The Regency Criminal Underworld

January 7, 2016 8:04 am by

images-2The Georgian and Regency periods have always been my favourite for their grace, sophistication, and, sometimes, the extravagant flamboyance of their architecture and interiors.

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.

e75e3520bab2b5f16c6ceb43ac167b78-1Crime 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.

images-1In 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.

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4 responses to “The Regency Criminal Underworld”

  1. Margaret Powling says:

    This has arrived in the post today, Charlotte. So looking forward to it! Have mentioned it to my cousin who also enjoys your books, so she will buy the download for her Kindle, I’ve no doubt.
    All good wishes,
    Margaret

  2. I do hope you like it – it was interesting to write and the first I’ve written from two points of view. The contrast between the two societies living side by side is what fascinated me. All best wishes.

  3. Margaret Powling says:

    Abut half-way through the novel and trying not to read it too quickly because I know it will be a little while before the next! Loving the characters … the story is very much character led, which is as it should be. And I love the juxtaposition of the wealthy and the extremely poor, living cheek by jowl. You have certainly brought vividly to life the scale of the corruption at that time and the need for a reliable and trustworthy police force. As with your first two novels, which highlighted first the Plague and the Great Fire of London, and the Glorious Revolution, you have written not only an excellent and page-turning story, but one which highlights the real social problems in early 19th century Britain.
    Margaret P

  4. Hello Margaret! Thank you so much for commenting and I’m pleased you are enjoying the new book. It is a fascinating period, so elegant on one hand but the contrast in how the poor survived is stark. Sometimes I think I’d like to live in the past but researching this novel has made me think again!

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