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.
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...."
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.
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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
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