The Georgian Underworld by Rictor Norton

A Study of Criminal Subcultures in Eighteenth-Century England by Rictor Norton


3    The Reformation of Manners & The Fielding Brothers


Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. This essay may not be reprinted or redistributed without the permission of the author.

During the first third of the eighteenth century, the control of crime was undertaken largely by vice squads comprising members of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners. Many young men felt that their devotion to the religious life was disturbed by shouts of profanity in the streets, by the open solicitations of prostitutes, and by a rise in street crime, which they felt, probably correctly, was nurtured by bawdy houses and the fact that streetwalkers and thieves associated together in disorderly houses. The first of these moral reform societies was formed in Tower Hamlets, East London, in 1690. Parish leaders felt that the best way to support King William's 1690 proclamation encouraging the punishment of robbers and highwaymen, would be to suppress bawdy houses, which were characterized as 'not only the nurseries of the most horrid vices, and sinks of the most filthy debaucheries, but also the common receptacles, or rather, dens, of notorious thieves, robbers, traitors, and other criminals'. Tradesmen hoped that the number of robberies in London could be reduced by discouraging idleness, by suppressing bawdy houses and by clearing the streets of prostitutes, vagabonds, and lewd and disorderly persons. Local inhabitants, such as those living near Drury Lane, complained of 'frequent outcries in the night, fighting, robberies, and all sorts of debauchery committed all night long'.

We should avoid an overly simplistic caricature of the people who objected to vice. Because of the Societies' campaign for 'purity', some historians have portrayed them as simply an example of the middle classes distancing themselves from the inferior lower classes. But theft and violence are not merely a reflection of good manners. Bourgeois tradesmen were concerned less with decorum and enforcing social authority, than with improving the health and well-being of the body politic. A major reason why the first Society was formed was to suppress bawdy houses, because its members perceived that venereal disease was being spread by prostitutes to an alarming degree among the local population. This perception was probably accurate. At a slightly later period in the eighteenth century, when records exist and can be analysed statistically, it was not unusual for 20 to 40 per cent of British sailors to be venereally infected. Sailors constituted a large part of the population of Tower Hamlets, because the naval dockyards were sited there. The further perception that out-of-work sailors took to robbery to maintain their whores is also probably accurate, and the quarrels that began in 'disorderly houses' often erupted into street violence. There was a noted case of more than a dozen murders occurring in a bawdy house in Poplar, so there were valid local reasons for concern.

The distinguishing feature of these new Societies was the gathering of incriminating information, to the extent that the Reformers were often called Informers. Dozens of informers gathered evidence of crimes punishable by summary conviction, which was recorded by Society clerks in registers. Names and dates and offences were filled in in the blank spaces in previously printed warrants, which were given to a sympathetic Justice of the Peace to sign. Usually only three or four men were responsible for the bulk of the prosecutions, such as John Gonson who began as High Constable of Finsbury division in the 1720s. Justices of the Peace and constables were regularly goaded into action by members of the Societies, many of whom themselves offered to take up duties as constables, and many Justices of the Peace and magistrates became members of the Societies.

Many technicalities of the legal system were exploited to further the Societies' aims. Usually warrants were issued only at the General Sessions of magistrates, which were held eight times a year, but the law had a clause saying that whenever two or more magistrates met together, they could declare it a 'petty sessions'. Thus it became regular practice for just two or three Reforming magistrates to get together in a church vestry, declare themselves to be sitting in Petty Sessions, and issue warrants for searching out and apprehending lewd and disorderly persons. About 85 per cent of vice prosecutions originated in these petty sessions. A warrant was supposed to be granted only if there was compelling evidence that a specific offence was being perpetrated at a specific place, but 'blanket warrants' were common early in the century. In April 1725 two Westminster Justices granted a warrant allowing constables to search specifically the disorderly coffee house of Mary Ealey, but then went further and allowed them to search 'all other houses . . . that you shall suspect such disorderly persons as well men as women to be harbour'd or entertained in'. This single warrant was used to arrest hundreds of people during the next five months, until it was declared to be too wide and hence illegal, and warrants in future had to have a fixed return date.

It is difficult for us today to understand that in the eighteenth-century criminal justice system, nearly all criminal prosecutions were paid for by the victim. There was no division into public and private or public and civil prosecution: there was no public prosecutor's office. The government prosecuted and paid for the prosecution of crimes against the Crown such as counterfeiting and forgery, treason, coining, and sedition, but they did not pay for prosecuting theft or highway robbery (unless the Royal Mail was involved) or even murder: murderers were prosecuted by relatives of the victim. Nor did they prosecute vices such as prostitution, which were crimes without individual victims but which could be said to harm the whole community.

In order to encourage prosecution, the government offered a statutory reward of 40 – in effect, a bounty – for any prosecution leading to the conviction of a thief; and other rewards were offered as occasion arose to focus upon specific outbreaks of robbery or assault. Victims of theft and law officials such as constables thus had an incentive to bring prosecutions for a wide range of criminal acts. However, victimless offences such as prostitution or public swearing or selling goods on the Sabbath were not subject to rewards, and few were willing to go to the expense of prosecuting such wrongdoers. Hence the very clever idea of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners to cover the costs of such prosecutions. The Societies did not deal with crimes involving victims, such as shop-lifting, burglary or pick-pocketing, all of which required a trial by jury. The Societies dealt with what they believed to be the root causes of such crimes: Sabbath-breaking, swearing, profanity, sexual solicitation, and lewd and disorderly behaviour in general. If a Justice of the Peace determined that persons brought before him on such charges was guilty, he issued summary justice without the necessity of any trial: an offender could be whipped and imprisoned for one or two months at hard labour, e.g. beating hemp for the navy. The Societies also prosecuted keepers of bawdy houses, which was an indictable offence, that is a charge that had to be presented to a Grand Jury and then a trial. But the expenses of bringing a case before the Grand Jury were quite high, and in the early years the Societies nearly bankrupted themselves by prosecuting about fifty keepers of bawdy houses each year. They soon realized that full prosecution was not necessary, and that they could reduce expenses by persuading a friendly magistrate to demand that keepers of disorderly houses give sureties for their good behaviour. A bond of recognizance could be issued without ever proceeding to formal indictment, and was in effect an on-the-spot fine. Similarly, licences to sell liquor could be revoked without the necessity of going to the Grand Jury.

Reforming Societies were set up in about three dozen cities and towns, including Bristol, Coventry, Leicester, Newcastle and Portsmouth, with about twenty active Societies in London, which witnessed the longest campaigns. The Societies initiated more than 1,000 prosecutions a year from 1700 to about 1707, then 2,500 to 3,000 a year through 1725 (an average of 1,330 people per year were prosecuted specifically for 'lewd and disorderly practices'), then the rate went back down to about 1,000 a year to 1730, then 500 to 750 a year until they became inactive in 1738. Every year the Society published an account of its progress and activities during the preceding twelve months. The Annual Account published in January 1727 claimed that the total number of people prosecuted for lewd and disorderly practices – which ranged from swearing to sodomy – was 1,363 during 1726. It further claimed that during their 36 years' existence, the Societies had prosecuted a total of 94,322 people for debauchery and profanity. This sounds like an exaggeration, but it may well be true. A modern historian who has examined the House of Correction records calculates that the Societies were responsible for the arrests of more than 20,000 prostitutes and other 'lewd and disorderly persons' during its period of operation.

Bishop Smalbroke, who delivered the annual sermon to the Societies at St Mary le Bow in January 1727, had to defend the Societies against mounting criticism that they had become less interested in the reformation of vice, than in getting money from sinners. He acknowledged that some people were in fact extorting money by threatening to expose people, but he claimed that these were misguided but well-meaning people who sympathized with the Societies, not actually bona fide members of the Societies. He promised that the Societies would investigate the charges against their members and eject any who were found guilty.

As early as 1704, Daniel Defoe was critical of what he called the 'Reformation Clubs', saying that 'punishing vices in the poor, which are daily practis'd by the rich, seems to me to be setting our Constitution with the wrong end upward, and making men criminals because they want money.' In the late 1720s the informing activities of the Societies were subjected to increasing criticism and ridicule. People were becoming sick and tired of Society informers meddling with what did not concern them, especially people interferring with their debauchery, and their other pleasures such as gambling and drinking and trading on Sunday and going to fairs. The popularity of the Societies declined rapidly. Many satirical pamphlets were published, and, worse, Society members were actually attacked in the streets when they tried to break up gambling houses or arrest street-walkers. By 1730 all of the men who had been the Societies' principal organizers and propagandists were dead, or old and inactive, and the new generation was not as zealous as the original founders. The Societies became less and less active, because they could no longer recruit members and were finding it more difficult to find magistrates willing to issue warrants on their informations. A tremendous controversy was caused when the Societies used informers to try to enforce the Gin Act of 1736. As there were about 6,000 gin shops in London at the time, nearly everyone was involved in the illegal buying and drinking of gin, and people felt very strongly about the use of  informers to suppress this vice. Public feeling against the Societies was so strong that in 1738 all of the Societies for the Reformation of Manners were officially disbanded. Thus ended their 48-year reign.

Sir John Gonson vs. Moll Harvey

It is primarily through the activities of the Societies that the modern historian can get a clear picture of the early eighteenth-century underworld. The typical activities of the Societies can be illustrated by their campaign in 1730 to suppress disorderly houses, specifically bawdy houses and nightwalkers. This was overseen by Sir John Gonson, who was now the very efficient chief magistrate of Westminster, and who supported the call for a general Reformation of Manners. In the middle of July that year Gonson and about twelve other Reforming Justices of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster, began meeting twice a week in order to suppress disorderly houses, and within a fortnight they had committed forty lewd women to Tothill Fields Bridewell. During the first week of August, twenty-two lewd women and eight men were taken from several disorderly houses by virtue of search warrants, and carried to St Martin's Round House, then examined by Gonson and his committee sitting in St Martin's Vestry, and committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell. Later that month, the Chairman of the Court of King's Bench at the General Quarter Sessions in Westminster Hall informed the constables and Headboroughs that they were fully justified in apprehending lewd and disorderly persons without a warrant, and read a letter from the Solicitor of the Treasury to Sir John Gonson confirming that His Majesty would bear the cost of any vexatious prosecutions brought against the constables in the execution of their offices. This was provoked by the habit of some keepers of disorderly alehouses of laying charges against any constables who made the least mistake in following regulations or executing their warrants.

Later in the month Gonson's committee focused on the night-houses, night-cellars and disorderly houses around Drury Lane, and summoned the constables of the parishes of St Paul's Covent Garden and St Martin's in the Field to provide written reports of all such establishments in their wards so that when licences came due for renewal in September they could refuse to grant them a licence to sell liquor. They also resolved to execute all their powers under a recent Act which required anyone keeping an alehouse without a licence to forfeit 20 shillings to the poor of the parish, the fine to be paid, if necessary, by the sale of the offender's goods, and the offender to be publicly whipped if the penalty was not paid within six days (for a second offence the keeper would be committed to the House of Correction for one month, and for a third offence to be committed for an indefinite period). Several keepers of such houses were apprehended in short order and bound over to the next Sessions, together with their customers, the most notorious of whom were committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell to beat hemp.

Early in September six women and one man, Philip Sullivan, were committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell by Sir John Gonson, and charged by the constable of the night and other beadles and watchmen with being disorderly persons and belonging to a gang of pickpockets working the streets around Temple Bar and the Strand. Sullivan worked as the bully for all these women, and had threatened and insulted two watchmen who had attempted to arrest two of them earlier. Gonson also issued a warrant against a man and his wife who kept a disorderly brandy shop, open all night long for the entertainment and reception of these prostitutes-cum-pickpockets. Most of these vice offences will have been dealt with by summary justice, committal to a house of correction or a fine for being a disorderly person (i.e. prostitute), though keeping a brothel was a matter for a formal indictment. When the Grand Jury for the County of Middlesex finished its work early in September, it had examined more than 250 Bills of Indictment for various offences including felonies, which the London Journal observed was 'more than ever were known in one Sessions'. Towards the end of September, six more people were committed to the Bridewell for keeping disorderly houses, and a man and woman were committed to the Gatehouse for keeping a disorderly house in Charles Street, Covent Garden. The campaign culminated in mid-October, when twenty-four Bills of Indictment were issued against disorderly houses in and near Drury Lane.

Illustration from Hogarth's The Harlot's Progress

Primarily as a result of this 1730 campaign, Sir John Gonson entered public consciousness as 'the harlot hunter'. In Plate 3 of Hogarth's series The Harlot's Progress (published in 1732), Gonson, accompanied by two watchmen carrying their truncheons, is shown entering the harlot's room to make the arrest. Hogarth gave his harlot the name Moll Hackabout, derived from the real Kate Hackabout, one of the whores whom Gonson had rounded up in a raid on the disorderly houses along Bridges Street on 3 August 1730. More than a dozen men and women were sent before the Justices, though most were discharged as first-time offenders. However, four of the women, including Kate, who had been exposing their nakedness on the street and soliciting men with filthy expressions, were sent to Bridewell and put to hard labour. The Daily Post and Grub Street Journal reported that Kate Hackabout was well known in the Hundreds of Drury, 'for being a very termagant, and a terror, not only to the civil part of the neighbourhood by her frequent fighting, noise, and swearing in the streets in the night-time, but also to other women of her own profession, who presume to pay or pick up men in her district, which is half one side of the way in Bridges-street'. Kate's brother, Francis Hackabout, who had been before the court the previous year, for stealing Canary birds, and had been acquitted of a robbery in 1722, was convicted for two robberies in March 1730, and was hanged at Tyburn on 17 April.

Gonson's campaign was relatively successful in cleaning up the neighbourhood, at least for the time being, and newspapers reported that several of the most notorious keepers of disorderly houses had packed up their belongings and fled secretly during the night. Sir John Gonson was portrayed as simply a morals campaigner, but his real aim in putting down vice was to control the more serious crimes that everyone agreed arose from vice. In his 'charge' or instructions to the Grand Jury on 9 October 1728, for example, he directed the Magistrates and constables to focus on 'all houses of common lewdness and gaming; disorderly Geneva shops; night houses; and those houses which harbour inmates, especially those that are kept open all night, and which receive great numbers of idle and disorderly persons, lodging all comers for a penny or two-pence per night. A vigorous prosecution of these sort of houses will be one way of preventing the numerous robberies which we have lately heard so much of.'

However, it should not be understood that the campaign met with no resistance. For example, in June two warrants were issued against 'several vile persons' who frequented the house of the notorious Mary Phillips alias Moll Harvey, at the Black Boy alehouse in Hedge Lane. But when the constables arrived to serve the warrants, they were beaten up and wounded by Moll Harvey and her husband. Fresh warrants were granted, and the High Constable, with several petty constables, arrested Moll Harvey and a gang meeting at her house. Moll Harvey escaped, but was recaptured. In August she appeared before the Court of King's Bench on charges of assaulting the constables, and was committed to the Gatehouse for contempt of court when she began abusing Justice Robinson and made a disturbance in the court.

When her sister Isabella Eaton, keeper of the Crown Tavern in Sherrard Street where pickpockets met to divide their spoils, presented a petition to the Judges requesting that Moll Harvey be bailed, Isabella was herself arrested and charged with being a receiver of stolen diamond ear-rings, and sent to the same gaol as her sister. (She had earlier, with her husband John Eaton, kept a bawdy coffee-house near Leicester Fields, also frequented by thieves. On one occasion when John Eaton knew he was going to be prosecuted, he fetched a press gang, who carried off his would-be prosecutor.) When two Reforming constables, the brothers Thomas and Michael Willis, arrested Isabella, Mary came to her rescue with four or five men carrying mop staves and broom sticks, and she herself 'had a meat-fork in her hand, and threatened to stick some of us'. The constables threw Mary into the Roundhouse for stealing the stave they had used to beat her off. Mary retaliated by subsequently prosecuting the two constables for stealing diamond rings from her fingers during the attack. Sir John Gonson, together with several Justices of the Peace, deposed that the constables had been very serviceable in suppressing ill houses, and that Moll Harvey was 'a very turbulent and disorderly woman, and one of the vilest of her sex'. The constables were acquitted.

Moll Harvey and Isabella Eaton, and their respective husbands, had appeared in court on numerous occasions from 1725, on charges of theft and assault and receiving stolen goods and keeping disorderly houses, but they almost always managed to get themselves acquitted. Some of the prosecutions seem to have arisen as a result of a feud between the Harveys and the Eatons. In December 1730 Moll Harvey was found guilty of keeping a disorderly house and sentenced to stand in the pillory. However, she and her sister were rescued by a gang of thirty to forty colleagues armed with clubs, and they escaped to Rotterdam. But, fearful of being arrested by the Dutch authorities, they returned to England and hid for a while at Wapping, until they were recaptured in May 1731 – though not without a struggle. Moll Harvey beat the arresting constables and the Justice of the Peace and had to have her hands tied. Her current husband Will Mackeigh was also arrested on charges of robbery, and sent to New Prison. He and the two women were additionally charged with perjury and found guilty. The two women again escaped in June, but were retaken in July.

It was probably the resistance offered by these two sisters that prompted Sir John Gonson to appeal to the Government for indemnification against vexatious counter-prosecutions, which the King agreed in mid-August would be defended at the cost of the Treasury, as mentioned earlier. But this did not prevent 'disorderly persons' from demanding their legal rights. Moll Freeman, alias Talboy, alias Mary Muffet, a well-known keeper of a disorderly house near Drury Lane, when she was committed to Tothill Fields Bridewell in September 1730 demanded a writ of Habeas Corpus. She accordingly appeared before the Rt. Hon. the Lord Chief Justice Raymond, at his Chambers in Serjeants-Inn in Chancery-Lane, to challenge the legality of her arrest, expecting to be either bailed or discharged. But he confirmed that her commitment was legal and just, and sent her back to Bridewell. At the next Quarter Session, in December, she again appeared before the Court, defended by five learned Counsel. However, the Judges and the King's Counsel decided that their actions were entirely legal, and ordered her back to prison until the next Quarter Session, where, according to the London Journal, 'to her no small mortification she is still beating hemp, and bestows many hearty curses upon her lawyers, as well as the civil part of the neighbourhood, who complained of her to the Justices'. The Grub Street Journal added that she was supported by several noted gamesters and sharpers from Covent Garden, 'who have raised liberal contributions amongst themselves to defray her law and prison charges: she beats hemp one day in velvet, and another day in a gown richly trimm'd with silver.' Nevertheless she was back in action two years later, and in September 1732 was arrested for keeping a disorderly house in the Haymarket, and sent to the Gatehouse for insulting a Justice of the Peace.

The Fielding Brothers

The fight against crime in the mid- to late eighteenth century was largely conducted by two men, Henry Fielding, whom we know better for his novel Tom Jones, and his half-brother (by his father's second wife) John Fielding, who operated a successful agency dealing with employment, insurance, travel and property.

Henry Fielding

Henry Fielding trained for the Bar, but never made a decent living from his practice as a barrister. For a while he earned more as an author of numerous plays, and he did a lot of hack writing, especially satirical attacks against the government and its Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. His novel The Life of Mr Jonathan Wild the Great, written in 1740, was based on no knowledge of the criminal underworld, but was simply an excuse to portray Walpole/Wild as the head of a corporation of thieves. Henry Pelham became Prime Minister in 1743, and the new government in December 1747 awarded Fielding by appointing him the principal magistrate of Westminster (though the job was much less lucrative than he hoped) and providing him with a home-cum-office in Bow Street. The next year he was elected Chairman of the Quarter Sessions of the Peace for the City and Liberty of Westminster. He established a scheme for controlling crime by employing six special constables – today we would call them private detectives – who were always on call, and he advertised in the newspapers encouraging people to inform his office immediately any robbery occurred. The scheme was so successful that on 5 February 1750 the General Advertiser reported 'Near forty highwaymen, street robbers, burglars, rogues, vagabonds, and cheats have been committed within a week past by Justice Fielding.' His six-man team, who came to be referred to as 'Mr Fielding's people' and later as 'the Bow Street runners', directed scores of ordinary constables, who in turn directed several hundred watchmen. The special constables operated secretly as plain-clothes detectives, mingling with the underworld and paying small sums to informers for tip-offs and other information that would be recorded in a register, useful for analysing modus operandi the could help identify robbers. Like all constables, they did not receive a salary, only expenses plus rewards for the capture of thieves, but Fielding through his government connections enabled them to receive lucrative appointments: for example, William Pentlow became the keeper of the New Prison in Clerkenwell, and one Hind was appointed Deputy Governor of Tothill Fields Bridewell. Later Fielding and his Runners also received money from the Secret Service Fund.

Sir John Fielding

In 1751, John Fielding also became a magistrate, and joined his half-brother at Bow Street. John Fielding was completely blind, as the result of an accident while he was in naval service. There are several illustrations of him wearing a band over his eyes: a male incarnation of the allegorical icon of the maiden Justice with a blindfold over her eyes, blind to all pressures such as wealth and position when considering the merits of each case. Henry Fielding was in very bad health, and died in 1754, but his half-brother John carried on with his work, aided by the very capable and honest Saunders Welch as assistant police chief. During the early 1750s, people were being robbed in broad daylight by large gangs roaming the streets. Even the King was robbed of his watch and shoe buckles while out walking in the gardens of Kensington Palace. John Fielding and the Bow Street runners, using their system of paid informers and a central criminal register, were able to gain the conviction in the winter of 1753 of an especially violent gang of highwaymen, Mason, Welsh and Neal, and all street robberies ceased during November and December. But they picked up again, then declined again after a series of violent shoot-outs in the winter of the following year, during one of which one of the Runners lost his arm and eventually died from his wounds.

This unprecedented level of violent crime, and the demonstrable successes of the Fieldings' scheme, persuaded the government to provide the necessary funds to pay informers for their information (usually 1s. 3d.), to maintain a Register of Crimes and Criminals, to pay messengers to relay news of robberies, to allow poorer people 4s. towards the cost of prosecution, and to cover more of the Runners' expenses. John Fielding also raised mounted patrols through what might be called 'private finance initiatives'. In 1756 the managers of Ranelagh's pleasure gardens agreed to contribute 17 guineas towards the cost of maintaining two mounted runners to patrol the roads leading to the gardens, and in 1758 the managers of Sadler's Wells Theatre contributed towards the cost of patrolling the New Road between Sadler's Wells and Grosvenor Square. They may have followed the custom established by shipping merchants much earlier in the century, who combined together to hire watchmen to keep an eye on the quays where they unloaded their goods. Following a series of dramatic arrests and hangings of highwaymen, highway robbery seemed to have disappeared by the end of the decade. John Fielding was knighted in 1761. In 1763 the government agreed to finance Sir John's plan for two mounted and armed men to patrol each of the five main roads around London, and to pay turnpike keepers small sums to send news of robberies. The success of the patrols was immediate, and highway robbery seemed to be a thing of the past. But as highway robbery declined, so the government felt that the patrol was no longer necessary and it was disbanded. Then highway robbery increased, so the patrol was reinstated, then disbanded as robbery declined, and so on through the rest of the century. The government never fully grasped the Fieldings' focus on preventing crime rather than punishing criminals. For the bureaucrats, success was measured by counting convictions.

In any case, the police force was far too small and underfunded to have an across-the-board effect. When it directed all of its limited efforts towards highway robbery, such robbery declined – but, as the Gentleman's Magazine in November 1763 complained, the thieves, 'being driven from the roads by Mr Fielding's scheme, . . . now take to more terrifying courses, the breaking open of houses in the night in defiance of the nightly watch'. An outbreak of housebreaking and burglary in the winter of 1771/2 provoked a concerted effort, and such crime declined, for a while. Then Bow Street directed its efforts against suppressing pickpockets, beggars and gamesters haunting St James's Park, and the area was effectively cleared up with a patrol of twenty men. But the pickpockets had the rest of the metropolis to operate in.

Some of the measures undertaken by the government to deal with crime had the inadvertent effect of creating new types of crime. In 1732 the Recorder of the City of London advised His Majesty that the Royal Bounty was encouraging some people to make a trade in false prosecutions simply for the sake of the reward, and it was decided henceforth that the reward would be granted at the discretion of the Lord Mayor and the Judge, depending on the merits of each prosecution. Nevertheless, the practice of thief-taking became an organized practice of thief-making from the late 1730s. Thief-takers constantly attended the Old Bailey proceedings to become familiar with the persons who regularly appeared in the dock, from whom they chose people to give false information about. There was a common saying that anyone discharged from the Old Bailey was bound to reappear after a Session or two. Such persons were befriended by the thief-taker's accomplice, and led into further crime (or indeed the accomplice would commit the robbery himself), for which they would be subsequently sworn against. After the robbery, the confederate and his companion would meet in some pub in Black Boy Alley or Chick Lane, where the thief-taker with some further assistants would arrive and apprehend both of them. When they were carried before a Justice, the thief-taker would get his secret confederate admitted as an evidence and the poor dupe would be convicted; the reward would be shared between the thief-taker and the confederate. Subsequently the confederate would become a thief-taker in his turn, using another confederate to ensnare another innocent dupe. Fraudulent thief-takers' various tricks were usually practised just a few days before a forthcoming Sessions, so that the person apprehended would immediately be brought before the court and had no time to assemble any friends or witnesses in his defence. Justice was swift: one could be arrested one day, convicted the next day, and hanged the day after that.

Prompted by the Fielding brothers, the government steadily increased the rewards offered to those who would inform on criminals. This was very effective in suppressing certain types of crime, usually following specific campaigns. However, as these rewards mounted, increasing numbers of individuals gave false information in order to collect the rewards. Though this had always been the danger of using paid informers, when common rewards rose from 40 to 100 or even more, gangs of conspirators were willing to take more effort to falsely entrap innocent people and then turn them in for the reward. Thief-taking was especially common during the later 1750s, as revealed in A Faithful Narrative of the most Wicked and Inhuman Transactions of a Bloody-Minded Gang of Thief-takers, alias Thief-makers, Macdaniel, Berry, Salmon, Eagan alias Gahagan (1756) by Joseph Cox, a constable who lived in Deptford. The Macdaniel gang were responsible, over a period of about six years, for the transportation of two men and the hanging of six men whom they had tricked into committing robberies; for these convictions they received a total of 1,200 in state rewards. The last incident occurred in 1754, and illustrates their method. Stephen Macdaniel asked Thomas Blee 'to give a good look-out, to get a couple to go upon the scamp' – that is to entice two likely lads to rob with him on the highway, and afterwards betray them for a half-share of the reward. Blee met John Ellis and Peter Kelley, known to be 'youths of bad life and conversation', in Fleet Market where he treated them to liquor, and they quickly agreed to assist him in a robbery at Deptford. John Berry (one of the conspirators) laid the plans for the 'robbery', which was arranged to take place between New Cross turnpike and Deptford so that the thief-takers would be entitled to an extra reward offered by the Parish of East Greenwich for the apprehension of highway robbers. Another member of the gang, James Salmon, a breeches-maker, accordingly stopped opposite the four-mile stone between Deptford and New-Cross turnpike and pretended to urinate, whereupon Blee, Ellis and Kelley went up to him and robbed him of two pairs of leather breeches (which he had marked for later identification) and some silver money (also marked). The stolen goods were distributed to James Eagan of Drury Lane, cordwainer and a dealer at Rag Fair – and himself another member of the gang. Blee, before joining the robbery, had grown a beard, and wore an old great coat and wig which made him look very old; immediately afterwards he shaved his beard and left off the coat and wig. Shortly afterwards, Ellis and Kelley were 'apprehended' by Macdaniel and Eagen at the Blackspread Eagle in Kent Street, but Blee had conveniently left the room ten minutes earlier and thus 'escaped'. The prosecution of Ellis and Kelley accordingly began, and Macdaniel, Eagen, Berry and Blee had every expectation of sharing the reward for hanging two highway robbers.

However, Constable Joseph Cox was still investigating the case. He made enquiries with the assistance of Constable Henry Sargent, who previously declined to follow the trail of Blee leading to Black Boy Alley (saying that 'Black Boy Alley was a very dangerous place for any man to go into'), and soon discovered that Blee lived with Macdaniel in Scroop's Court in Holborn. Cox was struck with the probability that the robbery had been contrived on purpose to convict Ellis and Kelley in order to get the reward recently granted by Act of Parliament, plus the extra reward offered by the Greenwich Subscription. Cox eventually apprehended Blee, who was persuaded to give King's evidence to save himself. Blee gave a full discovery to Cox of the secret contrivances used by himself, Berry, Macdaniel, Eagen and Salmon to seduce Ellis and Kelley to be parties in committing a robbery, and afterwards to betray them and share the rewards. Cox did not reveal his plan, but allowed Ellis and Kelley to go to trial, and waited until the jury retired to consider their verdict before arresting the four conspirators (who were unaware of Cox's investigations); then he arrested the four conspirators who were still in court, waiting to receive their reward once Ellis and Kelley were convicted. The moment the Jury brought in their Guilty verdict, Cox informed the Judge that he had just arrested the four men who had contrived that robbery. At the trial of the latter in 1755, many people testified that Macdaniel, Berry, Salmon and Eagen were all perfectly well acquainted with one another, though for the purposes of deceiving Ellis and Kelley they pretended to be strangers to one another. However, the Jury brought in a Special Verdict, because it did not appear that these four men actually spoke to Ellis and Kelley before the robbery – it was only Blee (who was not on trial, but the main source of the evidence for the prosecution) who was directly guilty of 'feloniously comforting, aiding, abetting, assisting, counselling, hiring, and commanding' Ellis and Kelley to rob Salmon. The case was considered by a panel of judges, and after a second trial in February 1756 the four men were found guilty of 'combining and conspiring together' that Blee should procure Kelley and Ellis to rob Salmon in order to procure for themselves the reward. They were sentenced to seven years' imprisonment, to be set in the pillory twice, to pay a fine of 1 Mark, and to find sureties for their good behaviour for three years. Macdaniel and Berry stood in the pillory in Holborn near Hatton Garden and were severely handled by the populace, the sheriffs and the Keeper of Newgate being barely able to prevent them being killed. Gahagan (Eagen) and Salmon stood in the pillory in the middle of Smithfield Rounds: 'they were instantly assaulted with showers of oyster-shells, stones, &c. and had not stood above half an hour before Gahagan [Eagan] was struck dead, and Salmon was so dangerously wounded in the head, that it was thought impossible he could recover.'

Cox also discovered six earlier cases, going back to 1740, which had ended in the execution of people who had been set up by these 'thief-takers'. During the past half-dozen years the gang reached a total of about ten men, mainly involving Berry as the one who procured the robbers, Salmon as the victim, and Macdaniel as the one who helped to apprehend them. One woman worked with the gang, Mary Jones, who lived in Brokers Alley, Drury Lane, and who contrived 'house-breaking by the appointment of the robbed'. In June 1756 Macdaniel, Berry and Mary Jones were prosecuted for maliciously causing Joshua Kidden to be unjustly apprehended, falsely accused, tried, convicted, and executed, which was claimed to be tantamount to willful murder. But a panel of judges determined that their crime did not literally consist of murder, and they were effectively acquitted. In May 1759 Berry, Macdaniel and Mary Jones were retried on charges of perjury and conspiracy to defeat the course of justice, but no one came forward to testify and they were again acquitted. Presumably by this time Constable Cox was exhausted by his long efforts to prosecute the gang, for which he received no financial assistance from other sources. In any case, Macdaniel and Berry eventually died in Newgate, being unable to raise the sureties necessary for their release from prison following their previous conviction.

As a result of Constable Cox's exposure of the activities of the Macdaniel gang, the tide of public opinion turned against thief-catchers in general (in the same way that public opinion turned against informers in the late 1730s). It was even claimed that Macdaniel was one of Fielding's People, and there were fears that Fielding's police force would have to be disbanded. John Fielding had to strenuously defend his force, and wrote his own Account of the Rise and Establishment of the Real Thief-takers.

By the end of the eighteenth century there were about 90 Bow Street Runners organized into eight or nine core groups, all of whom can properly be called police detectives. After the death of Sir John Fielding in 1780 (and the retirement of Saunders Welch four years earlier), the Bow Street police force failed to maintain its incorruptibility. By the early nineteenth century some of the Runners – who had never received an adequate salary – were accepting bribes, negotiating the return of stolen property for a fee, and even setting up robberies in order to claim rewards for arresting men they had framed. It was this corrupt force that was reformed by Sir Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Act of 1829, but it would be quite wrong to say that an organized police force hadn't existed until then. Many reforms were put into place to more efficiently reduce the level of crime – but it is arguable whether or not these had a measurable effect on the growth of the underworld.

It has been claimed that there is a big difference between Fieldings' small-time operation and Peel's organized police force. But in terms in numbers of constables / watchmen / police on the beat, there may not have been much difference. It's just that the Metropolitan Police now constituted a single body whose forces could be easily counted, whereas under the Fieldings they consisted of disparate groups controlled by separate jurisdictions (e.g. the City of London had its own special kinds of officers, reporting to the Lord Mayor rather than to the Fieldings). The main structural difference after 1829 was that everything became centralized. The other main difference was the manner of funding. Metropolitan Police were paid a salary, whereas under the Fieldings the constables were paid by rewards for capturing thieves, by special funds provided by the government on an ad hoc basis for special campaigns, by payment of expenses, usually coming from a special reserve funded from government secret service funds, and by provision of sinecure posts to the chief constables. Sir John Fielding attempted, often successfully, to coordinate all the police forces (across the entire metropolitan built-up area from Wapping to St James's Park to Hampstead Heath) and to provide regular funding/salaries, but this fluctuated with government generosity. Nevertheless, by 1772 Fielding had persuaded the government to place all Westminster constables directly under his control rather than under the control of their separate parishes, though they still were not salaried. All of Sir John's recommendations for reform were incorporated into Sir Archibald Macdonald's proposed Police Bill of 1785, but this failed to be passed by the House of Commons, mainly because of MPs' longstanding objection to anything resembling a standing army, which they regarded as an instrument of tyranny. But, in the end, Peel's Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 was virtually identical to Macdonald's Police Bill of 1785; thus, in no sense did the Metropolitan Police constitute a radical break with the Bow Street Runners.

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