The Regency Criminal Underworld
Once I decided to set The House in Quill Court in the Regency era I began to research what it was like to live in London at that time. Very soon I became fascinated by the contrast between the elegant drawing rooms of the newly built townhouses, set around peaceful garden squares, and the gin shops and brothels in the warrens of squalid rookeries surrounding the city, where the underworld was based. Two completely different societies co-existed in the city.
Crime had reached epidemic proportions and there seemed to be no way of controlling the criminal underworld. Burglary was so common many householders were unable to leave their homes for any period of time without taking elaborate precautions. In the streets you were likely to be jostled by a predatory group of prostitutes or set upon by footpads and cutpurses.
While researching the novel, I was astonished to discover that there was no centralised police force until 1829. Previously, provision of law enforcement was patchy and corrupt, to say the least, and organised crime was growing out of control.
In the mid eighteenth century Henry Fielding had established a centre for law enforcement in Bow Street and over the years the number of people it employed increased. Experienced thief-takers who were fleet of foot became known as Bow Street Runners and could be employed by private citizens. By the end of the century some of the Runners, who didn’t receive a salary, were acting as middlemen, negotiating the return of stolen goods in exchange for a fee paid to the criminal. Sometimes the law enforcers took bribes or framed petty thieves in order to claim a reward.
In 1792 seven new Public Offices, managed along the same lines as Bow Street and manned by stipendiary magistrates appointed by the Crown, were opened. Each had six law enforcement officers but these men often owed their appointment to highly placed acquaintances rather than any special or appropriate skills of their own.
This sometimes corrupt, and often ineffective, force was reformed by Sir Robert Peel in his Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. From then on the Metropolitan Police employed salaried officers, and attempts to contain criminal activities became centralised within the city.
In 1814, however, when The House in Quill Court is set, the power and arrogance of the underworld gang leaders went virtually unchallenged and a co-ordinated attempt to administer justice was still a distant dream.