I am always interested in early reports of crime and disorder especially in the early 19th century when the police force was still in its infancy.
England had no uniformed force to deter and arrest criminals. There were parish constables of course but they used by the parish vestry (a form of early local government) for minor matters and usually held other jobs.
In the early 1800s a number of societies were established across the country in order to secure the arrest and conviction of felons by the offering of rewards. They were called Prosecution Societies and there were quite a number here in East Sussex.
They were usually a collection of local citizens (often farmers who were particularly susceptible to theft and arson) who paid an annual fee to cover the cost of private prosecutions. They would also circulate descriptions of wanted criminals and sometime provide insurance.
One of the earliest was established in Horsham in 1785 with a membership of 30 people. In East Sussex one of the first was the Eastbourne Prosecution Society (which met at the Lamb Inn) which was founded in 1800. The Brookside Prosecution Society represented the villages in the Ouse Valley to the south of Lewes and there were also societies in Laughton, Newhaven, Warbleton, Chailey, Maresfield, Ditchling and Lindfield.
The Alfriston Union Prosecuting Society and the Uckfield Equitable Prosecuting Society had a similar role. There does not seem to have been a Prosecution Society at Seaford as crimes in the town were covered either from the Alfriston or Newhaven Societies.
In 1811 the Lewes Society was offering a ten guinea reward for information leading to the arrest of the ‘evil-disposed person’ who killed a swan on the River Ouse and was also offering a five Guinea reward for the arrest of a Mr Munn who had stolen a horse.
Prosecution societies would regularly publish descriptions of wanted criminals. John Harris, wanted in 1813 for the theft of money and ‘absconding from his masters service’ is described as being 44 years old dark sharp eyes with a smallpox mark on his nose. He was wearing a striped waistcoat, dark cord breeches and leather spatterdashes (spats). He was also wearing a round hat and a red and yellow handkerchief.
The Firle, Beddingham and Glynde Prosecuting Society (based at the Ram Inn) was established by 1812 when it offered a £10 reward for information leading to the arrest of a rural thief who stole riding equipment from Tilton’s Farm in Selmeston. Even apprehended criminals could be a problem. In 1820, Thomas Pattenden was in the custody of Constable Parris at Hellingly when he ‘forced asunder the locks of his fetters and escaped from custody still wearing his hand-cuffs and other irons’. The Hailsham and Horsebridge Prosecuting Society offered a five Guinea reward for his re-arrest but warned that he was violent and generally armed with a cudgel.
The societies produced posters and placed advertisements in local newspapers and they obviously worked. In April 1823, a pig was stolen from a farm near Lewes. Details and a reward were advertised and within two days the two offenders had been identified and arrested with the carcass of the animal and bought (not to the police) but the the office of the Clerk to the Lewes Prosecuting Society.
The societies were not without criticism. In September 1826 ‘garden robbers’ were abroad in Alfriston, stripping Mr Woodham’s plum tree of eight gallons of choice fruit. Mr Charles Brooker’s vine was stripped of 50lb of fine ripe grapes the same night. The Sussex Advertiser complained that the Alfriston Prosecution Society had done nothing to deter the thieves other than holding ‘an occasional smoke-pipe meeting’. This complaint is interesting as it suggests that the Prosecuting Society should have been patrolling the village to deter crime.
In March 1833, it was reported that a burglar who was trying to enter a shop in Hawkhurst was disturbed by ‘a patrol of the prosecuting society’. After a number of robberies in Keymer and Clayton in 1837, it was reported that the Prosecution Society had been ‘set on foot’ on nightly patrols.
Although the majority of crimes related to rural theft some relate to personal property such as watches and in 1827 the Uckfield Society advertised a reward for the theft of a 40
gallon copper furnace (‘believed to have been carried away by travelling tinkers’).
Rewards were also offered for the arrest of arsonists. On 2 January 1831 two haystacks were set fire on Susan’s Farm in Eastbourne (now the site of Susans Road). A £600 reward was offered for the arrest of the offenders. That is a huge sum which is the equivalent of about £20,000 today. £50 was from the Eastbourne Prosecution Society, £50 from the farmer Mr Filder and £500 from His Majesty (in other words the Government).
The establishment of the East Sussex Constabulary in 1840 meant that the prosecution societies were no longer required although some, such as Crawley, Ticehurst and Lewes were still offering rewards in the late 1860s. Amazingly there still is a prosecution society in existence today - at Holmfirth, Yorkshire.