blog in June.)

Crime was a personal affair

Before 1829, our modern idea of a police force, and of one law for all, simply didn’t exist. In the pre 19th Century world, crime was a private matter, an offence against the victim. Doing something about it was up to the victim, though if the crime was a felony, the victim could expect help from constables and magistrates.

The offence might be settled between the disputants, or it might go to court to be judged by a magistrate or a jury. If the offence was against the Crown, the King was the offended party, and therefore one of the disputants, a convention we remember in the way we talk about a case as being Jones v Rex (King) or Brown v Regina (Queen). It was still a private affair, a personal interaction.

In our modern world, crime is seen as something that disturbs the public peace and disrupts the smooth running of society. Our police and the courts are charged with restoring social harmony. It is a very different model.

No one wanted a standing police force

The system worked very well in rural England in times of peace, provided you had a fair and reasonable local magistrate. People didn’t move around much. The local magistrate probably knew everyone, and could tell who needed a swift kick to the rear, who should be shipped off to the army and the navy, and who was unregenerate and nothing but trouble. And if he was in doubt, he had plenty of local people to talk to.

The idea of a central police force did not appeal to very many people. The middle and working classes saw such a force as a potential instrument of oppression. Royalty strongly disliked the idea of a standing army. And the gentry felt central control of policing would threaten their individual liberties and their place in local government.

Enter the bounty hunter

Eventually, as we know, the collapse of the traditional village social structure and the increasing mobility of the population made a police force inevitable, and three influential people made it palatable. Henry Fielding founded the Bow Street Runners. Patrick Colquhoun created a philosophy of policing that quieted people’s fears, and Sir Robert Peel established the first modern police force.

But before all of that, thief takers hunted across county lines to capture villains and bring them back to face justice.

Thief takers worked for a reward. Later, and on the other side of the Atlantic, they would be known as bounty hunters. The government, or perhaps a private individual, would post a reward, and off they’d go.

And they had an extremely disreputable reputation:

…the more corrupt thief-takers went further: they blackmailed criminals with threats of prosecution if they failed to pay protection money. Some even became “thief-makers” by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then apprehending and prosecuting them in order to collect the reward. Such practices illustrate the point that not all “crimes” prosecuted at the Old Bailey had actually taken place; some prosecutions were malicious. [Old Bailey Online]

In the early 18th Century, Jonathan Wild, who styled himself ‘Thief taker General of England and Ireland’ was tried and convicted for receiving stolen goods after a decade of dominating the London criminal underworld.

No wonder my hero of Revealed in Mist, David Wakefield, wanted to be called an enquiry agent!

Revealed in Mist

Prue’s job is to uncover secrets, but she hides a few of her own. When she is framed for murder and cast into Newgate, her one-time lover comes to her rescue. Will revealing what she knows help in their hunt for blackmailers, traitors, and murderers? Or threaten all she holds dear?

Enquiry agent David solves problems for the ton, but will never be one of them. When his latest case includes his legitimate half-brothers as well as the lover who left him months ago, he finds the past and the circumstances of his birth difficult to ignore. Danger to Prue makes it impossible.

See my book page for more about the book, buy links, and the first two chapters.

Meet David

From within the protective camouflage of the gaggle of companions, Prudence Virtue watched her sometime partner and one-night-only lover drift around the banquet hall. No-one else saw him. Like the shadow he named himself, he skirted the edges of the pools of candle light, but even when his self-appointed duties moved him close to a group of guests, they overlooked him. None of the privileged, not even the host and hostess, noticed one extra footman.

He was very good. He had the walk, the submissive bend of the head, the lowered eyes. Even Prue—herself hiding as just one more brown-clad, unimpressive companion among a dozen others, waiting patiently in an alcove for the commands of an employer—did not detect him for her first half hour in the room.

But Prue’s body was wiser than her mind, and left her restless in his presence until her eyes caught so many times on a single footman among dozens she began to take notice. And she saw Shadow, for the first time since that disastrous morning five months before.

On the slim chance Shadow was not here for the same meeting as her, Prue stayed out of sight in the back of the alcove as the time for her to make her move approached. He had left the room several times in the hour she had been watching. With luck… Yes. There he went again. Now, if several of the dowagers would call at once… Done. Moving to where any of three or four ladies might be giving her instructions, she hurried away as if running an errand.

The key, the man she knew as Tolliver had taught her, was to fit into people’s preconceived ideas of the universe; to appear to be someone doing something they had an explanation for. The key was to blend into the background of the story they were telling themselves. ‘Don’t notice me. I’m just a companion running an errand,’ her behaviour said. And five minutes after she left, not one of them would remember what she looked like or where she went.

Revealed in Mist was released on 13 December.



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