Although this medieval-style policing system had some merit in involving the local population in Eighteenth-century London watchmen, commonly known as ‘Charleys’. They patrolled the streets after dark to provide security.
Parish law enforcement, it was completely ineffective in tracking down criminals, such as highwaymen, across parish boundaries. To alleviate the situation, groups of unofficial ‘thief-takers’ or ‘bounty hunters’, motivated by the rewards offered by the government for the apprehension and conviction of offenders (£40 for a highwayman), began to operate. The ‘thief-takers’ also investigated robberies, when requested, on behalf of victims, and claimed rewards of about half the value for returning stolen property to them. Unfortunately, the system was abused by entrepreneurial criminals who organised the robbers, acted as ‘receivers’ of the stolen goods and then betrayed the offenders to the authorities for reward.
One of these unsavoury characters was Jonathan Wild, ostensibly a zealous London magistrate and a figure of respectability but actually a receiver of stolen goods on an immense scale. He also planned and organised robberies for countless thieves and highwaymen. He set up gangs in different areas of the country, mainly employing men who had returned from the colonies after transportation. Some of these gangs were mobile and followed the royal court, the law circuits and country fairs over much of England. Wild controlled them by blackmail, under the threat of exposure to the authorities, and thus, in effect, ran a ‘protection racket’. They were completely at his mercy, unable to give evidence against him due to their criminal past; moreover, he could have them arrested whenever he liked. If they disobeyed or rebelled, he informed on them; his double-dealing sent over sixty highwaymen and thieves to the gallows throughout the country.
Wild thus gained the grandiose title of ‘Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’ and tried, though unsuccessfully, to become a freeman of the City of London for his public services. He walked the streets with a short silver staff, as a badge of authority, using this to remove any suspicion were he found in the vicinity of a highway robbery which he had organised. Because of his reputation, highwaymen who did not enjoy his ‘protection’ gave London a wide berth in the period 1723-5, as evidenced by the fact that no highwaymen were hanged at Tyburn during this time.
Jonathan Wild, known as the ‘Thief-taker General of Great Britain and Ireland’. He pretended to be on the side of the law but in fact was a ruthless criminal.
Jonathan Wild’s journey to Tyburn for his execution in 1725. Eventually, Wild’s luck ran out and he was charged with several offences. He was found guilty of handling some fine Flanders lace, known to be stolen by one of his confederates, and obtaining a reward by returning it to the owner. Aged forty-three, he was executed at Tyburn in 1725. It was rumoured that at the execution he even picked the pocket of the ministering clergyman and removed a corkscrew from it! On his way to the gallows the route was lined with thousands of angry spectators who yelled for him to be ‘promptly despatched’ and hurled abuse, pelting him with missiles because of his treacherous and odious dealings on both sides of the law. He was buried in St Pancras churchyard. A few nights later his corpse was stolen by body-snatchers, presumably on behalf of surgeons, and his skeleton was later presented by a doctor to the Royal College of Surgeons of England and exhibited in their museum in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London.
- American Western Outlaws
- Australian Brigands
- 17th-Century English Highwaymen
- 18th-Century English Highwaymen
- European Banditry
- Hide-outs and Disguises
- Punishments and Prisons
- The Law Enforcers
- The Rise and Fall of Highwaymen
- The Victims and the Booty