How were the police expected to deal with ‘suspicious persons’?

This material is drawn from the chapter that I am currently writing, which explores the roles and responsibilities of the various different policing agents in Metropolitan London between 1780 and 1850, as set out by the authorities. By ‘the authorities’, I mean their employers, the government and those who set out official roles and descriptions: what were the policing agents expected to do? In particular, I’m interested in how they were expected to police the ‘suspicious persons’ who I identified in the Old Bailey Proceedings and newspaper reports, and who I have discussed in previous blog posts. My evidence suggests that throughout this period, policing agents were expected to identify and pursue ‘suspicious persons’, but that the definition of a ‘suspicious person’ became clearer and more specific over time, particularly through the Vagrancy Acts and later under the Metropolitan Police. I believe that this reflects a growing perception that there was a ‘criminal class’, who were believed to be responsible for the majority of criminal activity.

To briefly recap, I am using the term ‘policing agents’ to refer to all those whose official duties included a responsibility for detecting and arresting anyone who contravened the criminal law, both before and after the Metropolitan Police. Before the Metropolitan Police, London was policed by a variety of parish constables, watchmen, patrols, and other officers. Under the Vagrancy Acts, these agents were empowered to arrest a range of ‘suspicious persons’. The term ‘Vagrancy Acts’ encompasses various statutes passed on vagrancy, of which there were 28 passed between 1700 and 1824.[1] ‘Vagrants’ were not only the homeless or displaced, but also those with unusual itinerant occupations, such as travelling actors, and the legislation was used more widely to criminalise the poorest sections of society, who were without work and believed to be a threat to social stability. They were convicted as ‘idle and disorderly persons’, or as ‘rogues and vagabonds’ if this was a repeat offence, and could be punished through short sentences in the House of Correction, and removal to their parish of settlement.


Fig. 1: Marcellus Laroon, from ‘Cries of London’ ©City of London: London Metropolitan Archives

According to the 1752 Vagrancy Act, policing agents were ‘required to apprehend and secure all suspicious persons they shall find lurking and loitering about the Streets, Alleys, Passages, or other Places within their respective Districts, at unseasonable Hours’, and those under ‘Suspicion of Felony (although no direct Proof be then made thereof)’ could be held for a week while evidence was gathered.[2] In 1783, the definition of idle and disorderly persons was extended to include anyone who was found with ‘any Picklock Key, Crown, Jack, Bit or other Implement whatever, which may be used for the purpose of breaking and entering’. The 1792 Middlesex Justices Act provided for ‘ill-disposed and suspected Persons, and reputed Thieves’, who ‘frequent the Avenues to Places of Publick Resort, and the Streets and Highways, with Intent to commit Felony’ to be convicted as rogues and vagabonds, if witnesses confirm that they are a ‘reputed Thief’ or of ‘evil Fame’.[3] Finally, the 1824 Vagrancy Act permitted the arrest of ‘every person being found in or upon any dwelling-house, warehouse, coach-house’ ‘for any unlawful purpose’.[4] These statutes explain that definitions of ‘suspicious persons’ related to their character, behaviour, supposed intention, and where they were found. This language is really interesting, as it is very similar to that used in Old Bailey and Police Court trials by policing agents to explain why they made arrests.

In metropolitan London, parish constables were expected to police these ‘suspicious persons’. The roles and expectations placed upon these constables, who were the core policing force, were set out in published guides for constables. For example, Hallifax’s ‘The Constable’s Sure Guide’, published in 1791, stated that constables should arrest ‘all suspicious persons that go abroad in the night, and sleep by day, or resort to bawdy-houses, or keep suspicious company’.[5] Suspicious behaviour was very closely related to night-time activity, and the guides explain that constables may arrest those suspected of carrying stolen goods at night, or merely strangers who pass through the neighbourhood. As I have already discussed in a previous post, contemporaries feared that the majority of criminal activity took place at night, and much policing rhetoric was directed to this concern.

Night watchmen, as the title suggests, were specifically appointed to deal with the dangers of criminal activity at night-time. The Watch Acts stated that watchmen were authorised and required ‘to apprehend all Night-walkers, Malefactors, Rogues, Vagabonds, and all disorderly Persons, whom they shall find disturbing the public Peace, or shall have just Cause to suspect of any evil Designs’.[6] The 1751 Act explained further that watchmen are ‘authorised to apprehend and secure all suspected Persons, that they shall find lurking and loitering about the Streets, Alleys, and other Passages, at unseasonable Hours, who shall not give a satisfactory Account of themselves’.[7] These Acts demonstrate that, upon their establishment, watchmen were expected to take proactive roles in apprehending ‘suspicious persons’ whom they encountered in the areas of the metropolis that they were responsible for. In addition to watchmen and constables, there were patrols and other officers who were expected to monitor the presence of ‘suspicious persons’ on the streets of the metropolis.

As we have seen, those liable to be arrested and suspected as ‘suspicious persons’ included those carrying bundles or objects, particularly at night, those with tools that could be used to break into houses, those who appeared idle or aimless (‘loitering’ or ‘lurking’), and those who were perceived to be intending to commit a felony or misdemeanour. These characteristics reflect a contemporary belief that there was a ‘criminal class’, a sub-class of the lower orders of society, who were characterised by itinerant behaviour and suspicious appearance, and were responsible for the majority of criminal activity. In my next blog post, I will explore how the Metropolitan Police dealt with ‘suspicious persons’, and the clarification of ideas of a ‘criminal class’ into the 19th century.

[1] See N Rogers, ‘Policing the poor in eighteenth-century London: the vagrancy laws and their administration’, Histoire Sociale / Social History, 24 (1991) and T Hitchcock, ‘The London vagrancy crisis of the 1780s’, Rural History, 24:1 (2013) for further discussion of vagrancy legislation in this period, and also the London Lives background pages:

[2] 1752 Vagrancy Act.

[3] 1792 Middlesex Justices Act.

[4] 1824 Vagrancy Act.

[5] Charles Hallifax, The Constable’s Sure Guide; or, Every Constable his own Lawyer (London, 1791), p. 14.

[6] 1737 City of London Watch Act.

[7] 1751 Westminster Watch Act.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s