Proactive policing: some evidence from newspapers

Since my previous blog post, I have been working on adding to my analysis of Old Bailey cases through analysing police court reports in newspapers. I presented some of this material at the British Crime Historians Symposium in Edinburgh at the weekend (6th-9th October 2016). In these newspaper reports, I am continuing to focus upon proactive arrests, or the occasions on which police made arrests based on suspicion that an offender had, or was about to commit a crime.

Seven Police or Magistrates’ courts with stipendiary magistrates were established in London in 1792; before this, magistrates were not paid, and made money from fees and rewards. Reports in newspapers of the proceedings of these courts detail both misdemeanours, which were dealt with summarily by the magistrates or heard at quarter sessions, and felony cases, where the magistrate examined the evidence before the offender was committed for trial. By synthesising these accounts with those from the Old Bailey, I will be able to analyse the reactions of policing agents to a range of different offenders. By ‘policing agents’, I am referring to all those whose official duties included a responsibility for detecting and arresting anyone who contravened the criminal law; not merely the Metropolitan Police officers, but also the watchmen, constables and officers who went before them.


Bow Street Magistrates’ Court. The court closed in 2006, and there are plans to convert it into a museum.

I have started to analyse police court reports in newspapers in a similar way to the Old Bailey Proceedings, which I discussed in a previous blog post. Starting with the sample period 1815-1850, I have chosen to examine reports in The Times and the Morning Post only. Reports were often duplicated across multiple newspapers, and I have found that these publications reported on proceedings at police courts most frequently and consistently across this period. Using online newspapers, I have been able to search for reports entitled ‘Police’ or ‘Police Intelligence’, in combination with terms for policing agents, and terms relating to the reasons for arrest in order to find relevant reports. Many of these reasons for arrest terms are the same as those that I identified in the Old Bailey Proceedings, but I think that newspaper reporters felt freer to use more pejorative and judgmental terms to comment on the character of offenders. I’m particularly interested in cases that appear both in a newspaper police court report and in the Old Bailey Proceedings, as this will enable me to establish how the reporting style varies directly. I have so far only come across a few examples of these, and they do not seem to offer strikingly different commentary, but I am sure I will come across more examples. I cannot yet offer any statistical discussion of the data but newspaper reports do not offer the same details as the Old Bailey Proceedings on offenders; ages are very rarely given, and so the nature of my analysis will be different. However, from the cases that I have gathered so far, a picture of mainly men being arrested on suspicion of theft by proactive policing agents has emerged.

I have found that many of the reasons given for arrests by policing agents in newspaper reports are similar to those given in the Old Bailey. For example, policing agents refer to how they knew the offender previously. In 1826, it was reported in The Times that before officer Marchant arrested Thomas Watkins, Thomas Coles and Richard Napp for pickpocketing, ‘he observed the prisoners in Newgate-street and knowing them to be bad characters, watched them’.[1]

In a report in the Morning Post in 1825, a Mr Laust complained that his pocket was picked in a large crowd at the ceremony for the opening of an Orphan Asylum, and while there were Bow Street Officers stationed around, they seemed reluctant to take any action. Mr Laust was surprised at this; he remarked that ‘if the Police reports were to be relied on, it was a very common occurrence for men of bad character to be apprehended as reputed thieves when found in a crowd’.[2] Although this was a rather flippant comment, it is very true that language such as ‘reputed’, ‘notorious’ or ‘noted thief’, and ‘infamous’, ‘bad’ or ‘suspicious character’ was frequently used in police court reports to explain the reasons why an offender was arrested. This comment is also interesting as it hints at the wide reach of such reports, and the ways in which they affected public perceptions of criminal justice and the roles of policing agents.

Police court reports in newspapers help to illustrate further the relationships between policing agents and offenders. In particular, these reports enhance my arguments about the criminal class, and the roles of policing agents in shaping wider contemporary perceptions of a criminal class. Police court reports in newspapers contain many references to criminal gangs such as the ‘Forty Thieves’ and the ‘swell mob’, and comments from magistrates on the ‘depravity’ and ‘depredation’ of those brought before them.[3] These reports provide more explicit commentary on contemporary fears of deviant behaviour in the ‘sinks of infamy’ of the metropolis than the Old Bailey Proceedings.[4] I will be tracing these ideas through as I continue the research, and will definitely find more examples of this kind of language. I will also be examining case studies of particularly proactive policing agents, and tracing their activities through the Old Bailey and police courts. Eventually, I will be synthesising my analysis of police court reports with my work on the Old Bailey Proceedings, so that I can examine the actions of policing agents towards offenders accused of a range of different offences. I would really welcome any suggestions or comments on my research and ideas, as I am in the very early stages of my analysis of newspaper reports.

[1] The Times, 16 Mar. 1826.

[2] The Morning Post, 18 Jun. 1825.

[3] See The Times, 22 Sept. 1835; The Morning Post, 15 Oct. 1803; The Morning Post, 23 Mar. 1803.

[4] See The Times, 5 Nov. 1821.

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