Recording Uttlesford History 

A Study of Prosecution Associations in Essex in the 18th & 19th centuries, with special reference to the Clavering Hundred
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The Saffron Walden Historical Journal was launched in 2001 by the Saffron Walden Historical Society and all issues to date have been kept in print. It is now proposed to discontinue reprints of the early issues and instead provide the articles online, via the Recorders of Uttlesford website. Articles are reproduced by kind permission of the authors and remain the copyright of the Journal. Their publication on this website does not constitute permission to copy into any other medium, without the express permission of the Editor, who can be contacted through this website. Permission will normally be granted for non-commercial usage. The articles may be used for educational and research purposes by bona fide researchers. They can be found either under the place to which they relate or, if covering a wider area, under the Uttlesford history section. Further articles will be added twice a year, but only several years after original publication. Those wishing to contact the authors can do so via the editor. Please note that in most cases the original illustrations are not included but can be seen by consulting the original journals held at Saffron Walden Town Library.

Jacqueline Cooper, Editor

Article from Saffron Walden Historical Journal No 1 (2001)

Crime doesn’t pay? A Study of Prosecution Associations in Essex in the 18th and 19th centuries, with special reference to the Clavering Hundred

by Michael Holland

Before the advent of the modern day police service, the Parish Constable maintained law and order at parish level. He would be elected from the parishioners on a yearly basis on Easter Monday of each year. He was unpaid, although he was permitted by law to levy a modest rate of 1d or 2d in the pound to cover his expenses. He was required to keep a record of both the rate levied and his disbursements. In the vast majority of cases, the Parish Constable’s full time occupation was either publican or blacksmith, and therefore he was used to heavy work, likely to be of a muscular build, and able to cope with most prisoners. In the parish of Halstead, records show that a hairdresser served as constable during the 1830s, but this was exceptional. The main drawback with having a policing system based on the parish constable was that he rarely enforced the law on his own initiative, but worked under the auspices of the local Justice of the Peace who would issue warrants for arrests, searches etc. A secondary problem was that the parish constable was not empowered to work outside the Hundred in which he resided, which could be important where felons operated across borders of Hundreds and indeed counties.

Until the later part of the 19th century the victims of crime were expected to finance the prosecutions of those who had offended against them. This would include the witness expenses; the cost of the barrister, even the clerk who transcribed the depositions would levy a charge. Many victims, therefore, avoided official means to deal with offenders. There was, however, a means by which the cost of bringing a prosecution could be offset, the prosecution association.

This, the forerunner of Neighbourhood Watch, has its roots in the 1690s and coincided with the advent of the provincial newspaper. The first recorded group was formed in Stoke-on-Trent in 1693. The scheme worked as follows: Members of the scheme would pay an annual subscription to the association. If a member became a victim of crime, advertisements would be placed in the local newspapers offering a reward for information leading to the conviction of the felons responsible for the crime. Alternatively notices would be posted detailing the crime and reward. If the offender were apprehended, the association would also fund the cost of prosecuting him. In short, it was a form of insurance.

The first Essex association was formed in 1765, at Colchester. Others followed although some targeted specific offences. The Billericay Association was concerned with horse theft (a capital offence then), the town being situated on a coaching route and therefore susceptible to such crime. In Halstead in 1800, following a spate of farm fires, an association was formed to specifically address the offence of arson. Not only did they fund advertising and any prosecutions, but also paid armed watchmen to guard vulnerable premises. As the situation escalated they provided the funds for a ‘Bow Street Runner’ to be hired to investigate the offences, and for a reward of 100 Guineas to be offered. At Braintree, a particularly distressed town at the start of the nineteenth century due to the rapid decline of the cloth industry, an association was established to prosecute persons hoarding grain with a view to making excess profits as food prices increased. The extent of Prosecution Associations in north-west Essex is shown below.


Dunmow Prosecution Association, founded 1788

Linton, Hildersham, Bartlow & Hadstock Association, 1818

Saffron Walden Prosecution Association, 1809

Thaxted Association, 1809

Radwinter Prosecution Association, 1831

Uttlesford & Clavering Prosecution Association, 1840

The main concentrations of associations were in the north-west and north-east of the county. There was a limited concentration on the Dengie Peninsular and along the Thames shore in the Rochford Hundred. The Tendring and Dengie Hundreds suffered from a dearth of resident magistrates, a factor that might explain the concentration of associations in these areas. The establishment of associations in central and northern Essex appears fragmented. This is particularly strange in the Hinckford Hundred where, between 1783 and 1851, most protest, and logically property, crimes were committed. The area in the Clavering Hundred was renowned for protest activity, a fact that is reflected by the concentration of associations in that vicinity.

There was another factor and this was the operation of gangs of felons operating on the borders of Essex with Hertfordshire and Cambridgeshire. By operating in gangs they were able to terrorise their victims, by force of numbers. One such gang, known as the Waltham Gang, plagued the western part of Essex, committing robberies on householders. Apparently Clavering miller, Tom Nottage was amongst their victims. Such activities would be guaranteed to act as a strong incentive to take all possible action in the defence of property, hence the concentration of associations in this neighbourhood.

In April 1840 Essex Constabulary was formed, and one could be forgiven for thinking that this spelt the end of the Prosecution Associations. The opposite was true. Firstly, the new force did not cover the entire county and there was still a need for some incentive for the ordinary man in the street to assist in the fight against crime. Secondly, and this is probably the more important issue, the constabularies were not permitted to offer rewards for the apprehension of offenders. The prosecution associations could therefore operate in conjunction with the police. Certainly in 1844 during a widespread spate of arsons in Suffolk, the prosecution associations were specifically requested by the chief constable to offer substantial rewards (in the region of £1,000) for information leading to the prosecution of the arsonists. When it is considered that the average farm labourer earned no more than nine shillings per week, this was a great incentive to inform on arsonists.

Just how effective were the Prosecution Associations in combating crime?  To a great extent this is virtually unanswerable, as we do not really know the true extent of crime in Essex (or for that matter the rest of England) during this period. It has been estimated that up to 90% of crime went unreported. Accordingly, it is impossible to estimate the effect that the associations had on crime. Furthermore, despite the fact that the Essex newspapers carried weekly advertisements appertaining rewards offered by the associations, the readership of such newspapers was more likely to be the victims of crime rather than those who could inform on criminals, namely their peers. Even if they were made aware of rewards offered, it is questionable how many farm labourers would be inclined to inform on criminals for a relatively small sum of money. Small, when the typical sanctions against even petty criminals included hanging and transportation. Likewise, there was a marked reticence amongst juries to convict some classes of felons until after 1837 when some offences were de-capitalised. This is not to say that labourer did not inform on labourer. In the case of one Essex incendiary of 1830, the reward of £1,000, 30 to 40 years wages for a labourer, might have been sufficient to send an innocent man to the gallows.

The demise of the prosecution association was brought about by improved rights for the victims of crime, together with an efficient and reliable policing service, which brought with it a greater element of detection. The associations, however, did fulfill an important role, not so much in detection, but in prosecution. The modern day equivalent of the associations, Neighbourhood Watch, fulfils the opposite role.


Chelmsford Chronicle, 24 October 1800, 8 August 1800. 19 March 1819.

Essex Record Office, Vestry Minutes, D/P 96/8/6.

Correspondence with Ken Harrison July 1999 to April 2000 on gangs operating within Essex.

Cooper, J. unpublished research notes The Well-Ordered Town: a story of Saffron Walden, Essex, 1792-1862 (2000), pp5-6.

Hobsbawm, E.J. & Rudé, G. Captain Swing (1985), p150.

Holland, M.A. A Crime to be Poor: protest in the Barstable and Rochford Hundreds, 1825 to 1840 (MA thesis, unpub. University of Brighton, (1992), p52.

Jones, D.J.V., ‘Thomas Campbell Foster and the Rural Labourer: incendiarism in East Anglia’ Social History 1 (1) 1976, p18.

King, P.J., ‘Prosecution Associations and their Impact in 18th Century Essex’ Hay & Snyder (1989) p176.

King, P.J., Crime, Justice and Discretion; law and social relations in England, 1740 to 1820, p225.

Philips, D., ‘Good Men to Associate and Bad Men to Conspire: associations for the prosecution of felons in England, 1760 to 1860,’ in Hay, D. & Snyder, F. (Eds.) Policing and Prosecution in Britain, 1750 to 1850, (1989), p161.

© Saffron Walden Historical Society 2001