The Watch System

Truncheon and rattle of the Newtownards Watchman. Late 1700s.

         Truncheon and rattle of the Newtownards Watchman. Late 1700s.

Prior to the emergence of organised police forces in the nineteenth century, some Irish towns were policed by watchmen. The watchman on duty throughout the night was conspicuous by his large overcoat and paraphernalia of truncheon, lantern and rattle with which he could call for assistance. His job involved walking the streets and crying out the hour of the night while keeping watch on premises and public conduct.

In the mid-1700s, the watchmen of Bandon, County Cork would begin their hourly cry one hour before midnight despite starting their patrol at sundown. Some watchmen were uniformed, as they were in Kilkenny city. The watchmen of Newtownards, County Down had a rudimentary shelter in the small conical roof of the Market Cross in the centre of the town.

The poor pay and ineffectiveness of some watchmen attracted poor recruits and made them the subject of fun for the townspeople. However, in the absence of more regulated policing structures, watchmen could act as deterrents and prove very useful. Their very presence on the streets as crimes were being committed meant the job was not altogether safe. In Dublin city in 1775, a watchman on Capel Street was threatened with instant death if he dared to interrupt a 2am dual in the middle of the street.

Depending on the employing town, the watchman could also be a powerful individual. The Belfast watchman was to be ‘a man whose character will bear the serious examination’. The watchman of Mallow, County Cork held the authority to stop characters he felt were of a suspicious nature.

The watchman system was never intended to deal with serious crime or major public disorder. By the early nineteenth century, Robert Peel, Chief Secretary for Ireland was working on the creation of a disciplined police force, which would be under government control. The establishment of the Peace Preservation Force in 1814 placed policing on a more formal footing.

The watch system did not disappear however. Under provisions of the Lighting of Towns Act of 1828, Irish towns could still apply for the privilege of having a local watch system. The Kilkenny city watch was still in existence in the 1860s but by that time the professional Irish Constabulary were well established throughout Ireland.

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