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London in 1839

Part Six - Police and Prisons


Until comparatively a recent period, the police of this metropolis was very defective, although the subject had engaged the attention of the public, and had been investigated by numerous committees of the House of Commons at various times during the last fifty years. The ‘Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis’, published by Mr. Colquhoun in 1797, revealed such dreadful scenes of depravity as powerfully engaged the public attention ; and to that work may in a great measure be attributed the reforms which at length been introduced. Deplorable as was the state of the police when Mr. Colquhoun's work was published, it was not worse than it had been for some centuries. As recently as the beginning of the eighteenth century it was highly dangerous to venture abroad, alone and unarmed after dark, except in the most frequented parts of the town ; and in 1728 a plan was formed for robbing the queen in St. Paul’s Churchyard, as she returned from supper in the city to St. James's ; but the gang being engaged in robbing Sir Gilbert Heathcote, an alderman, on his return from the House of Commons, her majesty passed unmolested. Many facts are recorded by Maitland and other historians, showing the height to which open violence was carried in those days. Fielding, writing in 1751, says: 'The great increase of robberies within these few years is an evil which to me appears to deserve some attention. In fact, I make no doubt but that the streets of this town, and the roads leading to it, will shortly be impassable without the utmost hazard ; nor are we threatened with seeing less dangerous gangs of rogues among us than those which the Italians call the banditti. What indeed may not the public apprehend when they are informed, as an unquestionable fact, that there are at this time a great gang of rogues, whose number falls little short of a hundred, who are incorporated in one body, have officers and a treasury, and have reduced theft and robbery into a regular system? There are of this society men who appear in all disguises and mix in most companies’. Even so recently as the end of the last century, there were many places in the metropolis where swarms of the most desperate men openly congregated, in perfect security from the police, which dared not disturb them. Among these places of resort were some, the names of which have been handed down to us as infamous for the crimes that were perpetrated in them. Open violence is now fortunately at an end, and even in the most lonely parts of the suburbs an efficient police ensures personal safety at all hours of the night. The vice which still exists is of a less obtrusive character, and crimes are now for the most part confined to depredations on property. Society has been thus tending towards improvement during the last forty or fifty years, but it is during the latter half of this period that the amendment has been most apparent. The evidence given before a committee of the House of Commons, in 1816, still detailed scenes and circumstances of villainy which are no longer to be witnessed. The establishment of the metropolitan police force, under an act of parliament in 1829, has been mainly instrumental in producing this improvement. The regulations for its management are calculated for the prevention rather than the punishment of crime, it having been among the gravest charges made against the system which it superseded that men were nursed in crime, until the length to which they proceeded produced the offer of rewards for their apprehension.

The police force is under the management of two commissioners, who are in direct communication with the secretary of state for the home department ; under the commissioners are 17 superintendents, 70 inspectors, 342 sergeants, and 2,968 constables. The district under their care extends from Brentford Bridge on the west, to the river Lea on the east, and from Highgate on the north, to Streatham and Norwood on the south, excluding the city of London. The population of this district, at the census of 1831, was 1,493,012 souls, and the rental of houses assessed for relief of the poor within the same, in 1837, amounted to £5,177,113 per annum. The constables and officers must be men of good character, who can read and write, and who at the time of their appointment are not more than thirty-five years of age. They wear a uniform dress, and are altogether a fine and respectable-looking body of men. The whole district is parcelled out into seventeen divisions, to each of which one superintendent and an adequate number of sergeants and constables are appointed ; and it is expected that each constable will exert himself to acquire a complete personal knowledge of his district. The system of responsibility throughout the force is perfect. The commissioners are answerable to the government for the due performance of their duties ; the superintendents are answerable to the commissioners for their own conduct, and that of the sergeants and constables in their division ; and the sergeants are answerable to the superintendents for the good conduct of the constables under their orders. The constables and officers are strictly forbidden to receive any payments or gratuities from private persons. The expense attending this system is greater than that of the old nightly watch, for which it was substituted. The total expenditure, in the year 1837, amounted to £209,754, 11 shillings and 11 pence, and the charge for the former nightly watch, in the same districts, was £137,288, 18 shillings and 6 pence.  For this difference, £72,465, 13 shillings and 5 pence, the inhabitants have the benefit of an efficient day police in exchange for an inefficient nightly watch, which was frequently entrusted to infirm old men. The expense chargeable on the parishes is limited to an assessment of eightpence in the pound on the rental, and all beyond this is defrayed from the public purse. Three-fourths of the whole expense are borne out of the parish rates, limited as above mentioned ; and the remaining one-fourth is paid by the Treasury. The efficiency of the metropolitan police may in part be seen from the statement of the number of persons taken into custody by its constables, in each year since it came fairly into operation, and which were:-

1831 : 72,824 ; of whom 31,353 were drunk.
1832 : 77,543 ; of whom 32,636 were drunk
1833 : 69,959 ; of whom 29,880 were drunk
1834 : 64,269 ; of whom 19,779 were drunk
1835 : 63,474 ; of whom 21,794 were drunk
1836 : 63,384 ; of whom 22,728 were drunk
1837 : 64,416 ; of whom 21,426 were drunk

The total number of persons charged with offences by the metropolitan police force in the year 1838 was 71,802, of whom 48,742 were accused of petty offences, and the remaining 23,060 of crimes usually tried before a jury. Of these numbers 20,697 in the first class, and 14,820 in the second class, or about one-half, were discharged on a hearing by the magistrates, only 2,951 were committed for trial. 15,876 were discharged on payment of fines - chiefly cases of drunkenness, and the remainder were sentenced summarily by the magistrates to various short periods of imprisonment. Among the persons committed for trial, 5 were accused of murder, 16 of manslaughter, and 88 of burglary and house breaking : the others were charged with larcenies, breaches of the peace, and other offences of inferior degree.

It will be seen that a large proportion of the persons included in these numbers were taken into custody by reason of their being drunk, in which condition they hold out temptation to dishonest persons, and require to be protected.

It has been mentioned that this police force has no authority within the City. The day and the night police in the City were till lately established on two systems wholly unconnected with each other. The day police was under the control of a committee of the court of aldermen, and its operations embraced the whole city without any reference to its division into wards, while the duty of providing the nightly watch was left to the ward authorities, each ward supporting an independent establishment of its own. The day and night police are now consolidated, and consist of :-

1 Superintendent
12 Inspectors
50 Sergeants
438 Constables
(501 men)

It is organised as nearly as possible on the plan of the metropolitan police, the City being divided for this purpose into 6 districts. There are besides, connected with the business of the justice-rooms, four men specially called police officers, and three men placed at the Mansion-house and Guildhall : the whole of this force is directed by the superintendent. Its duties are confined to the north side of the Thames, Southwark being under the metropolian force.

There are further provided for preserving the peace of the metropolis, nine police offices, each of which has attached to it three magistrates. The offices are :-

Bow Street, ............... 10 officers.
Queen Square, .......... 6 officers.
Marlborough Street, .. 7 officers.
Marylebone, .............. 7 officers.
Hatton Garden, ......... 6 officers.
Worship Street, ......... 7 officers.
Whitechapel, ............. 6 officers.
Union Hall, ............... 8 officers.
Thames Police, .......... 6 officers.

In addition to this there is a River Police attached to the Thames Police Office, and employing 22 Thames police surveyors and 70 river constables. The expense of these establishments is £51,724, 5 shillings and 5 pence per annum. The horse-patrol was attached to the office in Bow Street until October, 1836, when it was made part of the metropolitan police force ; it comprises a conductor, 4 inspectors, and 66 patrols. Their sphere of action is in the less frequented roads around the metropolis. Their respective beats and the hours of visiting different localities are continually being changed, according to the directions of the superintendents of police.

The sessions of the peace for the city of London are holden eight times in the year. The judges are the lord-mayor, aldermen, and recorder, any four of whom form a quorum, but the recorder is the acting judge. Before the establishment of the Central Criminal Court the jurisdiction of the London sessions court extended to all kinds of felonies, but in practice all crimes (except treason) which were capital by common law and all which have been called felonies by statute were tried at the Old Bailey sessions. The Central Criminal Court has twelve sessions in the year. This court was established  for the trial of offences committed in the city of London, the county of Middlesex, and those parts of the adjoining counties which lie within the parishes of Barking, East Ham, West Ham, Little Ilford, Low Layton, Walthamstow, Wanstead, St. Mary Woodford, and Chingford, in Essex ; Charlton, Lee, Lewisham, Greenwich, Woolwich, Eltham, Plumstead, Deptford, Kedbrook liberty, and Nottingham hamlet, in Kent ; Southwark, Battersea, Bermondsey, Camberwell Christchurch, Clapham, Lambeth, St. Mary Newington, Rotherhithe, Streatham, Barnes, Putney, Tooting, Graveney, Wandsworth, Merton, Mortlake, Kew, Richmond, and Wimbledon, in Surrey. This new criminal court was established in 1834, under the act 4 and 5 William IV., c. 36, and empowers the lord-mayor of London, the lord chancellor, the judges the aldermen, recorder, and common-sergeant of London, and such others as his majesty may appoint, to be judges of a court to be called the Central Criminal Court. These judges or any two of them ' may determine all such treasons, murders, felonies, and misdemeanors as might be determined under any Commission of Oyer and Terminer for the city of London or county of Middlesex, or commission of gaol delivery to deliver the gaol of Newgate, at such times and places in the said city or suburbs thereof as by the said Commissioners shall be appointed. ' The district thus described is to be considered as one county for all purposes under the act. The juries are summoned from London, or from the counties, or from both indiscriminately. The sessions thus authorised are to be holden twelve times at least in every year. This court is further empowered to try persons for offences committed on the high seas and other places within the jurisdiction of the admiralty of England, for which separate sessions used formerly to be held by the judges of the admiralty court. The great bulk of the cases brought before the Central Criminal Court are larcenies, unaccompanied by violence. The frequency of the sessions is found to be a great improvement ; persons who may be wrongfully accused are speedily released, and the guilty are more quickly brought to justice.


There are nine prisons for the confinement of offenders within the metropolis. These are :

1. The Gaol of Newgate in the City of London
2. The Giltspur-Street Compter  in the City of London
3. The Bridewell Prison in the City of London
4. The New Prison, Clerkenwell, Middlesex County Gaol
5. The Coldbath-fields, County House of Correction
6. The Westminster, County Bridewell
7. The Horsemonger Lane, Surrey County Gaol
8. The Borough Compter
9. The Penitentiary at Milbank.

The Gaol of Newgate is under the control of the Corporation of London, and is the principal prison appropriated to the reception of persons brought before the Central Criminal Court. This prison has at various times been stigmatised as one of the worst regulated in the kingdom, and although various reformations have been attempted, but little effectual good appears to have been thus accomplished. In the third Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, presented to Parliament in 1838, it is stated ' that this great metropolitan prison, while it continues in its present state, is a fruitful source of demoralization, and a standing reproach on the character of the Corporation of the City of London. ' The more heinous classes of offenders are placed in separate cells which are not warmed, have no privies, and are without stool or table, but in each of them is placed a Bible and a Prayer Book. The numbers of persons confined in this prison in the course of the year ending Michaelmas 1837, was 3,349, of whom 802 were females. The greatest number at any one time in that year was 342, of whom 123 females. The current expenses of the prison for the year amounted to £7,785, 15 shillings and 10 pence.

The Giltspur-Street Compter is under the jurisdiction of the Lord Mayor and Court of Aldermen. Prisoners of every denomination and character are crowded together in the wards, yards, and sleeping cells of this prison without any possibility of classification, and, as we find it stated in the last Report of the Inspectors of Prisons, ' The Giltspur-Street Compter continues a wretched prison, with no efficient means of affording a salutary discipline. The prisoners are left together in large numbers in idleness and unrestrained communication during the whole 24 hours. ' The number of prisoners confined there in the course of the year 1837 was 552 males and 130 females ; the greatest number at any one time was 124 males and 48 females.

The Bridewell prison is under the jurisdiction of the governors of Bridewell and Bethlehem Hospitals, and is used for the reception of persons summarily convicted by the lord mayor or sitting aldermen. The prisoners are for the most part petty pilferers, misdemeanants, and vagrants :  refractory apprentices brought before the aldermen or chamberlain of London are also sent here to solitary confinement for short periods. The prisoners were formerly employed, as a punishment, in beating hemp, which occupation has given place to the modern invention - the tread-wheel.  The inmates are classified, and the ' silent system ' has been adopted. There were confined in this prison in the year ending Michaelmas 1837, 770 males and 352 females ; the greatest number at any one time was 90 males and 29 females. The current expenses in that year amounted to £1,9341, 15 shillings and 1 penny.

The new prison, Clerkenwell, is the general receiving prison of Middlesex for offenders committed, either for examination before the police magistrates, for trial at the sessions, for want of bail, and occasionally on summary conviction. Some degree of classification has latterly been attempted, but as the limits of the prison oblige 30, 40 or more prisoners to remain together in a small room, this division must he more nominal than real ; the attempt is indeed limited to marking divisions on floor, within which certain classes are desired to remain. The number confined in the year ending Michaelmas 1837,was 4,263 males and 2,054 females, but the greatest number at any one time was 205 males and 109 females ; the expenses for the year amounted to £3,763, 10 shillings and 2 pence.

The Coldbath-fields County House of Correction is under the jurisdiction of 14 visiting magistrates appointed at each quarter-sessions : four go out of office quarterly by rotation. This prison contains felons, misdemeanants, and persons committed under the designation of rogue and vagabonds. It contains a tread-wheel. The prisoners are kept separate in classes in the different wards, and the silent system is strictly enforced. The discipline is said by the prison inspectors to be extremely good. In the year ending Michaelmas 1837, there were confined 6,625 males and 3,125 females ; the greatest number at any one time having been 929 males and 319 females ; the expense to the county, exclusive of alterations and repairs, was £13,455, 14 shillings and 9 pence.

The Westminster County Bridewell in Tothill-fields is under the jurisdiction of the magistrates for the City of Westminster. It is a modern building, having been first occupied in 1834 : it cost upwards of £200,000. The prison contains 42 day-rooms and 348 sleeping apartments in addition to 120 dark cells in the basement. The classification of prisoners is accomplished to a great extent.  Prisoners who have been convicted are subjected to the silent system. There are two tread-wheels in the prison, and two schools have been established, one for boys, the other for girls, under 17 years of age, who are committed to the prison. In the year ending at Michaelmas 1837, there were confined 3,085 males and 2,439 females ; the greatest number at any one time was 438, of whom 159 were females. The current expenses of the prison were £5,578, 7 shillings and 4 pence.

The Surrey County Gaol, in Horsemonger Lane, Southwark is under the jurisdiction of the sheriff, court of quarter-sessions, and 12 visiting magistrates of the county of Surrey. This prison contains debtors as well as criminals of all degrees, which latter are not classified, nor kept separate to any useful extent. In the course of the year to Michaelmas 1837, there were in this prison 1,193 male and 107 female debtors. Of other prisoners the numbers were 1,901 males and 605 females ; the greatest number of these at any one time was 233 males and 62 females, together 295. The expense in that year was £3,316,  0 shillings and 2 pence.

The Borough Compter, in Mill-lane, Tooley Street, is under the jurisdiction of the lord-mayor and court of aldermen of London, and the high-bailiff of Southwark. The prisoners consist of debtors, of persons committed for trial for felonies and misdemeanors, and others tried and sentenced to imprisonment, but not to hard labour ; those prisoners who are sentenced to labour are sent to the County House of Correction at Brixton. The defects in the discipline and management of this prison were strongly animadverted on by a Committee of the House of Commons in 1829, and in their Report of 1838 the Inspectors of Prisons remark that ' its general state is as deplorable at this moment as it was then. ' In the year ending Michaelmas, 1837 there were confined 273 male and 32 female debtors ; 688 males and 464 females accused of offences ; the greatest number of these at any one time was 69, of whom 23 were females : the expenses of the prison were £878, 19 shillings and 8 pence.

The Penitentiary at Milbank was established in 1820, and placed under the direction of the Secretary of State for the Home Department. It is built upon the plan recommended by the late Mr. Jeremy Bentham, which admits of the most perfect classification and supervision : it cost nearly half a million of money, and is capable of containing 1,100 prisoners. The whole establishment is managed by a committee appointed by the Secretary of State. The prisoners are in great part persons sentenced to transportation or to death, whose punishment has been commuted to imprisonment, and it has no peculiar connexion with the police of the metropolis.