Thursday, 4 August 2016

Georgian watchmen - security on the night-time streets

Tom getting the best of a Charley by George Cruikshank (1820)
from The man of pleasure by R Nevill (1913)
The street watchman was a familiar character to the inhabitants of Georgian cities and towns. Their job was to literally keep an eye on their designated section of roadway, as a defence against the common perils of crime and fire. In addition, they had the job of calling out the time and describing the weather.

The history of the watchman

A watchman
from Fifty Years Ago by W Besant (1888)
Because our urban nights are often ablaze with artificial light, it’s easy to forget how dark the streets were before electricity became abundant.

Night watchmen had been on the streets of England’s towns and cities since medieval times. Artificial light was a precious commodity, supplied only by the flame, be it in the form of candle, brazier or oil lamp. When it was employed to illuminate a street, such forms of lighting had a limited range. Because huge patches of darkness made it easy for the criminally intentioned to move about unseen, watchmen were a necessary protection.

In London, early night watchmen were householders obliged to carry on the duty on a rota basis.

In a letter to his family, Swiss traveller Cesar de Saussure described the role of the watchman in 1725:
“London does not possess any watchmen, either on foot or on horseback as in Paris, to prevent murder and robbery; the only watchman you see is a man in every street carrying a stick and a lantern, who, every time the clock strikes, calls out the hour and the state of the weather.”1
In addition, Saussure noted that the watchman used his stick to push on shop doors, alerting the owner if it wasn't fastened correctly.

In 1735, an Act of Parliament allowed the appointment of paid night watchmen in St James', Piccadilly, and St George’s, Hanover Square. Many other Acts followed during the century, providing a system of paid night watchmen that covered most of London. The cost of the watch was passed on to householders through the rates they were obliged to pay the parish.

The professional watchman’s job was to do more than just call out the time and weather and check for loose doors. The Act of Parliament establishing the St Martin-in-the-Fields watch said they were “to prevent as well the Mischiefs which may happen from Fire, as Murders, Burglaries, Robberies, and other Outrages and Disorders”.2

The system of night watchmen in central London ended in 1829, with the creation of the Metropolitan Police. However, it was several years before police forces were established in other town and cities, meaning that in many part of the country, the night watchmen would have continued to serve well into the 1830s. How many of the first police officers would previously have done time in the watch?

The job of the night watchman

From Spring-heel'd Jack: the Terror of London
by the author of the Confederate's Daughter (1867)
Night watchmen were on patrol, usually in pairs, from around 9pm until sunrise and their job was to challenge anyone who seemed suspicious, unauthorised street traders and “any person casting night soil in the street”.3

There’s was not a well-paid or highly respected role, and there seems to have been some concern that some watchmen were too friendly with the criminals they were meant to be watching out for.

Indeed ‘Charlies’or 'Charleys', as watchmen were nicknamed, were caricatured in Georgian prints as often being asleep on the job, allowing criminals to take advantage. This image of the lazy, incompetent watchman goes back at least two hundred years to the time of Shakespeare, who made them comic figures in his play Much Ado About Nothing.

However, at least some Georgian watchmen were not afraid to step in when they thought a crime had been committed. In 1796, John Wilson was stopped by two watchmen in Hanover Square, London, and taken to the constable who, on searching him, discovered pewter pots stolen from a pub.

The dangers of being a watchman

Patrolling the dark streets also meant responding to cries of alarm. On the night of 4 February 1795, at least two watchmen were called by a girl shouting “Watch and murder!” to a house near St Paul’s cathedral. On arrival they were threatened and chased off by an angry householder, John Dunn, who brandished two pistols and threatened to shoot the next watchman who approached his home. He was possibly drunk.

It seems a number of watchmen were attracted to the commotion, perhaps drawn by a moment of excitement in what was often a dull job. So many came that Richard Fitzgerald, who patrolled the area that included the house, had to tell them to go back to their own beats. He also told some of them to stop using their rattle, as the noise seemed to aggravate Dunn.

In his testimony at the Old Bailey some months later, Fitzgerald and other witnesses recalled that Dunn seemed very angry with the watchmen, continually cursing and threatening them as he wandered in the street outside his house. Dunn encountered a trainee watchman, on only his second night, and gave him a real fright by threatening him with the guns.

The episode reached a climax when another watchman, Thomas Price, approached Dunn. For some reason Price was off his beat, perhaps unable to resist the sight of an armed man strutting a London street. Unfortunately, Dunn marched up to Price and, from a distance of just few inches, discharged one of his weapons. Price was killed instantly.

Dunn was tried at the Old Bailey on 16 April 1795, found guilty of murder and sentenced to death. It’s not clear if this was carried out.

The organisation of night watchmen

From The Dawn of the XIXth Century in England
by John Ashton (1886)
In 1735, when they established the first system of paid monitoring of the night time streets, St George’s hired 38 watchmen, four beadles and a watchhouse keeper. What sort of people were attracted to the job is not clear in the early eighteenth century, but nearly a century later, in the 1820s, many watchmen was ex-soldiers. It’s should be no surprise that then, as now, many military men took up jobs in the security sector.

The beadle was in charge of the watchmen, responsible for ensuring they were on duty at the correct time and reporting any problems to the churchwardens. Typically, one beadle was on duty at a time.

The watchhouse was the base from which the watchmen operated. It was their store, where equipment was kept, and could also act as a jail when someone needed to be detained. It was also where the watch book was stored, in which they made kept notes of their rounds.

The equipment of a night watchman

Contemporary illustrations of watchmen by Cruikshank and others show the typical items a watchman would have carried or used.

Master Dogberry the Parish Watchman
from Social England by HD Traill and JS Saumarez (1901)
Coat. It’s no surprise that a watchman would usually be wearing a long, thick coat. Even at the height of an English summer it can get chilly in the early hours of the morning.

Hat. Every respectable, and even disreputable, Georgian had at least one hat. The watchman’s was less about fashion and more about practicality, having a wide brim to help against the rain on a damp night.

Hut. The watchman’s hut, similar in appearance to a sentry box, would have been a familiar sight on urban streets. One of Cruikshank’s illustrations, from 1820, shows young men showing off to their ladies by tipping one over, complete with its hapless occupant.

Lantern. Illustrations and written accounts suggest that candles were commonly used as a light source.

Rattle. Watchmen carried a rattle, a wooden device that made a loud clattering sound when spun on its handle. In contemporary accounts, the action of using a rattle was variously described by watchmen as: ‘rung my rattle’, ‘swung my rattle’, ‘turned my rattle’, ‘played the rattle’ or ‘sprung the rattle’.

Staff. A long wooden stick that could be used for self-defence or for prodding a sleeping drunk.

1. Cesar de Saussure, A foreign view of England in the reigns of George I and George II, (1902) p68.
2. Elaine A Reynolds, Before the Bobbies - The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830 (Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998) p24.
3. Dan Cruickshank and Neil Burton, Life in the Georgian City (Viking, 1990) p18.

Sources used include:
Cruickshank, Dan and Burton, Neil, Life in the Georgian City (Viking, 1990)
Emsley, Clive, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900 (Pearson Education Ltd, 4th edition 2010)
Reynolds, Elaine A, Before the Bobbies - The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830 (Macmillan Press Ltd, 1998)
Saussure, Cesar de, A foreign view of England in the reigns of George I and George II (1902)

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Royal assassins?

I am delighted to welcome Catherine Curzon to the Regency History blog today. Catherine is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.

She has just released her book, Life in the Georgian Court, published by Pen & Sword Books.

There are few royals as divisive as King George IV, a chap who I spent a lot of time getting to know whilst writing Life in the Georgian Court.

A spendthrift, womaniser and seemingly spoiled brat, the Prince Regent (later King George IV) had a passion for splashing the cash. Whether at Carlton House or Brighton, whether buying silver, horses or clothes, he just couldn’t stop spending. The public, exhausted by war, looked on his profligacy with disgust and in Regency England, the fires of revolution began to smoulder.

George seemed utterly immune to his public image and nothing dented his enthusiasm for the high life. The fury of the suffering people inevitably bubbled over into action as the walls of Carlton House were daubed with graffiti. Mobs surrounded and assailed George’s carriage and the crowd hissed and spat at the prince. As things became more inflamed, his vehicle was stoned and few could be found to sing the praises of the embattled Prince Regent.

George IV when Prince Regent
by Sir Thomas Lawrence c1814 NPG, London
Photo ©
Things had hit a new low earlier in 1817 when the prince was returning from the state opening of Parliament. Proceeding along Pall Mall on his way home to his opulent home of Carlton House, a projectile suddenly shot through the glass of his carriage window and past the Prince Regent’s face, missing him by a hair. What was initially thought to be a hurled stone was soon revealed to be something just a little more worrying.

Lord James Murray, who had been with the prince, reported that the window of the vehicle showed a most peculiar sort of damage in the form of two small holes. These were not the sort of irregular holes that a stone would leave but were, he believed, the result of an air gun pellet piercing the glass.

At the Parliamentary enquiry into the apparent attack, Lord Murray noted that the glass was later completely shattered by a number of large stones hurled by the crowd. He also confirmed that no bullets were discovered in the carriage itself. Indeed, no attacker was ever apprehended and the supposed gunman remained at large.

One or two of George’s acquaintances raised an eyebrow at the claims of a shooting, believing it more likely that the panicking prince had merely overstated a stoning for dramatic effect. Still, whatever the truth of the matter, a Prince Regent being stoned, hissed and shot at in the street was not the mark of a happy nation!

Things for George would get worse before they got better, but that is a tale to be told another time!

Sources used include:
Anonymous. George III: His Court and Family, Vol I. London: Henry Colburn and Co, 1821.
Baker, Kenneth. George IV: A Life in Caricature. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Black, Jeremy. The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon and London, 2007.
David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.
Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.
Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth: Vol I. London: Thomas Kelly, 1830.
Irvine, Valerie. The King’s Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert. London: Hambledon, 2007.
Lloyd, Hannibal Evans. George IV: Memoirs of His Life and Reign, Interspersed with Numerous Personal Anecdotes. London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1830.
Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.
Spencer, Sarah. Correspondence of Sarah Spencer Lady Lyttelton 1787-1870. London: John Murray, 1912.

About Catherine Curzon

Catherine's work has been featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, which she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Pen & Sword Books, Amazon UK, and the Book Depository and available for pre-order on Amazon US.

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

The almost forgotten War of 1812

A view of the bombardment of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet,
taken from the observatory under the command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn
on the morning of the 13 Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours, and thrown from 1500 to 
1800 shells in the night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch
but were repulsed with great loss - courtesy of the Library of Congresss
Did you know that Britain was at war with the United States of America during the Regency period? A war involving thousands of British soldiers in North America, with hundreds killed in a host of battles? A war that included the British burning what is now one of the most prestigious buildings in the world - the White House in Washington DC?

It’s well known that the first half of the Regency (1811-1815) saw the end of a long military conflict with France. Wellington’s victory over Napoleon Bonaparte at Waterloo in 1815 concluded a series of wars that began over twenty years earlier, in 1793.

This extended struggle made the military a familiar feature of Regency life. Jane Austen included significant references to both the army and the Royal Navy in her books. Elements of Regency women’s fashion incorporated details from military uniforms.

Today the war with the United States of America, from 1812 to 1814, is little more than a footnote in British history. It’s remembered, even celebrated, in both Canada and the United States. But here in Britain, the War of 1812, as it’s known, is easily overlooked.

Morning walking dress with 'military front'
from La Belle Assemblée (Mar 1812)
The origins of the War of 1812

The American War of Independence had concluded in 1783. By the early 1800s, some of those idealistic young men and women who’d fought for freedom were frustrated by what they considered continued British arrogance.

In particular, the USA objected to Britain interfering with its ships and seamen. The Royal Navy’s domination of the seas meant many American vessels were prevented from trading with mainland Europe. Worse, American sailors were being forced to crew British ships, through the long-established tradition of press gangs.

America wanted to remain outside the conflicts that troubled Europe, and to trade freely with other nations.

Some have labelled the War of 1812 as the ‘Second War of Independence’, in which the young United States asserted its right to be free from British interference.

The USA declares its first war against another nation

Historians argue over the exact causes of the War of 1812. American pride was clearly offended by British treatment of its ships and sailors. It was also offended by Britain inciting Native American tribes to attack American settlers. There’s debate over whether some American politicians hoped a war would lead to the capture of Canada from the British.

Whatever the motivation, the enthusiasm for war grew steadily for several years before 1812.

On 18 June 1812, after several days of deliberation, the American government voted to declare war against Great Britain.

This was the first time the USA formally agreed to go to war with another nation and it wasn’t by an overwhelming majority. Of the 160 politicians who voted, 62 were against going to war.

200th anniversary ceremony at Fort McHenry, Baltimore, Maryland
© Jay Baker, Maryland Govpics 2012 via Flickr
Principal events of the War of 1812

Despite years of agitation for war, the Americans were not well prepared. Their army comprised ill-equipped local militias who were unwilling to travel far from home. In 1812 and 1813, they launched several small invasions into Canada, all of which were easily repulsed.

The British and American navies engaged in a number of actions off the Atlantic coast of the USA. In order to prevent the Americans from trading, the Royal Navy attempted to blockade the entire eastern coast. In a series of engagements, both sides captured and lost ships. The Americans made considerable use of privateers to bolster their naval forces.

From 1813 to 1815, hundreds of American sailors captured by the British were locked up in Dartmoor Prison.

The Great Lakes, which straddle a huge section of the border between Canada and the USA, saw military action on and off the water. A host of engagements saw first one side gain the upper hand, then the other.

The burning of Washington DC

Burnt out shell of the White House (1814) - engraving by W Strickland
after watercolour by George Munger - courtesty of the Library of Congress
The war took on a new character in 1814, following the abdication of Bonaparte and the end of war in Europe. British troops were now freed up to travel to America and some were enthusiastic to go. One British soldier later wrote:
“We were all, moreover, from our commanding officer down to the youngest ensign, anxious to gather a few more laurels, even in America.” (1)
In August 1814 a force of 4,500 British troops, supported by ships of the Royal Navy, targeted Washington DC.

The government of the USA had chosen to base itself in Washington DC, moving there in 1800. President James Madison and his government were in the city as the British approached, initially confident that their militia of 6,000 men offered adequate protection.

However, when the militia engaged the British at Bladensburg, six miles from the Capitol, it was clear they were outclassed by the smaller yet more professional army. President Madison himself rode out to witness some of the battle, leaving before the militia fled.

Washington DC was now undefended. According to a later account of a soldier present, the British commander sought payment from the Americans for sparing the city.

It was accepted tradition that the victors could help themselves to the spoils of war. Having limited means to remove valuables, the British knew their only choices were to destroy what they found, or accept a cash payment.

“Such being the intention of General Ross, he did not march the troops immediately into the city, but halted them upon a plain in its immediate vicinity, whilst a flag of truce was sent forward with terms. But whatever his proposal might have been, it was not so much as heard; for scarcely had the party bearing the flag entered the street, when it was fired upon from the windows of one of the houses, and the horse of the General himself, who accompanied it, killed. The indignation excited by this act throughout ranks and classes of men in the army, was such as the nature of the case could not fail to occasion. All thought of accommodation was instantly laid aside; the troops advanced forthwith into the town…they proceeded, without a moment’s delay, to burn and destroy every thing in the most distant degree connected with the Government.” (1)

On 24 August 1814, the British deliberately set fire to both the Capitol building and the President’s House, what we now know as the White House. 

Our eyewitness noted:
“I cannot help admiring the forbearance and humanity of the British troops, who, irritated as they had every right to be, spared as far as possible all private property, neither plundering nor destroying a single house in the place, except that from which the General’s horse had been killed.” (1)
The original star spangled banner

Fort McHenry, Baltimore, from Our Country's Story;
an elementary history of the United States by EM Tappan (1908)
Having achieved a symbolic conquest of Washington, the British moved on to the port city of Baltimore. They intended a land attack supported by fire from Royal Navy ships, but the vessels first needed to pass the recently fortified Fort McHenry, occupied by American troops.

Baltimore’s defences were much stronger than those in Washington DC. After initial forays, the British army decided to hold back until Fort McHenry was neutralised. On 13 September the Navy began bombarding the fort with cannon and Congreve rockets. The attack went on for over 24 hours.

An American lawyer, Francis Key Scott, had boarded one of the Royal Navy ships to negotiate a prisoner exchange. He remained aboard during the bombardment, having no idea of its impact on his fellow countrymen in the fort. On the morning of 14 September, he was delighted to see a large American stars and stripes flag raised over the fort, indicating that its defenders remained resolute. The British finally gave up their attacks on Baltimore and withdrew.

That image of the flag flying in the midst of the bombardment inspired Scott to write a patriotic poem. It was quickly spotted that the poem matched a popular melody and within days it began appearing in American newspapers.

During the later nineteenth century, the song became associated with the raising of the American flag at formal events. In 1931 it was adopted as the National Anthem for the USA.

The original star spangled banner, the flag flown over Fort McHenry in 1814, is in the National Museum of American History, Washington DC.

An account of the bombardment was published in Baltimore a few days after it occurred:
“But the attack on Fort M’Henry was terribly grand and magnificent. The enemy’s vessels formed a great halfcircle in front of the works on the 12th, but out of reach of our guns… At 6 o’clock on Tuesday morning, six bomb and some rocket vessels commenced the attack, keeping such a respectful distance as to make the fort rather a target than an opponent; though Major Armistead, the gallant commander, and his brave garrison fired occasionally to let the enemy know the place was not given up! Four or five bombs were frequently in the air at a time, and, making a double explosion, with the noise of the foolish rockets and the firings of our fort, Lazaretto and our barges, created a horrible clatter”. (2)
National star-spangled banner centennial
Baltimore, Maryland, September 1914
Peace negotiations begin

Even as the British and Americans tussled on the battlefields of continental USA in the late summer of 1814, their governments were starting to talk about peace. Negotiations began in Ghent, Belgium.

The Treaty of Ghent was ratified by the British on 27 December 1814 and by the American government on 18 February 1815.

Slow communication meant that even after the treaty was agreed, fighting continued. In late December 1814, a British army began its attempt to capture the city of New Orleans. After some initial successes, the British held back to allow the main body of their army to gather. This gave the Americans, under future President Andrew Jackson, time to construct defences.

The main attack on the city was launched on 8 January 1815 and was a dismal failure for the British. The unit responsible for supplying ladders to the attackers, necessary for climbing the defences, failed to deliver the equipment before the attack was launched.

A British soldier wrote later that soldiers:
“though thrown into some confusion by the enemy’s fire, pushed on with desperate gallantry to the ditch; but to scale the parapet without ladders was a work of no slight difficulty. Some few, indeed, by mounting one upon another’s shoulders, succeeded in entering the works, but these were speedily overpowered, most of them killed and the rest taken; whilst as many as stood without were exposed to a sweeping fire, which cut them down by whole companies.” (1)
Within a few hours, hundreds of British troops were dead, while the American defenders counted only 24 killed, and their defences were unbroken.

The Battle of New Orleans quickly gained a place in American culture as a major symbolic victory.

Who won the War of 1812?

Historians disagree about who, if anyone, won this war between the USA and Britain. The Americans initiated the war partly out of pride and perhaps in the hope of capturing Canada. They failed in the latter but their pride was boosted, particularly by the defence of Baltimore and the victory in New Orleans.

Perhaps some in Britain were pleased with the opportunity for a rematch against the upstarts across the Atlantic, who’d won independence thirty years earlier. They would be disappointed. However, disappointment with events in America were soon to be eclipsed by the re-emergence of a more immediate threat, as Bonaparte returned to France in March 1815.

(1) From Gleig, George Robert, The campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, in the years 1814-15 (1821) (This edition 1827)
(2) From The Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry, September 12 & 13 1814 (1889 reprint)

Sources used include:
Gleig, George Robert, The campaigns of the British Army at Washington and New Orleans, in the years 1814-15 (1821) (This edition 1827)
Risjord, Norman K, 1812: Conservatives, War Hawks and the Nation's Honor in The William and Mary Quarterly Vol 18 no.2 (April 1961)
Soldiers' and citizens' album of biographical record containing personal sketches of army men and citizens prominent in loyalty to the union (1890)
The Citizen Soldiers at North Point and Fort McHenry, September 12 & 13 1814 (1889 reprint)