Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A Shocking Catalogue of Human Depravity: Patrick Colquhoun and cataloging of 18th-century London Crime

For the bulk of English history, organized and centralized law enforcement was conspicuously lacking, even in London, a city hardly free from crime. Even as the population of the city in the mid-18th century grew to over a half-million souls, policing was a scatter-shot and limited affair due to various cultural factors, including the English population’s inherent distrust of the concept of centralized and organized police forces. As Mary Simsonsen covered in the EFHA blog last month, the latter half of the 18th century and the 19th century finally saw the rise of centralized and organized police forces.

In the social, legal, and cultural struggles that led to the rise of these forces, those who wanted more organized police forces first had to persuade the populace, and those in positions of influence, that such groups were even needed. One key player in that task was Patrick Colquhoun.

Colquhoun was, among other things, a former Lord Provost of Glasgow, businessman, and trader. Toward the end of the 18th century, he became particularly interested in the issue of crime and became a magistrate in London. During this time he explored the links between crime and socioeconomic factors. One of his chief concerns was the idea of preventive policing. He felt that the mere presence of more professional police, particularly in areas and around people associated with crime, would contribute to a reduction in crime. While many, if not all modern police forces, make heavy use of this concept, at the time it was considered a bit more radical in England.

It’s not necessarily that the English didn’t believe in the idea of preventative policing or think it couldn’t work, but more that they were very concerned the cost to personal liberty would not be worth it. The English of the time distrusted the idea of centralized and organized police almost as much as they did large standing armies. The French had such a system, which also included heavy spying on the public, something that did little to raise the esteem of the concept among the English public.

Colquhoun's studies led him to write several works on the subject, the most influential of which was his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis. In this work he strongly argued for the need for centralized police authorities. While that concept was not unique at the time or pioneered by Colquhoun, his book was unusual in that it attempted to bolster his argument by giving detailed statistics on the state of crime of London. Indeed, he referred to the Treatise as a “shocking catalogue of human depravity” and hoped that his data would show that police reform wasn’t just a good idea but a necessity to save a city sliding into immoral decay.

The Treatise didn’t just give simple numbers of criminals. It broke down crimes into specific categories to let the full range of criminality be known. For example:

“1. Professed Thieves, Burglars, Highway Robbers, Pick-Pockets and River Pirates, who are completely corrupted; —many of whom have finished their education in the Hulks, and some at Botany Bay: N.B. There will be an increase of this class on the return of Peace, now estimated at about: 2000.”

Hulks, incidentally, were prison ships. Botany Bay was the name of an Australian penal colony (even though the actual colony ended up being located elsewhere).

Everything from gambling foreigners to gin-drinkers were included. Some categories are a bit uncomfortable for modern readers in that they may be more reflective the prejudices of the time necessarily than objective presentations of criminality, such as counts of “itinerant Jews … holding out temptations to pilfer and steal." Of course, the world’s oldest profession was included:

“20. Unfortunate Females of all descriptions, who support themselves chiefly or wholly by prostitution: 50,000.”

In total, he came up with a total of 115,000 people who were “supposed to support themselves in and near the metropolis by pursuits either criminal — illegal — or immoral.” The population of London at that the time was a little over 950,000. He also included detailed information on the estimated losses to the public from theft, fraud, robbery, et cetera. For example, he claimed that Thames-related thefts alone totaled over 500,000 pounds a year, which, depending on what estimate of inflation one uses, would be between 40-400 million in today’s pounds.

The numbers, both crimes and monetary losses, shocked the public. Many people dismissed them and claimed Colquhoun was exaggerating. It’s hard for us to judge the accuracy of the figures. He was attempting to do a systematic analysis, but various modern tools, such as advanced statistical sampling and population error analysis, weren’t available to him.

Colquhoun based his numbers mostly on sampling from his time as a magistrate. He even went so far to suggest that his numbers were actually low-ball estimates as he excluded certain classes of “delinquency” that might still account for a significant number of people.

Whether or not Colquhoun’s numbers were completely accurate, they had a tremendous impact. Many people began to see more of a need for police. That being said, the culture was still very much against centralized policing. A strong and centralized police force, it was feared, would run rough-shod over the rights and freedoms of the citizens. Although various additional social factors, government bureaucracy, and Napoleon pulled attention away and effort away from the idea of strengthening, organizing, and centralizing police by the government, merchants worried about river thefts took notice.

Colquhoun, with the aid of influential utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham and John Harriot, a Justice of the Peace and mariner, secured funding in 1797 to form a professional Thames River Police force to help curtail the rampant cargo theft afflicting the Thames and merchants.

While it might seem odd on first brush that a philosopher was involved in the formation of the police force, it’s important to note that utilitarian ideas concerning cost-benefit analysis of moral and ethical issues, along with its emphasis on careful analysis, were very influential on Colquhoun’s approach to criminology. Bentham himself was considerably interested in social reform, and the reform of crime and punishment was part of that.

The River Police were based heavily on the ideas of preventive policing. Although this police force met with extreme resistance and even violence on occasion, they were successful enough that the government would eventually take control of them and make them into a public policing entity by 1800. The influence of the Treatise itself would be cited in later decades as more generalized centralized organized public police forces were formed.


  1. There's an interesting historical novel about the River Police by Patrick Easter called "The Watermen".