Watchman (law enforcement)

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For other uses, see Watchmen (disambiguation).

Watchmen were groups of men, usually authorised by a state, government, or society, to deter criminal activity and provide law enforcement. Watchmen have existed in various guises throughout the world and were generally succeeded by the emergence of formally organised policing.

Early origins[edit]

An early reference to a watch can be found in the Bible where the Prophet Ezekiel states that it was the duty of the watch to blow the horn and sound the alarm. (Ezekiel 33:1-6)

The existence of watchmen has also been found[specify] in the Ottoman, Greek and Egyptian Empires.[citation needed]

The Roman Empire turned the role of a watchman into a profession by creating two organizations:

  • the Praetorian Guard thus establishing a rank and file system with a Captain of the Guard.
  • Vigiles, literally the watch.

Watchmen in England[edit]

The Ordinance of 1233 required the appointment of watchmen.[1][2] The Assize of Arms of 1252, which required the appointment of constables to summon men to arms, quell breaches of the peace, and to deliver offenders to the sheriff, is cited as one of the earliest creations of an English police force, as was the Statute of Winchester of 1285.[3][4][5] In 1252 a royal writ established a Watch and Ward with royal officers appointed as Shire Reeves:

By order of the King of England the Winchester Act Mandating The Watch. Part Four and the King commandth that from henceforth all Watches be made as it hath been used in past times that was to wit from the day of Ascension unto the day of St. Michael in every city by six men at every gate in every borough by twelve men in every town by six or four according to the number of inhabitants of the town. They shall keep the Watch all night from sun setting unto sun rising. And if any stranger do pass them by them he shall be arrested until morning and if no suspicion be found he shall go quit.

Later in 1279 King Edward I formed a special guard of 20 sergeants at arms who carried decorated battle maces as a badge of official office. By 1415 a watch was appointed to the Parliament of England and in 1485 King Henry VII established a household watch that became known as the Beefeaters.

From 1485 to the 1820s, in the absence of a police force, it was the parish-based watchmen who were responsible for keeping order in London's streets.[1] The watchmen patrolled the streets at night, calling out the hour, keeping a lookout for fires, checking that doors were locked and ensuring that drunks and other vagrants were delivered to the watch constable.[6] However, their low wages and the uncongenial nature of the job attracted a fairly low standard of person, and they acquired a possibly-exaggerated reputation for being old, ineffectual, feeble, drunk or asleep on the job.[7] During the 1820s, mounting crime levels and increasing political and industrial disorder prompted calls for reform, led by Sir Robert Peel, which culminated in the demise of the watchmen and their replacement by a uniformed metropolitan police force.[8][9]

Watchmen in the United States of America[edit]

The first form of societal protection in the United States was based on practices developed in England. The City of Boston was the first settlement in the 13 colonies to establish a night watch in 1631.[2] New York (then New Amsterdam) and Jamestown followed in 1658.

Watchmen and modern police[edit]

With the unification of laws and centralization of state power (e.g. the Municipal Police Act of 1844 in New York City, United States), such formations became increasingly incorporated into state-run police force (see metropolitan police and municipal police).

Watchmen still exist under Florida statutes and are recognised / given special dispensation in law [10][11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Pollock, Frederick; Maitland, Frederic William (1898). The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I. 1 (2 ed.). p. 565. ISBN 978-1-58477-718-2. 
  2. ^ Rich, Robert M. (1977). Essays on the Theory and Practice of Criminal Justice. p. 50. ISBN 978-0-8191-0235-5. The origin of the exception goes back in English history to the Ordinance of 1233 which instituted night-watchmen, and directed them 'to arrest those who enter vills at night and go about armed.' Later the Ordinance of 1252 mentions 'disturbers of our peace.' 
  3. ^ Clarkson, Charles Tempest; Richardson, J. Hall (1889). Police!. pp. 1–2. OCLC 60726408. 
  4. ^ Delbrück, Hans (1990). Renfroe, Walter J., Jr, ed. Medieval Warfare. History of the Art of War 3. p. 177. ISBN 0-8032-6585-9. 
  5. ^ Critchley, Thomas Alan (1978). A History of Police in England and Wales. The Statute of Winchester was the only general public measure of any consequence enacted to regulate the policing of the country between the Norman Conquest and the Metropolitan Police Act, 1829… 
  6. ^ A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001
  7. ^ Philip McCouat, “Watchmen, goldfinders and the plague bearers of the night”, Journal of Art in Society,
  8. ^ Philip Rawlings, Policing: A Short History, Willan Publishing, 2002
  9. ^ McCouat, op. cit.
  10. ^ "Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine". Retrieved 2015-03-27. 
  11. ^ "Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine". Retrieved 2015-03-27. 

^ This can be verified by England's Old Bailey court records.

Further reading[edit]

  • David Barrie, Police in the Age of Improvement: Police Development and the Civic Tradition in Scotland, 1775-1865, Willan Publishing, 2008, ISBN 1-84392-266-5. Chapter "Watching and Warding", Google Print, p.34-41

External links[edit]