The division of the medieval town into wards to maintain law and order was traditional but ratified and enforced by gild ordinances and other medieval documents. The Statute of Westminster (1285) required that the gates of all walled towns should be closed from sunset to sunrise, and that no strangers could lodge in the town unless their host be responsible for them. The bailiffs were to make enquiries once a week concerning all inmates of the towns and watches were to be set proportional to the size of the population.
In the 16th century the alderman for each ward was aided by a sergeant and four or five ‘vinteners’ (or under officers) in setting watches and keeping the peace. At times of emergency these officers were supplemented by other volunteers and the watches could be increased.
By 1700, for the enforcement of its authority and the maintenance of law and order the corporation relied upon two annually elected constables, twelve beadles (two for each of the six parishes), who acted as assistant constables, and a night watch of ten men. In addition there were four town sergeants who supervised the town’s prisons.
The Paving Commissioners, set up by an act of 1770, were charged with, amongst other things, improving the lighting and watching of the town. However, the great population increase that began in the 18th century and gathered pace in the 19th highlighted the deficiencies in the system and although the numbers of watchmen and constables were gradually increased they were ineffective against a rising tide of crime and nuisance.
Southampton Police Force was established in 1836 and took over the responsibilities of the town watch.
History of Southampton, by Rev. J. S. Davies, p120-123. (HS/h)
Minute Book of the Pavement Commissioners of Southampton 1770-89, by Jan Stovold (ed). (HS/ln)
History of Southampton Vol. 1, by A. Temple Patterson, p20-21, 50-52, 106, 140-142. (HS/h)
History of Southampton Vol. 2, by A. Temple Patterson, p25. (HS/h)
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