The rise and fall of the societies helped to bring about a fundamental change in the relationship between law and society. Up to this point the policing of sexual offences, as of other crimes, had been based on the principle of communal self-regulation. The offices of watchman, constable, and churchwarden were supposed to be held in rotation by the citizens of each neighbourhood, who collectively were responsible for keeping good order amongst themselves. The societies for refor­mation claimed to be reinvigorating such popular participation, and it is usually presumed that their campaign roused large numbers of ordinary people to act as vigilante informers against vice.1

In fact the active membership of the main (Tower Hamlets) society was strikingly small. Unless they happened to be parish officers, most of its supporters simply contributed a quarterly subscription. The core of the society – those who attended a monthly general meeting and stood for election to its various offices – numbered only ‘about fifty persons’; and most business was dealt with by an acting commit­tee of nine. Nor did the campaign against sexual immorality depend upon an army of lay activists, quite the contrary. The detection and prosecution of bawdy houses relied on a handful of salaried employ­ees: usually two men, supported by sympathetic constables, sometimes with one or two additional helpers.2 In its policing of prostitutes, too, the campaign worked mainly by encouraging existing officers and magistrates to do their duty. Its literature, bureaucracy, and network of local supervisors spurred on reform-minded constables, whilst it eased and rewarded their work with large amounts of cash. In 1694, the only year for which detailed accounts survive, the main society paid out almost £200 to its two full-time brothel-detectors and its clerk; another £80 towards prosecuting bawdy houses; and a further sum reimbursing the expenses of diligent parish officers. Even the local ‘stewards’ of the society were paid a commission for every sub­scription they raised. ‘Since the process of our law is not a little chargeable’, explained the chief propagandist of the campaign with a Ciceronian flourish, ‘it must be allowed, that money is the sinews of this war’.3

The main tendency of the campaign for reformation was therefore not to set up ‘a kind of voluntary police’, as has been traditionally thought, nor even to ‘mobiliz[e] ordinary citizens in the enforcement of the laws’, as the New Oxford History of England describes it, but simply to increase the efficiency of existing methods of policing. The prosecution of sexual offenders had always tended to be dominated by particularly zealous justices and constables. To this, the campaign added its employment of dedicated assistants, the systematic use of blanket search warrants, and the establishment of regular petty sessions by reforming justices. Through the exploitation of these tech­niques even a handful of men could achieve large numbers of summary convictions. The same methods characterized the societies’ efforts against other vices. As is evident from the campaign’s own propa­ganda, most of its sympathizers were discouraged from going to law themselves by the trouble, expense, and unpopularity of informing against moral offenders.4

In fact it is notable that those volunteers who consistently took a more active part in the campaign tended to end up making a living from the law. The most famous of all the societies’ activists was John Dent. At the outset of the campaign, he had been a devout young man of lowly origins. He joined it in 1692, after members of his prayer group decided they should be willing to inform on moral offenders. A decade later, in 1702, he was helping out against ‘public lewdness’ at May Fair when one of his colleagues was attacked by soldiers. Dent pulled his friend from the fray and held him, as he lay dying, in his arms. Between 1704 and 1707, we catch sight of him working as a regular informer against profanation of the Sabbath, swearing, and drunkenness. By 1709 he had been made a constable. In March of that year, he was himself killed whilst assisting in the arrest of a street­walker. Although Dent was, as his friends eulogized, an honest, pious man, one of the pillars of ‘the good fight of faith’, he was clearly also something of a professional, whose life had become devoted to ‘the apprehending and prosecuting of several thousands of lewd and prof­ligate persons [i. e. prostitutes], besides a vast number of Sabbath breakers, profane swearers, and drunkards’.5

Jonathan Easden, a joiner by trade, was part of the campaign even earlier than Dent; in fact, he helped found it. In 1690 he was one of the signatories of the original East End manifesto against bawdy houses; and within a few years he had developed into one of its lead­ing activists. Yet almost from the outset his motives were publicly impugned. He was repeatedly prosecuted for vexatious litigation, extortion, and assault. The Middlesex bench inquired into his appar­ent blackmail of the keepers and clients of disorderly houses, and so did the House of Commons. In the early 1690s he was fined, out­lawed, and imprisoned in Newgate for many months; and more than a decade later he was again convicted of fraud, fined £20, pilloried, and sent to prison.6

A still fuller example of how lay activism against immorality could shade into venality is provided by Easden’s colleague Bodenham Rewse, another linchpin of the movement in its earliest years. Rewse appears to have started out much like John Dent: when the campaign was launched, he was a newly married member of a religious society. By training, like his wife Thomasine, he was an embroiderer; but he used the movement to carve himself a successful career at the under­side of metropolitan law enforcement. Between 1693 and 1695 he was employed by the Tower Hamlets society as one of its detectors of bawdy houses, earning about £75 a year in salary and expenses. This led him to the even more lucrative business of pursuing felons. In the later 1690s Rewse became a successful thief-taker, reaping large rewards for the capture of Jacobite conspirators, clippers, and coin­ers. Within a few years he had made enough money to buy himself one of the deputy keeperships of Newgate Prison, where he remained until his death in 1725. If Rewse had any great antipathy towards sexual immorality when he started out, it had certainly vanished by the turn of the century, by which time he had taken up with whores, infected his wife with the pox, and begun physically to abuse her in the cruellest manner.7

We are faced with a remarkable irony: the societies were intended to be popular in their appeal, and their declared aim was to revive community involvement in moral regulation. Yet their campaign had exactly the reverse effect. Despite the rhetoric of grass-roots activism, it relied mainly upon a small group of regular informers and officers. Rather than lending personal assistance, most sympathizers simply gave cash. Its main consequence was to place metropolitan policing on a more mercenary footing.

This was a development with long antecedents. Since at least the reign of Elizabeth, the growing size and complexity of life in the cap­ital had undermined the appeal and effectiveness of the traditional system of policing, in which ordinary householders patrolled the streets and took turns serving as constables and other officers. The earliest casualty was the night watch, which already by the early sev­enteenth century appears in some parts of the city to have been largely made up of hired substitutes; by 1700 this practice had become so common that some neighbourhoods levied a formal tax for the pur­pose. The hiring of stand-in constables also steadily increased as the demands of the office became more onerous. Yet the principle of per­sonal obligation remained intact, many householders still served in person, and the piecemeal employment of substitutes did not really improve the system’s effectiveness. This was the context that spawned the methods of the reform societies – raising money by subscription, rewarding dedicated officers, and employing full-time informers. These innovations offered a radical new solution to the breakdown of amateur office-holding. Their relative success formalized the idea of law enforcement for payment, and helped accelerate the profession­alization of policing.8

In turn, the decline of the societies coincided with a general perception that London was inadequately policed. The result was a fundamental overhaul of the system in the years around 1740. Every parish in the capital now set up a permanent, salaried night watch. Professional constables became more common. Across the city, mag­istrates established public offices devoted full-time to law enforcement, and everywhere their number was increased considerably. The wholesale introduction of these changes marked the end of the long – established principle that policing was a matter of civic duty, to be undertaken in person. Henceforth, the role of householders was simply to pay for the work of others; and the practice of professional patrols and business-like magistracy was to be the norm, rather than a perversion of it.9

The result was that, by the middle of the eighteenth century, ordin­ary citizens who sought to fight vice no longer went to law themselves, but instead employed others to do the job for them. Faced with the nuisance of brothels in the 1750s, the inhabitants of Covent Garden offered rewards to informers rather than take matters in their own hands. Attempting to stamp out street-walking in the 1760s, house­holders in St Martin’s Ludgate hired a professional to clear the streets on their behalf. When broader campaigns were mounted their methods were similar. Sexual impropriety of various kinds was one of the targets of a revived London Society for Reformation of Manners which lasted from 1757 to 1766; of the national Proclamation Society founded by William Wilberforce in 1787; and of the Society for the Suppression of Vice, which came into being in 1802. In each case, the reformers raised money by subscription and encouraged constables and magistrates to put existing laws into effect. But only exception­ally did they themselves take part in policing and prosecuting offenders: such business was now largely left to hirelings and special­ists.10

There were similar developments in other areas. Men who made a trade of prosecuting people for profit became a growing feature of criminal justice. The government itself encouraged the practice by offering substantial rewards. In addition, especially after 1750, pri­vate associations were founded across the country to encourage and fund the prosecution of poachers, thieves, and other felons: by 1800 there may have been over a thousand of these. Salary and profit were also increasingly accepted to be normal motives for urban justices of the peace: in 1792, the Middlesex Justices Act made permanent the practice of stipendiary magistrates. This growing reliance on profes­sionals was part of a general decline in the use of the law by ordinary men and women in the decades after 1700.11 The ideological import­ance of the law remained considerable; in certain respects it even increased. Yet its collective basis, and its role in everyday life, had been irrevocably diminished. The consequences were profound. The culture of legal discipline had depended for centuries on popular involvement. By 1800 this had largely disappeared.