Regency England refers roughly to 1811 to 1820, although the term more broadly includes 1800 to 1830. When George III, stricken by illness, could no longer function, his eldest son, the Prince, became Regent in his stead. “The Regency took its tone from the larger-than-life figure of the Prince of Wales…The age bred a lively underworld of scandal, criminality, gambling and personal notoriety. Embezzlement and fraud flourished then as now. The war against France caused further instability and led to the breakdown of law and order.” (Low, Sutton, p. xxv)
Authors of crime stories, and mysteries–such as myself, must needs delve into the dangerous world of this time. Low says that London, England, “surpassed the rest of the British Isles in crime and vice.” (Low, p. xi) No police force, as such, existed until the Victorian period, adding to this instability. The growth of the underworld had begun in the eighteenth century (Georgian period). In London, Henry Fielding became a salaried Chief Magistrate for Westminster in 1749. He established the Bow Street group, whose men became known as the Bow Street Runners. Henry’s brother, Sir John Fielding, carried on the work, and by the time of the Regency the work of the Runners had expanded considerably.
London embodied a complex world in the Regency. Crime abounded in many forms and areas. From gambling hells frequented by the wealthy, who also used the services of the deminondaines, or better class prostitutes, to the prostitutes who haunted the area of the Drury Lane and Covent Garden theaters, the area of murderers and escaped convicts–crime held precedence. Dark streets encouraged thieves and pickpockets, (gas lighting was installed on a few streets in Pall Mall in 1807) so that the public was targeted, and gently bred females did not go about at nights without the protection of men. Few from the West End traveled to the East end without good reason, and a fully loaded pistol, or two.
Thieves came from the East End ‘Rookeries,’ or criminal districts such as St. Giles and Whitechapel. In these dens of criminality, ‘flash houses’ flourished. These were numerous pubs haunted by criminals who taught childlren thievery, pickpocketing, burglary and worse crimes. Bribery, extortion, and blackmail were rampant. While the gangland bosses ruled this part of the city, the brothel keepers ruled young, unfortunate women, who found their way to them.
South of the Thames River, the home of wild gin-drinking orgies of prostitutes and drunkards, was the home also, of the ‘Resurrection Men,’ who sold cadavers to surgeons, and were not averse to killing to accomplish it, although grave robbing was their ‘forte.’ The Thames itself, was plied by seamen, called ‘River Men,’ who pilfered warehouses, docks and ships.
All of this crime kept the Bow Street Runners on their toes, since the night watchmen were ineffective. In 1800 the Thames River Police Act was established. In 1805, a Bow Street Horse Patrol of sixty men rode on Hounslow Heath–a notorious center for Highwaymen, who terrorized travelers. Many wanted reform, but Bills put forward were slow coming into effect, so crime continued high until the Victorian period when a Police force came into being. You can see what my heroes and heroines had to deal with as they battled crime.