‘An unseemly hour’: time of day for arrests

In a previous blog post, I briefly mentioned the role that the time of the day played in arrests and detection of ‘suspicious behaviour’ on the streets of London. Policing agents explained that their suspicion was aroused when they saw individuals ‘lurking’ or ‘loitering’ at an ‘unseemly hour’ or ‘at that time of the night’.[1] I was interested to explore these ideas further. It has long been acknowledged that contemporaries feared that the majority of criminal activity took place during the night, and policing reforms reflect this concern. In the 18th century, there were extensive reforms to the night watch and street lighting provision, and when the Metropolitan Police force was established in 1829, the majority of resources were devoted to night time patrolling, with 2/3 of the force employed between 10pm and 6am.[2] However, there has been little systematic work on the time of day that criminal behaviour was detected, and arrests were made. Were these contemporary fears of the night justified?

I examined the time of day recorded for the detection of ‘suspicious behaviour’, or the arrest of the offender in my set of policing cases from the Old Bailey. This is a selected group of cases, reflecting ‘proactive policing’ or the occasions on which a policing agent made an arrest because they saw the offender behaving suspiciously, or actually committing a crime (rather than acting based on information), which I have discussed in previous posts. Eventually, I would like to compare the time of day reported for arrests in these cases with a wider sample from the Old Bailey Proceedings, but these cases are revealing of certain policing practices. I have plotted a graph showing the cases (represented by blue dots) where a precise time and date was given, with overlaid lines showing the times of dawn, sunrise and sunset and dusk.[3] The time of arrest or detection was not given in all of my selection of cases, but I have the data for about 70% of my cases, 466 cases. The first point to note is that it shows that the majority of crimes took place in what can broadly be defined as ‘night’; after sunset and before sunrise.


Looking beyond this, it is striking that a high number of arrests took place between 5pm and 8pm. These cases account for 30% of the total number with recorded times. This could represent criminal activities and practices; perhaps that many of these offenders were opportunistic, and stole at the end of the working day. Hans-Joachim Voth has suggested, using evidence from the Old Bailey Proceedings, that the average working day in the early 1800s was from about 6:30am to 7pm.[4] In the winter months, many poor petty thieves were motivated by need.

However, I believe that this evidence is really reflective of policing practices, more than criminal practices. Policing agents systematically arrested ‘suspicious characters’ at this time of day. As you can see from the graph, most of these evening arrests took place in the winter months, when it would have been dark at this time. The data that I used for the times of dawn and dusk are the times for ‘civil twilight’, after which time in the evening it is difficult to make out objects without artificial light. This falls only about 40 minutes after sunset, and so not many cases fall within the bracket between sunset and dusk. Using this data suggests that most of the cases took place when it was dark outside.

I am still working on establishing the connection between these arrests and policing practices. Watchmen, for example, generally did not commence their duty until 9pm or 10pm, depending on the time of year, and so cannot have been responsible for these arrests. Under the Metropolitan Police, beats began after sunset, but I am still researching the precise times. Constables and other officers were perhaps more likely to make arrests at the end of their daytime shifts, at 6 or 7pm, because they would not have to neglect their beat in order to take the offender before a magistrate or to the police office. It seems clear that the arrest of ‘suspicious characters’ in the evening was a significant part of policing practices for some policing agents. Next, I am going to explore the policing agents responsible for these arrests, and look at the language of the trials; how did policing agents explain these arrests, and did they include the time of day as a factor? This is an area of research that I am only just beginning to explore fully, and so I would really appreciate any comments or ideas for new approaches!

[1] Old Bailey Proceedings Online (www.oldbaileyonline.org, version 7.0, 26 October 2016), October 1790, trial of Edward Lowe, William Jobbins (t17901027-17); OBPO, September 1788, trial of Ann Berry (t17880910-26).

[2] See JM Beattie, Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (Oxford, 2001); C Emsley, The English Police: a Political and Social History (Hemel Hempstead, 1991).

[3] The data for the times of sunset, sunrise, dawn and dusk for London in 1815 was obtained from ‘Sun or Moon Rise/Set Table for One Year’, Astronomical Applications Department of the US Naval Observatory, http://aa.usno.navy.mil/data/docs/RS_OneYear.php [accessed 24 October 2016].

[4] Hans-Joachim Voth, ‘Time and Work in Eighteenth-Century London’, The Journal of Economic History, 58:1 (1998), p. 33.

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