Who watches the watchmen?

Here’s some more evidence of how useful we have been finding our volunteers. Our volunteer Mavis recently wrote a fuller description of a volume in the archives that had previously been described in only three words: “Belper Watchman’s Journal”.  The full description, courtesy of Mavis, can be read on the catalogue, under reference D5917.

The first thing that had to change was the word watchman, which should have been watchmen.  There was not one of them, but a whole team, charged with keeping good order in the town overnight, and maintaining a record of the people they encountered as they patrolled the streets.  It had been a legal requirement to employ watchmen since 1233, but these records date from the 1840s, and the men were not, so far as I can tell, employed by the state.  (Please correct me if I’m wrong! I won’t mind.)  Instead, their wages were paid by textile giants the Strutt company, which owned such a high proportion of the property in Belper.  Among their principal duties was the checking of gas for street lighting and water levels.  This was not what I had been expecting to be told, so in curiosity I checked the catalogue for our Strutt collections and realised that there was a whole series of similar records which we received separately from D5917 (reference D6948/11).  The volume that Mavis had described was a sort of long-lost brother to the others.

An article of 1835, published in The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction, Volumes 25-26 (J. Limbird, 1835), gives a detailed description of the system devised by William Strutt to ensure diligence among the watchmen employed by the company.  The article states that the system had been emulated in Derby, and credits it with halving the number of watchmen required in that town, from twenty to ten.  The men walked separate rounds from 11pm to 5am.  Rather than carrying out the traditional watchman’s function of calling the hour, they were instructed to proceed silently and to use their lanterns “on urgent occasions” only.  In addition, the men’s routes and timings were periodically changed, with a combined effect of making it harder to predict the arrival of the watchman, who should therefore be better placed to detect bad behaviour.  The article continues:

In order to compel each watchman to go the route that is fixed for him at the times appointed, watch-clocks are provided at certain stations.  These clocks effect their object by means of certain pegs, each of which is required to be put down by a bolt within a quarter of an hour of the time fixed upon; and unless so put down, it remains up, and in the morning registers every quarter of an hour of neglected time.  The clocks are examined by a steady, responsible man every morning, and the results noted down in a book under the same number and route of each watchman.  If any one of them has omitted putting down a single peg, the superintendent copies the time and number of each omission in a book, which lies at the house where every clock is fixed, to enable the occupier of the house to examine if the superintendent enter [sic] those pegs right, which are missed, and into another book in which he copies all omissions and remarks.  These omissions are explained by the watchman to the superintendent every morning at five o’clock, and if he gives an account of his his having taken up disorderly persons, of having watched suspicious ones, or having been otherwise properly occupied … the omissions are allowed

Do bear in mind that this describes the system in Derby, but it is said to have been modelled on that of Belper, so it looks like this is a decent explanation of how these records were created.


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