19 April 2024
  • 19 April 2024

The Thief Takers by Patrick Pringle

on 7 August 2023 0

Brian Hannan from Abbey Books in Paisley takes a look at a new crime novel, The Thief Takers by Patrick Pringle

Notions of freedom proved an almost insuperable barrier to Britain having a competent police force for hundreds of years. In Europe, the land-based armies required to be maintained in case of war with a neighbour soon evolved into nationally-funded police forces, the French gendarmes a development of “gens d’armes” (soldiers). Naturally, a police force that grew out of an army was viewed as yet another oppressive government tool to keep the populace in order, and was unwelcome in Britain.

Since Britain was protected from its most warlike neighbours by the English Channel there was little need in the 17th and 18th centuries to keep a tooled-up army on standby. As the government was equally unwilling to spend money on a national police force, it encouraged local villages, towns and cities to work with private police forces who earned their keep by a variety of largely illegal measures to which the Crown turned a blind eye. Parish constables and magistrates were voluntary posts – unpaid – and these office holders encouraged to charge small fees for every official duty undertaken.

Deterrents were lethal. The number of offences attracting the death penalty went from 50 in 1668 to 223 in 1823. The basis of law was that anyone robbed could tackle the robber and recover the goods rather than relying on an official. A village was held responsible for any robberies taking place within the vicinity and was obliged to raise effectively a posse – the old “hue and cry” – to find the offender within 40 days of the crime being committed otherwise tey could be sued for damages. Parish constables could be fined for failing to carry out their duties.

Many crimes were solved with the help of well-paid informers. Anyone found committing a minor offence such as blasphemy, gambling or dumping rubbish could be informed upon with the informant standing to gain half of the subsequent fine imposed. For more serious crimes, criminals could inform on each other, and be rewarded with a free pardon. It sounds more like Communist Russia and freedom-loving England. But basically it meant that a system of law enforcement evolved that cost the state nothing.

It didn’t take long for criminals to work out that they could operate on both sides of the fence and entrepreneurs such as Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchin in the early eighteenth century made fortunes from becoming official “thief-takers” whose main job was to catch criminals but who, on the side, made a fabulous living by organising burglaries and robberies and selling the stolen property back to the original owner. (Both characters make appearances in Douglas Skelton’s superb novel A Thief’s Justice.)

Wild was not born into the criminal classes but was an apprentice buckle-maker before being jailed for four years for debt. In prison he met Mary Miller, a prostitute who became his mistress and was the couple’s main breadwinner on release from incarceration. While not making buckles, Wild became Mary’s “twang,” that is he quickly pocketed whatever she stole from clients who availed themselves of her services in the open air.

Wild was recruited by Under Marshall Hitchin from whom he learned the art of thieving, thief-taking and operating a protection racket before branching out on his own, their endeavours. Until 1702 receiving stolen goods was considered a minor misdemeanour. When a change in the law turned it into a major crime, all that occurred was that through a third party, namely Wild, thieves in effect negotiated with their victims as to how much they were willing to pay for the return of stolen goods.

The exposure of Wild for his double-dealing and his subsequent execution did nothing to dampen the ardour of the British for a private police force. “No Briton suggested following the example of every other civilized country by creating a professional police force. The idea was unthinkable. Such a body would have meant the end of individual freedom. It would have cost public money, too.”

By the mid-1700s thief-takers had progressed beyond theft and handling stolen goods and embarked on a new venture of framing innocent people for crimes and walking off with the rewards. Despite numerous scandals the public addiction to private police forces flourished. It wasn’t until 1818 that the rewards system was more or less abolished, though the little that remained was naturally an invitation to abuse.

Although the Bow Street Runners, a professional police force, led to the formation of the London Metropolitan Police, there was little investment in detective work until the formation of the C.I.D. in 1878.

The wholesale commitment, effectively, to an amateur police force that held sway until late in the nineteenth century was driven by the notion of the freedom of the individual, that private entrepreneurs would be more zealous than any publicly-appointed official, opposition to change and to accept that foreign countries were superior in law enforcement, and reluctance to spend money.

London might claim to be the most civilised city in the world but it was also the most lawless. Patrick Pringle has done a superb job of marshalling fascinating facts about how the early police forces were open to abuse, detailing the lives of the characters who took advantage of the laxity of the system and those hell bent on its reform.

The Thief Takers by Patrick Pringle is available at Abbey Books, Paisley.


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