Regency Cops and Robbers: The Robbers

Last week I gave you a very brief overview of the law enforcement provided by the Watch and the Bow Street Runners. This week, we take a look at the criminals.

Fact is, not having an organized police force on the streets, coupled with extremely punishing laws that did little to equalize the level of crime with the level of punishment: if you could get hanged for robbery or murder, better to kill the witnesses, don’t you think? This all meant that Regency streets – especially in London – were ripe with crime.

If you’re familiar with Mayhew’s “London Labour and the London Poor,” he examines the poor districts during the later Victorian period, describing in detail the squalor of the living arrangements, the “dens of iniquity” where starting as children, criminals were shaped, honed, and trained in all illegal activity imaginable in underground rookeries. Accounts suggest that the Regency was the start and development of labyrinths of districts – notably the East End of London – which became criminal cesspits.

Even when there were honest poor in the areas trying to make a living, they were accompanied by many driven by desperation, greed, or perhaps other factors that made them turn to crime. When large numbers of country dwellers were moving to the city, accompanied by returning soldiers who had no provision and could possibly be unemployable, further strain is placed on the city.

Leigh’s New Picture of London among other resources paints a rather dark picture of city supposed to have not less than 30,000 prostitutes, and upwards of 3,000 receivers of various kinds of stolen property (see the section on Police of the Metropolis: 1819, found at:

Robberies, house breakings, all of these were organized and common. The visitor is suggested to beware Sharpers (who obtain licenses as pawn brokers), Swindlers (who take out licenses for auctions where false merchandise is sold or otherwise bamboozle your money), and Sharpers (those who pretend to be of the upper classes, essentially conmen and women).

It was well-known by 1816 that Field Land in Smithfield was the haunt of receivers and young thieves, whereas Petticoat Lane was the best place to dispose of stolen goods. St. Giles, though, was the worst (or best, if you were a criminal). St. Giles had an evil reputation because of how easily accessible it was from fashionable Leicester Square, the Haymarket, and Regent Street. Buildings were decayed and a warren of narrow alleys and streets where a criminal in the know could easily lose pursuers. (For more on St. Giles, see p58, London’s Underworld: Three Centuries of Vice and Crime, by Fergus Linnane.)

Even if you were dead you weren’t safe from criminals: with a need for more medical knowledge and laws against getting cadavars in legal fashion, you have the body snatchers. They stole recently buried corpses to sell to medical schools and universities for dissection (and which caused havoc in already problematic graveyards – more on them another day.)

One of the most horrendous crimes of the day occurred on December 7, 1811, when residents in London’s East End near the Ratcliffe Highway docks were brutally murdered in their homes. Resident Timothy Marr was closing up shop with his wife and apprentice when an intruder slipped in and murdered them all, as well as the baby in another room by bashing in their heads and slashing their throats. A seaman’s maul with the initials “J.P.” was recovered at the scene, but there were no other clues.

Two weeks later, on December 19, down the road a family staying at the King’s Arms Inn were similarly slaughtered. London was terrified.

Irish sailor, John Williams, was suspected on circumstantial evidence, but was never tried because he hanged himself first in the Coldbath Fields Prison (see p22-23, Beating the Devil’s Game, by Katherine Ramsland for more.)

So, what do you think? Do you too find the darker side (and perhaps the more honest side) of the Regency period intriguing? Have you stumbled upon any similar sidenotes?

Thanks for reading, and have a great week. Oh, and if you liked the post, why not follow the blog? Have a good one. 🙂