Thursday, October 13, 2011

Night Watchmen Through the Ages (with a little help from Richard Armitage)

On my last visit to Bath, I was delighted to discover by accident an eighteenth-century watchman's sentry box. Not in a museum, not roped off, but standing on the corner of a quiet, pretty crescent as if waiting for the watchman to return. Situated in Norfolk Crescent beside a grassy expanse and opposite the Georgian terrace, Cumberland House, this circular structure (erected in 1793 and restored in 1896) piqued my interest in the history of night watchmen.

© Cheryl Leigh

Watch-boxes increased in number during Queen Anne's reign. Made of timber or stone, the wooden ones provided targets for bored young "gentlemen" who tipped them over (and the snoozing watchman within) for sport.

© Museum of London

A regular night watch came into existence after the passing of the Statute of Winchester in 1285, which required householders to maintain the peace in their parishes. At first the Watch assembled only a few times a year, but by the beginning of the 16th century it assembled nightly. Constables supervised the "Charlies", a nickname watchmen acquired during Charles II's reign.

The watchmen's duties included crime and fire prevention, waking people who needed to rise early, calling out the time and weather, and helping drunks home. Men could avoid their duty by paying a fine or hiring a deputy. By the eighteenth century, deputies had become common and watchmen tended to be elderly, often drunk, usually incompetent and highly ridiculed by the public. According to The London Encyclopaedia, this mock advertisement appeared in 1821: "Wanted, a hundred thousand men for London watchmen. None need apply for this lucrative situation without being the age of sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety years; blind with one eye and seeing very little with the other; crippled in one or both legs; deaf as a post; with an asthmatical cough that tears them to pieces; whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore returned from a hard day's fag at the washtub...."

© Museum of London

In the first half of the eighteenth century, city marshals and beadles patrolled the streets during the day. Nights were the watchmen's responsibility. Various Watch Acts in the 1700s established an annual wage of thirteen pounds for watchmen, their hours of duty, and ordered them to be at their posts every night. The men gathered nightly at the watch house at nine o'clock in winter and ten o'clock in summer where the ward beadle called the roll and wrote their names in a book. Armed with a staff (which had replaced the earlier halberds), a lantern, and later a clapper to signal another watchman for help, they then took their positions at watch-boxes or where they had a good view of a street. Their locations were printed and posted in public areas to notify citizens. Watchmen worked in pairs, patrolling their beat twice, once calling the time, the other silently. They came off duty in the morning at seven o'clock in winter and five o'clock the rest of the year. Anyone nabbed by a watchman would spend the night in the watch-house. In the morning, the constable would take the offender to a magistrate.

Citizens had long resisted the idea of a professional police force, viewing it as a threat to their liberty as well as an unwarranted expense, but the increase in crime changed public feeling in the latter part of the eighteenth century. When the novelist, Henry Fielding, was appointed magistrate at Bow Street in December 1748, he pressed for improvements and organized a force of official thief-takers that became known as the Bow Street Runners. The Gordon riots brought home the need to implement a new police system, but a professional police force for London was not created until 1829. The old watch system was now abolished.

So, what is the connection between this post and Richard Armitage? The occupation of night watchman has continued in various forms down the centuries. A different kind of watchman was the one who guarded the night skies over England during wartime such as in Edward Shanks's* poem, The Night Watch for England. Here is Richard Armitage's moving recitation. Enjoy!

*Edward Shanks (1892-1953) was a member of the "Georgian Poets", a title coined by the poet, Harold Munro, in the year of George V's coronation. The name was given to the writers who contributed to the five volumes of Sir Edward Marsh's anthology, Georgian Poetry, 1912-1922.


Beattie, J.M. Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800. New Jersey: Princeton

University Press, 1986

Hibbert, Christopher. London: The Biography of a City. London: Penguin, 1977

Hitchcock, Tim. Down and Out in Eighteenth-Century London. London: Hambledon

Continuum, 2004

Reynolds, Elaine A. Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in

Metropolitan London, 1720-1830. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998

Statt, Daniel. "Law Enforcement." Britain in the Hanoverian Age, 1714-1837: An

Encyclopedia. Eds. Gerald Newman and Leslie Ellen Brown, et al. New York

& London: Garland Publishing, 1997

Weinreb, Ben, and Christopher Hibbert, eds. The London Encyclopaedia. London:

Book Club Associates, 1983


Anna Campbell said...

Hey, do I get the historical rooster? Cheryl, what a fascinating piece. Love it when someone concentrates on these odd little byways of history. Love it even more when it's an excuse for a perv at lovely Richard A!

Cheryl Leigh said...

The historical rooster is yours! :)

Thanks for swinging by, Anna. We should all start the day with a little RA. *grin*

Suzi said...

Fantastic insight into the history of Watchmen. Thanks so much for sharing such amazing research, Cheryl.
Loved it!

Suzi said...

Not you again scooping up the 'First' prize??
Thought you only chased cabana boys and Golden Adonis??
I'll have to keep an eye on you from now on. Can't have you taking the Historical Rooster home toooo often.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Thanks, Suzi! Amazing how one little thing can send you down the research track!

Cheryl Leigh said...

LOL, Suzi. You forgot to include the gorgeous RA. He probably comes before roosters and cabana boys. :)

Annie West said...

Hi Cheryl,

What a great piece! That was fascinating. I loved the first picture too. What a coup to have found it in the first place! Thanks, Cheryl.

Maggi Andersen said...

How interesting, Cheryl. It struck me how much we have changed since those times. I wonder if Elle McPherson would like to be described as old at four score years?

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Annie. Thanks so much for popping in!

I was so excited when I stumbled on the watchman's box. After visiting so many museums, it was lovely to find something out in the open you could actually touch!

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Maggi,
LOL, I imagine Elle would like to be forever young, as most of us wish!

Elle Fynllay said...

Hi Cheryl,
It would have been cold and lonely and dreadfully uncomfortable in those little boxes. No wonder the Night Watchmen were accused of being tipplers - they probably kept a flask on them, to help keep the cold at bay.
And a beautiful segue to Richard Armitage.
(Must learn to put gorgeous hunks in all my posts too.)

Cassandra Samuels said...

Great post Cheryl. It's hard to believe there was a time before a proper police force.

Thank you also for the poem read by the delicious and talented RA. I could listen to him all day long.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Elle, good point! It was probably rather boring too if nothing much happened during the night.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Thanks, Cassie! I could listen to RA all day too. I bet he'd sound great even reading the phone book.

Allison Butler said...

Hi Cheryl,

Thanks so much for sharing such a fascinating piece of history. The watchman's sentry box must have been a treasure to stumble upon. I love the mock advertisement. I wonder if anyone applied:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Allison, it was such an unexpected treat. We only found it because we couldn't park the car near our B&B, but the long walk back was worth it!

LOL, I'm giggling at the idea of someone applying for the ad.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Cheryl,
I love all and any additional tid-bits to add to my historical Information Collection. And what an interesting one this was.
How lucky was it for you to stumble across a find like this :), leading you off on another adventure.
I am curious as to how many of these sentry boxes are still around in the UK?
And if I was going to apply for the position... (I think I could tick several boxes - LOL )I'd want to be posted in a stone one ... love the picture of the bored young gentlemen ....

Cheryl Leigh said...

Thanks, Maryde! Glad to add to your historical collection. :)

I'm sure there are still many different watch-boxes to be found. I later discovered Holburne Museum in Bath has two stone ones outside. There is also one in Oxford Street, London.

Christina Phillips said...

This was a fascinating post, Cheryl, thank you! I didn't know much about the Watchmen at all. My history lessons were full of the Bow Street Runners!

Sheridan Kent said...

Hi Cheryl

What a great post. I never knew how the Bow Street Runners came to exist. Fancy being set up by a novelist! Great stuff.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Thanks, Christina! There is a lot of information available on the Bow Street Runners, so it was fun digging about for something more obscure. :)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Sheridan, yes, it's rather odd isn't it? Once Fielding became a magistrate, he certainly focused on matters of the law. A great guy, all round. :)

Eleni Konstantine said...

Fantastic post, Cheryl. I learned something new today. And a bit of Richard Armitage is a good way to pass the time.

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Eleni,
Thanks for visiting! Glad you enjoyed the post. A little RA first thing in the morning is always a good thing. ;)

Helen said...

I really enjoyed that post Cheryl how interesting it must have been really cold during the winter months.

Have Fun

Cheryl Leigh said...

Hi Helen,

I'm glad you enjoyed the post. Yes, it would have been tough during winter. Can you imagine trekking back and forth through the snow all night? Brrr. No wonder many found replacements.

Thanks for dropping in!

Emily Brand said...

Hi Cheryl,

Great post! Will have to keep my eye out for the sentry box next time I'm in Bath.

I wondered if you would mind my using your photograph for a small publication (fully credited of course!)? Please do get in touch with me at for more details.