Margate Crime and Margate Punishment
4. A Night Watch for Margate.
The early history of watching in Margate is obscure. The description of the responsibilities of the Margate constables given in Section 2, The Margate Constables, makes it clear that they were not expected to watch the town at night. The first unambiguous reference to a night watch occurs in 1812 , when, following a series of robberies, a meeting of inhabitants in the Town Hall resolved that ‘a nightly watch of Householders was highly necessary, and that it was the “indispensable duty of every honest man” to come forward, and enrol his name for that purpose, for the protection of their persons and property’.1 These resolutions were sent to the Commissioners who concluded: ‘it appears to be highly proper to establish a nightly watch and that much praise is due to such of the inhabitants who have enrolled their names with a view to effect so desirable a measure. A measure by which so much good may arise, and by so small an expense; the only suggestion which the Commissioners deem it necessary to offer to the plan and resolutions already adopted by the inhabitants is that such of the inhabitants as shall take the personal trouble of watching do receive such directions as Mr Cobb, Mr Sawkins and Mr Jarvis may offer to their attention. And the Commissioners hope and believe that every respectable inhabitant will enrol his name and promote so desirable a measure’.2 In fact, 213 of the inhabitants enrolled, with Messrs Cobb, Sawkins and Jarvis as ‘Directors’. The Kentish Gazette reported at the end of February 1812 that ’the town has been regularly patrolled ever since, from 11 at night to 5 in the morning, so that the peaceable inhabitants may now rest in perfect security’.1
It is hard to imagine, despite this initial enthusiasm, that many of the good citizens of the town would have turned out regularly on cold winter’s nights to patrol the streets. Indeed, the Commissioner’s Minute Book for December 1815 contains the brief note ’that the consideration of the nightly watch be deferred to the next meeting’ suggesting that all might not have been well.2 The next reports concerning a night watch date to 1833. In that year the government introduced the Lighting and Watching Act, designed to provide a cheap method whereby small towns could improve their policing. The Act specified that, if a parish vestry voted by a two-thirds majority to adopt the Act, they could then appoint inspectors to levy a parish rate, and pay for a local force to patrol the parish by day and night. Amongst the towns adopting the act was Ramsgate; Margate, however, did not adopt the Act.3 At the time Margate was divided over many issues and it would have been difficult to get a two-thirds majority for anything, particularly for something that was likely to cost the ratepayers money. The inhabitants might complain bitterly about crime and the lack of night watchmen, but they were not keen on paying for the necessary improvements. The Commissioners did though call a meeting of the inhabitants to discuss the possibility of a night watch:4
The Commissioners of Pavement feeling it to be desirable that an efficient NIGHT WATCH should be established during the Winter Months, the entire expense of which the Public Funds of the Town are not ample to meet, request such of the Inhabitants as may be disposed to subscribe in aid of maintaining WATCHMEN, to meet them at the TOWN HALL ON MONDAY NEXT, at TWELVE o’Clock at Noon precisely, to confer and determine upon the method of raising the necessary Funds for this object.
By Order of the Commissioners,
JAS. EDWD. WRIGHT, Clerk
Town Hall, November the 1st. 1833
Figure 1. Poster. Meeting to discuss a Night Watch in Margate, 1833.
The plan now was not that the good men of Margate should actually carry out the night watch themselves but that they should pay for others to do so. The plan was explained more fully in a letter dated 12 November 1833:4
Plan of the night watch is that five constables be employed — one on duty every night — two on Saturday nights — in the evening one or two others not on duty are looking about till near ten o’clock, but one only is paid — should any unforeseen occurrence take place the man on duty calls one or two others up to his assistance who are then paid for getting up.
This, apparently, was the plan of the night watch at Ramsgate, which was thought to work well.
A meeting of the Commissioners was called on 15 November to consider the result of the Public meeting.4 The Dover Telegraph reported that ‘in consequence of the numerous depredations lately committed in Margate, it is determined to establish an efficient police during the winter’.5 A week later the Commissioners were discussing the ’best system of watching the Town by Night, during the Winter Months, at an expense not exceeding three guineas a week’.4 The Kent Herald reported at the end of November that the new night watch had started, ‘in conjunction with a numerous band of volunteers, selected from the gentry and respectable tradesmen, who perform the duty in rotation each night in pairs’.6 The role of the ‘gentry and respectable tradesmen’ was not actually to patrol the streets; their role was to supervise the constables who would do the actual patrolling: ‘the principal tradesmen of the town take their turns nightly at the Town Hall, while the constables go out from time to time and report progress’.7 However, the Dover Telegraph was doubtful that this would work for long; the scheme had been thought up ‘to prevent a rate being made, whereby the poor would suffer’.7 Perhaps this was the scheme referred to by the Thanet Magistrates by which constables were paid to carry out night watch duties and which had ‘sometimes’ been in operation.8
In November 1837 the Kent Herald complained:9
The inefficiency of police is severely felt at Margate, petty depredations continually taking place. Night after night are the inhabitants disturbed by brawls in the streets. The felon, too, has an excellent opportunity of reaping rich harvests in the winter, as he can bring home his booty without fear of being disturbed or detected. Sheep stealing has commenced in the immediate neighbourhood, but as yet no clue to the depredators has taken place; surely something ought to be done by the inhabitants to check crime and protect property. A good system of night-watch and not a military gendarmerie ought to be established.
In December the Kent Herald renewed its complaint:10
Another depredation has taken place (being a second in course of the week) on the premises of — Smithett,esq., Salmstone: between 20 and 30 fowls were stolen on Sunday night or early on Monday morning from the hen-house, and although a large dog was chained close by, no noise was heard or the least alarm given; it is supposed the thieves are in possession of the secret of quieting dogs, as the one alluded to is a very ferocious animal.
Notwithstanding the many night brawls, and depredations continually taking place, no night-watch whatever has been appointed; if the Commissioners of the town have no funds for the maintenance of a night patrol, why not call a meeting of the inhabitants, and join themselves into a committee to collect subscriptions for the support of a watch, or to undertake the office themselves. We hope that local jealousies do not divert attention from this important object.
1. Kentish Gazette, February 25 1812.
2. Edward White, Extracts from the minutes of the Margate Commissioners Book 5, 29 May 1809 to 27 December 1815, Manuscript, Margate Library.
3. David Philips and Robert D. Storch, Policing Provincial England 1829-1856, Leicester University Press, London, 1999.
4. Kent Archives, U1453 060, Correspondence with J. E. Wright, Clerk of Commissioners, Bundle B 1833.
5. Dover Telegraph, November 16 1833.
6. Kent Herald, November 28 1833.
7. Dover Telegraph, November 30 1833.
8. National Archives, HO73/5 Box 2, Return of Justices of the Isle of Thanet to the Constabulary Force Commission.
9. Kent Herald, November 22 1837.
10. Kent Herald, December 21 1837.