24th May 1725. Crime and Corruption.
‘When constabulary duty to be done’: W.S. Gilbert, ‘Pirates of Penzance’
The distinction between criminals and thief catchers was rather blurred in the early 18thc as we see with the self-styled ‘Thief-Taker-General’, Jonathan Wild hanged Today at Tyburn in 1725.
The son of a wig-maker he was both criminal and ‘detective’ as after serving a sentence for debt, on his release he became a receiver of stolen goods to be returned to their owner for a reward. The thieves who worked with him also ‘got a cut’.
As a result Wild built up quite a business, with the backing of those at the top. Anyone who refused to work with him such as Jack Sheppard was handed over to the authorities. No honour among thieves!
Wild was employed as a thief-taker and responsible, it was claimed, for bringing to the gallows 35 highwaymen, 22 burglars and 10 escaped convicts, at a time when there were about 180 capital offences.
To put things into context crime and corruption in 18thc Britain was endemic from the Lord Chancellor downwards; Wild’s escapades were ‘small beer’.(1)
The Saxons had introduced law and order to their communities, with ten tythings under a tything-man, ten of which comprised a larger group of the hundred under a hundred-man. He reported to the shire-reeve of the County.(2)
After the Norman Conquest we see the parish constable (from the Latin comes stabuli), ‘officer of the stables’.
By the 13thc reign of Edward I we see a stricter determination to enforce law and order after complaints that local people were reluctant to do justice to strangers. Responsibility was now placed on each hundred and district to be responsible for unsolved crimes.(3)
Now each man was to keep weapons, with a duty to take part in ‘Hue and Cry’.
With the expansion of communities a ‘Town Watch’ was charged with guarding the gates and streets at night. Two constables were responsible for each hundred or ‘franchise’, a system running alongside the smaller parishes with its constable.
It was a rather an ineffective and corrupt system as we see with Jonathan Wild, but set to continue until the reforms of the 19thc.
The Author remembers the local Burton Borough Watch Committee, in the mid-20th century, by which time, among law enforcement, they were responsible for censoring the cinema screenings for anything deemed undesirable.
Jonathan Wild was as customary dissected by the Royal College of Surgeons and his skeleton can be seen at the Hunterian Museum, Lincolns Inn Fields, London.
(1) The Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Macclesfield (1718-25) and Regent between Anne and George I, was impeached for taking £100,000 in bribes (£11m today). Robert Walpole, so-called first Prime-Minister was corrupt, and it was the time of the South-Sea Bubble.
(2) Tything was related to Frankpledge and known as Head Borough in Kent.
(3) In Statute 13 Edward I in the 1285 Statute of Winchester ( where his parliament was held in the autumn.),
Ref: wikipedia.org/jonathan_wild/Pic Image.