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 watchman

The Problem of the Night[edit]

The streets in London were dark and had the shortage and poor quality of artificial light.[1] It had been recognized for centuries that the coming of darkness to the unlit streets of a town brought a heightened threat of danger, that the night cover to the disorderly and immortal, and to those bent on robbery or burglary or who in other ways threatened physical harm to people in the streets and in their houses.[2]

The anxieties that darkness gave rise to had been met by the formation of a night watch in the 13th century, and by the rules about who could use the streets after dark. These rules had for long been underpinned in London and other towns by the curfew, the time (announced by the ringing of a bell) at which the gates closed and the streets were cleared. Only people with good reason to be abroad could then travel through the City.[1] Anyone outside at night without reason or permission was potentially criminal and suspicious.[3]

Allowances were usually made for people who had some social status on their side. Lord Fielding clearly expected to pass through London’s streets untroubled at 1 am one night in 1641, and he quickly became piqued when his coach was stopped by the watch, shouting huffily that it was a ‘disgrace’ to top someone of such high standing as he, and telling the constable in charge of the watch that he would box him on the ears if he did not let his coach carry on back to his house. ‘It is impossible’ to ‘distinguish a lord from another man by the outside of a coach’, the constable said later in his defence, ‘especially at unreasonable times’.[4]

Formation of Watchmen[edit]

The Ordinance of 1233 required the appointment of watchmen.[5][6] 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.[7][8][9] 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.

After 1660 it seems that large numbers of men had avoided night-time service by paying for a substitute well before 1660. Substitution had become so common by the late 17th century that the night watch was virtually by then a fully paid force.[10] 

In October 1663 was promulgated  an act of Common Council, known as  ‘Robinson’s Act’ from the name of the sitting lord mayor, that confirmed the duty of all householders in the City to take their turn at watching in order ‘to keep the peace and apprehend night-walkers, malefactors and suspected persons’. For the most part the Common Council Act of 1663 reiterated the rules and obligations that had long existed. The number of watchmen required for each ward, it declared, was to be the number ‘established by custom’ – in fact, by an act of 1621. Even though it had been true before the civil war that the watch had already become a body of paid men, supported by what were in effect the fines collected from those with an obligation to serve, the Common Council did not acknowledge this in the confirming Act of 1663.[11]

The act of 1663 confirmed that watch on its old foundations, and left its effective management to the ward authorities. The important matter to be arranged in the wards was who was going to serve and on what basis. How the money was to be collected to support a force of paid constables, and by whom, were crucial issues.  The 1663 act left it to the ward beadle or a constable and it seems to have been increasingly the case that rather than individuals paying directly for a substitute, when their turn came to serve, the eligible householders were asked to contribute to a watch fund that supported hired man. [12]

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]


Night watchmen patrolled the streets between 9 or 10 pm until sunrise, and were expected to examine all suspicious characters.[13] Such controls continued to be exercised in the late 17th century. Guarding the streets to prevent crime, to watch out for fires, and - despite the absence of a formal curfew – to ensure that suspicious and unauthorized people did not prowl around under cover of darkness was still the duty of night watch and the constables who were supposed to command them.[14]

The principal task of the watch in 1660 and for long after continued to be the control of the streets at night imposing a form of mortal or social curfew that aimed to prevent those without legitimate reason to be abroad from wandering the streets at night. That task was becoming increasingly difficult in the 17th century because of the growth of the population and variety of ways in which the social and cultural life was being transformed. The shape of the urban day was being altered after the Restoration by the development of shops, taverns and coffee-houses, theatres, the opera and other places of entertainment. All these placed remained open in the evening and extended their hours of business and pleasure into the night.[15]

The watch was affected by this changing urban world since policing the night streets become more complicated when larger number of people were moving around. And what was frequently thought to be poor quality of the watch – and in time, the lack of effective lighting - came commonly to be blamed when street crimes and night-time disoders seemed to be growing out of control.[15]

Traditionally, householders served in the office of constable by appointment or rotation. During their year of office they performed their duties part-time alongside their normal employment. Similarly, householders were expected to serve by rotation on the nightly watch. From the late seventeenth century, however, many householders avoided these obligations by hiring deputies to serve in their place. As this practice increased, some men were able to make a living out of acting as deputy constables or as paid night watchmen. In the case of the watch, this procedure was formalised in many parts of London by the passage of "Watch Acts", which replaced householders' duty of service by a tax levied specifically for the purpose of hiring full-time watchmen. Some voluntary prosecution societies also hired men to patrol their areas.[13]


Watchmen on roads leading to London had a reputation for clumsiness in the late 1580s. It was a temptation on cold winter nights to slip away early from watching stations to catch some sleep. Constables in charge sometimes let watches go home early.’The late placing and early dischargering’ of night-watches concerned Common Council in 1609 and again 3 decades later when someone sent out to spy on watches reported that they ‘break up longe before they ought’. ‘The greatest parte of constables’ broke up watches ‘earlie in the morninge’ at exactly the time ‘when most danger’ was ‘feared’ in the long night, leaving the dark streets to thieves.[16]

We can imagine watchmen on chilly nights counting off the hours until sunrise. Alehouses offered and some warmth, even after curfew bells told people to drink up. A group of watchmen sneaked into a ‘vitlers’ house one night in 1617 and stayed ‘drinking and taking tabacco all night longe’.[17] Like other officers, watchmen could become the focus for trouble themselves, adding to the hullabaloo at night instead of ordering others to keep the noise down and go to bed. And as by day, there were more than a few crooked officers policing the streets at night, quite happy to turn a blind eye to trouble for I bribe. Watchman Edward Gardener was taken before the recorder with ‘a common nightwalker’ ­– Mary Taylor – in 1641 after hr ‘tooke 2s to lett’ her ‘escape’ when he was escorting her to Bridewell late at night. Another watchman from over the river in Southwark took advantage of the tricky situation people suddenly found themselves in if they stumbled into the watch, ‘demanding money [from them] for passing the watch’.[17]

Common complaint in the 1690s was that watchmen were inadequately armed. This was another aspect of the watch in the process of being transformed. The Common Council acts required watchmen to carry halbers essentially, a pike with an axe-blade attached – and some were still doing so in the late 17th century. But it seems clear that few did, because the halberd was no longer suitable for the work they were being called upon to do. It was more often observed that watchmen failed to carry them, and it is surey the case that the halberd was no longer a useful weapon for a watch that was supposed to be mobile. By the second quarter of the 18th century, watchmen were equipped with a staff, along with their lantern.[18]

Watch Houses[edit]

The Watchhouse, St Sepulcre’s, Smithfield

Another step in the right direction was building ‘watch howses’ as the country lurched towards revolution after 1640. A City committee was asked to look into the question ‘what watchhouses are necessary’ and where ‘for the safety of this cittye’ in 1642. Workmen began building watch houses in strategic spots soon after.They provided assembly-points for watchmen to gather to hear orders for the night ahead, somewhere to shelter from ‘extremitye of wind and weather’, and holding-placed for suspects until morning when justies examined the night’s catch. There were watch houses next to Temple Bar (1648), ‘neere the Granaryes’ by Bridewell (1648), ‘neere Moregate’ (1648), and next to St Paul’s south door (1649). They were not big; the one on St. Paul's side was 'a small house or shed'. This was a time of experimintation, and people(including those in authority) were learning how to make best use of these new structures in their midst.[19]

Policing the Night Streets[edit]

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.[20] 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.[21]

London had a system of night policing in place before 1660, although it was improved over the next century through better lightning, administrations, finances, and better and more regular salaries. But the essential elements of the night-watch were performing completely by the middle of the seventeenth century.[22]

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.[23][24]

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 [25][26]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Beattie, J. M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750. Oxford University Press. p. 169. ISBN 0-19-820867-7. 
  2. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London in 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 169. ISBN 0198208677. 
  3. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. Cambridge University Press. p. 333. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  4. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. Cambridge University Press. p. 335. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  5. ^ 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. 
  6. ^ 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.' 
  7. ^ Clarkson, Charles Tempest; Richardson, J. Hall (1889). Police!. pp. 1–2. OCLC 60726408. 
  8. ^ Delbrück, Hans (1990). Renfroe, Walter J., Jr, ed. Medieval Warfare. History of the Art of War 3. p. 177. ISBN 0-8032-6585-9. 
  9. ^ 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… 
  10. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London 1660'1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 0198208677. 
  11. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London in 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 175. ISBN 0198208677. 
  12. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London in 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 177. ISBN 0198208677. 
  13. ^ a b "Constables and the Night Watch". .oldbaileyonline. 
  14. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Polocing and Punishment in London 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 170. ISBN 0198208677. 
  15. ^ a b Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London in 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 172. ISBN 0198208677. 
  16. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press. pp. 354–355. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  17. ^ a b Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 355. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  18. ^ Beattie, J.M. (2001). Policing and Punishment in London in 1660-1750. Great Britain: Oxford University Press. p. 181. ISBN 0198208677. 
  19. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 359. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  20. ^ A. Roger Ekirch, At Day’s Close: A History of Nighttime, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2001
  21. ^ Philip McCouat, "Watchmen, goldfinders and the plague bearers of the night", Journal of Art in Society,
  22. ^ Griffiths, Paul (2010). Lost Londons Change, Crime, and Control in the Capital City, 1550-1660. New York: Cambridge University Press. p. 359. ISBN 9780521174114. 
  23. ^ Philip Rawlings, Policing: A Short History, Willan Publishing, 2002
  24. ^ McCouat, op. cit.
  25. ^ "Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine". Retrieved 2015-03-27. 
  26. ^ "Statutes & Constitution :View Statutes : Online Sunshine". Retrieved 2015-03-27. 

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

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]