Portrait of Lynn Shepherd

Lynn Shepherd

Regency ‘Crime Scene Investigation’: Talking about thief takers

There were two big challenges in writing Murder at Mansfield Park, and they’re summed up in the title of the book. The first was creating an accurate and convincing version of Jane Austen’s own language and idiom, and the second (and in many ways the most fun) was producing an authentic Regency murder mystery.

When I started writing, I didn’t know very much about how a violent (and extremely aristocratic) killing would have been investigated in 1811, when the novel is set. I knew there was nothing we would now recognise as a police force –London didn’t get its first ‘bobbies’ until 1829, and the provinces were much later. But as I did more and more research, I realised that people who’d been the victims of a violent crime had precious few alternatives open to them – as one historian has said, the system at the time was extraordinarily ‘fragmented and inept’. There were the parish constables, of course, but this was often little more than an honorary position, and the elderly men who invariably performed the role would have been little or no use faced with a serious crime like rape or murder.  So if you didn’t catch the perpetrator red-handed, your only real options were to post a reward for information in the local newspaper, or pay – very handsomely – for someone to conduct an investigation on your behalf.

This is where the ‘thief takers’ came in: private citizens functioning, in effect, as licensed bounty hunters. The profession – if we can call it that – dates back to the 17th century, when Parliament set a scale of ‘no win, no fee’ rewards for the apprehension of ‘most wanted’ criminals, such as coiners or highwaymen. At that time catching a highwayman was worth £40, and you also got to keep his money, weapons, and horse. Thief takers operated in the shadowy world between the criminals and the law, negotiating between thieves and their victims to return stolen goods for a fee (hence the name). The most famous and infamous of them all was the self-styled ‘Thief Taker General of England and Ireland’, Jonathan Wild, who dominated London’s criminal underworld in the early 1720s. He set up an office where victims of robbery could register the details of their lost possessions, which Wild would then undertake to recover. But what many of his clients didn’t realise was that Wild was also running a very lucrative sideline as a receiver of stolen goods, so more often than not he either had their missing property himself already, or knew who did.

It may sound like nice work if you can get it, but thief taking was a notoriously dangerous undertaking – by the time he was hanged in 1725, Wild had two skull fractures and a plate in his head, and had survived having his throat cut. Wild’s notorious career was one of the main reasons why the thief taking system became so unpopular with more law-abiding citizenry – many people felt it caused more crime than it solved, and some thief takers even became ‘thief makers’ by encouraging gullible men to commit crimes, and then informing on them and claiming the reward. But the bald fact was that English criminal justice couldn’t function without them – they got results even if their methods didn’t bear too much scrutiny.

It was this growing public dissatisfaction with the whole thief taking system that led directly to the founding of the Bow Street Runners in 1748. If Tom Jones is Henry Fielding’s great achievement as a novelist, the Runners were the equivalent for his career as a magistrate.  Fielding started out as a group of half a dozen ‘official’ thief takers, who he would send out to track down and arrest culprits when a crime was reported. They would often travel across the country in pursuit of their quarries, and some occasionally got involved in solving crimes on the outskirts of London – in the 1780shalf a dozen Runners were involved in arrests in Essex, and a Runner called Patrick McManus made £24 from 4 arrests (up to £2,500 in today’s money).

Thanks largely to the establishment of the Runners, detection became a lot more professional in the second half of the 18th century. By the 1780s they had developed the sort of techniques we would recognize today, including interrogating witnesses, examining crime scenes, and checking alibis. They’re also known to have used ID parades, and to have traced offenders through lodging house receipts, or vehicle registration numbers! One of the more celebrated Runners, Charles Jealous, was even said to be able to tell country mud from city mud on a highwayman’s boots.

My Charles Maddox is a former Runner who’s set up a (very lucrative) business on his own account. He’s also a man very much after Jealous’s heart – more like a modern private investigator, than a thief taker in the strict sense of the term. All the same, he has a very different background and ethical code from the fine folk at Mansfield Park, and bursts upon the elegant Austen landscape with all the force of an asteroid hit…


This post was originally written for the excellent Austen-related website http://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/