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Historical Romance Writers Dishing the Dirt on Research

22 October 2012

Perfect freedom of action

Lively St. Lemeston, the small Sussex market town at the heart of my next two (at least) books, is the first town I've written about. In for a Penny takes place on a country estate, and A Lily Among Thorns is set in London. But towns were becoming more and more important in England during the Regency as the balance of the economy shifted, with more jobs being created in industries and jobs in agriculture being lost. Of course there were the great factory towns (most of them in the North of England) like Manchester, and London itself increased greatly in size in the period, but even small towns saw growth and change.

One thing I learned was that "town" covered a huge range of sizes. ("City" had a pretty specific meaning in period: a town with a cathedral, that is, the center of a Church of England see, and didn't really denote anything in terms of size.) I imagine Lively St. Lemeston having a population of about 1500. But what I have to remember is that that sounds a lot smaller to me (my high school was bigger than that) than it would have to a Regency English person. Because there were many fewer urban areas and long-distance travel was fairly impractical for most people, even a town of that size could have a very well-developed social and political life, with its own Assembly Rooms, clubs, theatres, libraries, workhouses, jails, newspapers, &c. &c.

But one thing a lot of towns lacked was effective infrastructure. Most towns had very low taxation, in some cases only enough to pay for an annual feast for the town councilmen. The primary taxes were the poor rates, which paid for whatever form of welfare the town provided and which were administered through individual parishes (of which some towns had several, and some towns had too few to actually service the potential congregation, since the parish boundaries were usually hundreds of years old). There was no income tax, and even though a national one was briefly passed during the Napoleonic Wars to fund the army, it was immediately repealed when peace came. Any new expenses, such as streetlights or improving the roads, often had to be provided for in an Act of Parliament, and they could be difficult to get passed if the measure was controversial in the town.

One measure that was almost always contoversial in England at this period was an expanded police force. It's hard for me to wrap my head around how people in the eighteenth century thought about government. Growing up in the United States of the present day, I take it for granted that I pay taxes to the government and in return, they maintain the roads, provide public schools, have fire and police departments, run community centers, fund social programs like Medicaid, SSI, and welfare, and make laws that regulate my day-to-day life.

In eighteenth century England, that simply wasn't the case. Furthermore, crime was very different. Before mass production and the relative cheapness of consumer goods that industrialization brought about, all personal property was extremely valuable. It was possible to make a living only stealing handkerchiefs. (Sorry, I've mentioned that before, but it really blew my mind.) The most common form of crime was non-violent property theft. (Compare pickpocketing, relatively rare now, to mugging, relatively rare then.) In rural areas, where people knew their neighbors, anonymous crime was so difficult as to be almost non-existent. People just didn't see the need for any larger police force than the parish constable. And huge numbers of people financially benefitted from the constant organized theft, poaching, and smuggling going on all around them, so it was hard to muster public support for stopping it.

(I know I'm ignoring sexual assault and child abuse, probably a form of crime that was as endemic then as it is now. But it's hard to talk about that in this context because the laws and attitudes around it were so different that I'm not sure how much it would have entered people's minds when thinking about the advantages or disadvantages of policing.)

In 1822, a Parliamentary Select Committee on Policing the Metropolis concluded that, "It is difficult to reconcile an effective system of policing with that perfect freedom of action and exemption from interference, which are the great blessings and privileges of this country."

Perfect freedom of action and exemption from interference. Definitely not something most modern people expect.

Of course, it didn't help that the police forces that did exist were either ineffectual or corrupt or both. This was largely due to the extremely low pay of the officers (parish constables were not paid at all), who were generally obliged to personally pay the costs of prosecuting any criminal they brought charges against, and received a monetary reward on a successful conviction. This led to a situation where the police forces were as notoriously corrupt as the Gotham Police Department.  Whether the average citizen knew it, I can't say, but criminals certainly did. Bribery was common, streetwalkers paid night watchmen for protection, police swore under oath to Parliamentary Committees that "flash houses" (basically headquarters for London criminal activity, sort of combination brothel/fence/boarding house/gaming dens/you name it)  did not exist even though it was public knowledge that they did.

You can see something of the public attitude toward night watchmen in this Cruikshank illustration for Life in London, entitled "Tom Getting the best of a Charley." ("Charley" was a nickname for the night watchman.)



Image copyright The Museum of London. (Of course, rich young men being rude to cops continues to be a popular subject for fiction, but they don't get away with it much anymore. I still fondly remember that time on Smallville that Lex Luthor had to attend anger management seminars after smashing up a traffic cop's car with the golf clubs he was planning to donate to a charity auction. And didn't Logan Echolls do something similar on Veronica Mars?)

Here is another entry from James Hardy Vaux's Dictionary:
WEIGH FORTY: term used by the police, who are as well versed in flash as the thieves themselves. It is often customary for the traps, to wink at depredations of a petty nature, and for which no reward would attach, and to let a thief reign unmolested till he commits a capital crime. They then grab him, and, on conviction, share (in many cases) a reward of 40l., or upwards; therefore these gentry will say, Let him alone at present, we don't want him till he weighs his weight, meaning, of course, forty pounds.
And don't even get me started on some of the really shocking cases of entrapment I've read about--that's another whole post!

But crime got worse and worse, and public opinion was turning against capital punishment, the traditional deterrent of crime (partly, of course, because it was fairly ineffective as a deterrent, and made juries reluctant to convict anyway). Clearly something had to be done, and many towns did pass Policing Acts. One alternative that great numbers of towns tried were prosecution associations, which raised money through member subscriptions to pay for the prosecution of criminals.

A Policing Act is one of the biggest local political issues in Lively St. Lemeston, and most of my characters have an opinion of one kind or another (my Sweet Disorder heroine's mother will bore you for hours with hers). But for now, they just have a constable and a paid night watchman. This makes it an interesting place for the hero of my next book, Crimson Joy, since he's a con artist with a London background...

I'll probably be posting more about this, but in the meantime, a few links to further reading if you're interested:

"The Origins of Policing and Law Enforcement in England," by Stevie Woods at The Macaronis historical romance blog.

"Night Watchmen Through the Ages (with a little help from Richard Armitage)," by Cheryl Leigh at Historical Hearts.

An extended quote from Government and Community in the English Provinces, 1700-1870 by David Eastwood at my tumblr; it was too long to include here but it has some great insights into the whole context of how people were thinking about crime, private property, and public spaces in this period and how that was shifting.

A couple of other great sources on the topic are The English Town, 1680-1840: Government, Society and Culture by Rosemary Sweet and The Regency Underworld by Donald A. Low (although that one mostly deals with London).


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2 Comments:

Blogger Laura Vivanco said...

"Lively St. Lemeston, the small Sussex market town at the heart of my next two (at least) books"

I'm looking forward to visiting Lively St. Lemeston but does that mean you've given up on the Scottish-set novel?

"It was possible to make a living only stealing handkerchiefs. (Sorry, I've mentioned that before, but it really blew my mind.)"

I'd have thought it would have blown your nose.

10:42 AM  
Blogger Rose Lerner said...

Laura--Well, I haven't given up on it, but I HAVE shelved it for the moment...apparently ghosts are out right now! Everyone I talked to agreed it was a non-starter. And then I had this con artist idea, which I'm really excited to write, so...

I'd have thought it would have blown your nose.

lol!

1:37 PM  

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