Most children are taught in school that modern policing in England started with the Bow Street Runners in London. The author Henry Fielding founded the Runners in 1749; they were unique as they were attached to the Bow Street magistrates’ office and paid from central government funds. Throughout history however the signs of the often rigid enforcement of the law have been visually evident. During the Roman occupation of Britain you would almost certainly have seen crucifixions or perhaps witnessed ad bestias (“to the beasts”) at the amphitheatre, where criminals were forced to face wild animals without the benefit of weapon or armour. Throughout post-Roman Britain and into the Middle Ages you would have seen gallows at crossroads with decomposing naked bodies swinging from the ropes. The putrefied heads of traitors would greet you as you approached the city gates. Every village would have stocks to punish petty offenders and rogue traders would often find themselves in the pillories.
All of these punishments served as deterrents but there was no real crime detection. So who arrested the criminals, who investigated the crimes and who linked the criminal acts to conviction and punishment?
It’s important to remember that pre industrial revolution everyone lived communally. People would work in the fields together, worship together, attend manorial court together and partake in the numerous celebrations and religious festivals together. In medieval England every male between the age of 12 and 60 had to belong to a group called a tithing. Tithing’s can trace their roots back to the Anglo-Saxon period. The members of the tithing had to swear an oath on the bible to obey the law and be loyal to their lord and king. The members of the tithing are expected to report any member of the group who breaks the law or they themselves would be breaking the law. The Chief Tithing-man is responsible for ensuring that all members of the group do not break the law.
What would you do though if you discovered a crime being committed? You would be expected to raise the alarm or in other words give hue and cry. In 1285 the Statute of Winchester declared that anyone who witnesses a crime shall give hue and cry. All able-bodied men, upon hearing the shouts, were obliged to assist in the pursuit of the criminal. The sound of the hue and cry varied from place to place but was most likely a shout and would probably have varied depending upon the nature of the crime. The criminal would be pursued and if caught handed over to the constable of the township. If the criminal escapes the crime is reported at the next hundred court and the details circulated to all the tithing’s in the area. Serious crimes would require the Sheriff to call upon the posse comitatus; a group of armed men who would pursue and catch the criminal. If a coroner was present and the criminal had not reached the sanctuary of a church he could be beheaded on sight for resisting arrest.
After the Black Death in England the rural population was reduced and this increased the bargaining power of the workers. This in turn led to the eventual collapse of the feudal system of serfdom increasing the movement of villeins and increasing the population of towns and cities. Once the local communities broke down tithing’s became less effective and greater reliance was placed on private watchmen or thief-takers who were paid a fee for capturing criminals. In 1663, the city of London employed night watchmen to guard the streets. They were the first paid law enforcement body in the country, augmenting the force of unpaid constables.