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Extra History

Season 77 2019

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  • 2019-11-30T16:00:00Z on YouTube
  • 10 mins
  • 50 mins (5 episodes)
  • United States
  • English
  • Animation, Documentary, History
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5 episodes

77x01 Policing London - The Thief-Taker General

  • Season Premiere

    2019-11-30T16:00:00Z — 10 mins

These days we kind of assume that police are a normal part of law and order. But that wasn't always the case. In fact, it wasn't the case for a lot of human history. So how did we start thinking of police as a natural part of a city? It all starts in London with the Thief-Taker General Jonathan Wilde, a man of two faces. Which one is real: valiant crime fighter or the puppet master of London's underbelly?

Jonathan Wild had the whole crime system figured out. A man of justice by day, and leader of a criminal empire by night. But that is when Jack Sheppard came into his life. Jack Sheppard was a talented thief but an even more talented escape artist. And one of the last criminals in London who refused to bend the knee to Jonathan Wild. This was unacceptable. Jonathan Wild became obsessed. But obsessions can be dangerous. Every prison escape causes Sheppard's popularity amongst the people, sick and tired of corruption, to grow. And the consequences may be deadly.

Henry Fielding was a dangerous man... with a pen. He had a razor-sharp wit and created the page-turner novel, but that's not what we want to focus on here. Because Henry Fielding is also responsible for assembling London's first organized police force. The Bow Street Runners were inspired by Wilde's operation just... not corrupt. But Fielding quickly found that in London's justice system, corruption was the assumed default, not the exception. He certainly had his work cut out for him!

John Fielding, Henry Fielding's brother, took over the Bow Street Runners after his brother's death. He was well known as a man who could identify over 3,000 criminals by voice alone. After all, he was blind. But his real contribution to policing was his organizational skills. He created the first Central Database of stolen goods and suspect descriptions and published papers that included not only London criminals but also descriptions of criminals wanted by other prisons in the country. And while the courts may have loved him, the public was much more skeptical. These were times marked by distrust in authority and having a criminal database seemed like an intrusion on personal liberty. What was required to change public opinion?

Even if you've never studied the history of the police force, chances are good you're familiar with the Scotland Yard as a heavy feature of Sherlock Holmes stories. But how did London take the final steps from the privately funded and highly specialized Bow Street Runners to a police force salaried by the government itself? We talk about the inspirations behind the Scotland Yard and how London walked the fine line between social order and civil liberties, guided by Robert Peel. (We're just as surprised as you are)

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