Rogues, Thieves, and the Rule of Law: The Problem of Law Enforcement in North-East England, 1718-1800

By Gwenda Morgan; Peter Rushton | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWO

Enforcing the law

Personnel and methods

The methods of law enforcement were not as such defined by the law itself: much depended on local initiative and investment in time, money and staff. The number of active magistrates was clearly a product of the feelings of obligation of local gentry in the countryside; in Newcastle it was primarily the corollary of holding local civic office. In Northumberland, where many justices were absent on duties such as war service, the growth in numbers on the county commission during the century may simply indicate that membership was a badge of status rather than a sign of any increased devotion to law enforcement by local gentry. 1 Below that level there was much variation, from village constables to urban watch-men. There are few signs of systematic policing; even the border keepers were reactive rather than preventative in their actions, although there are indications that they knew the familiar haunts of the illegal cross-border traffic. On two occasions they intercepted stolen horses at Thirlwall Gate near Greenhead, at the western end of the military road that ran alongside the Roman wall. This was at the point of the western passage through to Scotland, and in 1740 stolen horses, from both Scotland and England, were discovered there on offer for sale. 2 The most distinctive example of local development of systematic policing was in the area of the greatest apparent crime rate, Newcastle, whose compact area favoured such an approach. The town was divided into 25 wards, with most commonly two constables a ward, but some had four or even six. In all, there were about 60 constables in the 1730s, about one for every 340 or so inhabitants, with 12 magistrates. In addition, inhabitants contributed to the

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