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A thief-taker and a gentleman

It's the 1720s and you are a young gentleman from a good and respectable family who has just finished his studies at university. You have a couple of routes open to you. You could go home to your family in the country, carry on with further study or you could go to the capital. London was a huge draw for a young gentleman of the time. There are gentlemen’s clubs, gambling dens, balls, theatres and other entertainments. It was a good time to be a wealthy young man.


On the other hand, London was also a poor, desperate and dangerous place for those that didn’t have money, education or status. The capital had a large amount of crime. There was no organised police force and there wouldn’t be one for over one hundred years, and the system for catching and prosecuting criminals was based on policies dating from 1285. These involved the 'hue and cry' which worked on the assumption that the public would come to the aid of people shouting for help if a crime taking place. There were also night watchmen - unpaid local men that would patrol the streets at night. They were meant as a deterrent more than a means of catching criminals.


Then there were the constables whose job it was to keep order and arrest suspects and criminals. The constable was an unpaid position that lasted a year. During that year you also had to carry on with your regular job. As you can imagine, a constable didn’t have much motivation to actively fight crime unless they knew they would get an arrest and receive a reward. Another option for a victim of theft was putting a description of the criminal in a newspaper. This might lead to an arrest or even the return of property. None of this was great news for those that had a crime committed against them. If the criminal got away you had little options to pursue justice.


So you are this gentleman in the big smoke and you are having the time of your life. After a night out you notice that your pocket watch has been stolen. You have a few watches but this was your favourite and you want it back; you want the blackguard that stole it to face justice. As you were unable to catch them in the act or see the thief your options are limited. The constables are probably going to be useless, and you can't post a description in the newspapers as you didn’t see the thief. So what can you do? Well, as you have the money you do have another option - you can afford to engage a thief-taker.

Thief-takers came about because the government decided to issue rewards to those who secured convictions, due to the increasing rate of crime in London. This made thief-taking a very attractive occupation. They would receive a reward for every criminal that was brought to justice. It was very lucrative as victims would also give rewards for the return of property. This might seem like a good development at a time when there was no police. However, there were extensive issues with thief-takers. They were not all good and honest people. There was a lot of corruption as thief-takers did not hold an official position and so could not be held to account for their actions. There are quite a few ways that thief-takers could take advantage of their position to earn more money.


They might have chosen to blackmail criminals with the threat of arrest and would even offer to protect criminals from being arrested (for a price). They could pay criminals to give evidence against other criminals so that they would get the reward for the conviction. They might have innocent people arrested and convicted in order to claim the reward. They might even be the ones to commit crimes so that they could get the reward for returning stolen items.


It’s not a surprise then that a lot of thief-takers started life as criminals and moved into thief-taking to give themselves legitimacy. One way that many became thief-takers was to give evidence against other criminals in order to get a royal pardon for a crime they themselves had committed.


Ok, you have a plan: you will hire a thief-taker to get your pocket watch back. Which one will you hire? There are quite a few to choose from but the two most famous are Jonathan Wild and Charles Hitchen.


Jonathan Wild A.K.A the “Thief-Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland”: As a gentleman you would have heard good things about Wild. He was very good at returning stolen items and had his own set of agents working for him. He was well known for successfully catching criminals. He is so good that he has even been consulted by the government on crime! What you wouldn’t know was that he was a thoroughly bad guy. He used his legitimate front as a thief-taker to hide his own criminal activities. His 'agents' were just his gang of criminals and pickpockets. He would use these gang members to steal items to be returned for a reward. If it was possible he would blackmail victims of crimes. Wild was able to control his gang through fear. At the time it was difficult and risky to sell stolen items. His gang would sell in relative safely to Wild who would give them a cut. If Wild found out that a gang member sold elsewhere he could and would have them arrested for being thieves. If they were then prosecuted, Wild would receive a £40 reward (a skilled builder earned only £28 per year). Wild would also use his gang to apprehend rivals to his criminal empire. His empire would eventually fall. He was arrested for breaking a gang member out of jail. Once his gang realised that he was not going to escape justice they turned on him and brought evidence against him at his trial. He was found guilty and hanged at Tyburn in 1725.


Charles Hitchen didn’t have a cool nom de guerre although others called him 'Madam' and 'your ladyship. What would you know of him? Hitchen was not just a thief-taker but an under marshall for the Mayor of London. This was a position people would bid on to become and Hitchen paid £700 for the post. He was to help clean up the streets of London of prostitutes, beggars and vagrants among other duties.


He was actually a predecessor of Wild (who at one point was his assistant). Hitchen was up to the same sort of villainy as Wild. He was blackmailing, buying stolen goods to sell back to victims and also had his own gang of pickpockets. As a gentleman, you might be aware of him; he was suspended from being an under marshall after 10 months due to his crude and dishonourable actions but was reinstated due to the worry that people wouldn’t want to bid on other positions in the future if the position could be revoked.


Hitchen and Wild had a volatile relationship, both writing pamphlets about each other’s criminal dealing. Hitchen didn’t survive much longer after the death of his rival. He was put on trial in the Old Bailey in 1727 for sodomy, acquitted but convicted of attempted sodomy. He could have ended up hanged at Tyburn like Wild. Instead, he was sentenced to six months in prison and one hour in the pillory. The pillory was a dangerous punishment and Hitchen didn’t last the full hour. He was taken down early due to the severity of the beatings and the missiles thrown at him. The point was not for the person in the pillory to die. He was taken to spend the rest of his sentence at Newgate prison. Just before his release, he was dismissed as an under marshall for his crime and also for neglecting his post while in prison. He died shortly after leaving Newgate in 1727.

Let’s get back to getting your watch back. Well, first off, put an article in the paper saying that there is a reward for its return. State that it has been lost, as you don’t want the chaps at the club to know that you have been a victim of crime. Once that is done, get in touch with Jonathan Wild because as far as you know, he is the best. Then sit back and wait for the watch to be returned to you.


Eh? Was that a knock at your door? It’s Jonathan Wild!! But you haven’t even written the article. What does he want? Well, as it turns out, the person that picked your pocket was working for Wild. Wild has come to collect a reward for 'finding' the watch. Hold on, he wants something else. Turns out that when you were pickpocketed you were in an unrespectable establishment and you don’t want your parents to find out otherwise you might have to leave London for the boring countryside and have your allowance taken off you. So you pay Wild the reward money and the blackmail money. You have your pocket watch back but it is not quite the joyous occasion you thought it would be!

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