Night watch


The establishment of those people who are obliged to keep watch in the streets of cities during the night, belongs to the oldest regulations of police. Such watchmen are mentioned in the Song of Solomon, and they occur also in the book of Psalms. Athens and other cities of Greece had at least sentinels posted in various parts; and some of the thesmothetæ were obliged to visit them from time to time, in order to keep them to their duty 456. At Rome there were triumviri nocturnicohortes vigilum, &c.

The object of all these institutions seems to have been rather the prevention of fires than the guarding against nocturnal alarms or danger; though in the course of time attention was paid to these also. When Augustus wished to strengthen the night-watch, for the purpose of suppressing nocturnal commotions, he used as a pretext the apprehension of fires only. The regulations respecting these watchmen, and the discipline to which they were subjected, were almost the same as those for night-sentinels in camps during the time of war; but it does not appear that the night-watchmen in cities were obliged to prove their presence and vigilance by singing, calling out, or by any other means. Signals were made by the patroles alone, with bells, when the watchmen wished to say anything to each other. Singing by sentinels in time of war was customary, at least among some nations; but in all probability that practice was not common in the time of peace 457.

Calling out the hours seems to have been first practised after the erection of city gates, and, in my opinion, to have taken its rise in Germany; though indeed it must be allowed that such a regulation would have been very useful in ancient Rome, where there were no clocks, and where people had nothing in their houses to announce the hours in the night-time. During the day people could know the hours after water-clocks had been constructed at the public expense, and placed in open buildings erected in various parts of the city. The case seems to have been the same in Greece; and rich families kept particular servants both male and female, whose business it was to announce to their masters and mistresses certain periods of the day, as pointed out by the city clocks. These servants consisted principally of boys and young girls, the latter being destined to attend on the ladies. It appears, however, that in the course of time water-clocks were kept also in the palaces of the great: at any rate Trimalchio, the celebrated voluptuary mentioned in Petronius, had one in his dining-room, and a servant stationed near it to proclaim the progress of the hours, that his master might know how much of his lifetime was spent; for he did not wish to lose a single moment without enjoying pleasure.

I have not read everything that has been written by others on the division of time among the ancients; but after the researches I have made, I must confess that I do not know whether the hours were announced in the night-time to those who wished and had occasion to know them. There were then no clocks which struck the hours, as has been already said; and as water-clocks were both scarce and expensive, they could not be procured by labouring people, to whom it was of most importance to be acquainted with the progress of time 458. It would therefore have been a useful and necessary regulation to have caused the watchmen in the streets to proclaim the hours, which they could have known from the public water-clocks, by blowing a horn, or by calling out.

It appears, however, that people must have been soon led to such an institution, because the above methods had been long practised in war. The periods for mounting guard were determined by water-clocks; at each watch a horn was blown, and every one could by this signal know the hour of the night 459 ; but I have met with no proof that these regulations were established in cities during the time of peace, though many modern writers have not hesitated to refer to the night-watch in cities what alludes only to nocturnal guards in the time of war. On the contrary, I am still more strongly inclined to think that ancient Rome was entirely destitute of such a police establishment. The bells borne by the night watchmen were used only by the patroles, as we are expressly told, or to give signals upon extraordinary occasions, such as that of a fire, or when any violence had been committed. Cicero, comparing the life of a civil with that of a military officer, says, “The former is awaked by the crowing of the cock, and the latter by the sound of the trumpet.” The former therefore had no other means of knowing the hours of the night but by attending to the noise made by that animal 460. An ancient poet says that the cock is the trumpeter which awakens people in the time of peace 461. The ancients indeed understood much better than the vulgar at present, who are already too much accustomed to clocks, how to determine the periods of the night by observing the stars; but here I am speaking of capital cities, and in these people are not very fond of quitting their beds to look at the stars, which are not always to be seen.

Without entering into further researches respecting watchmen among the ancient Greeks and Romans, I shall prove, by such testimonies as I am acquainted with, that the police establishment of which I speak is more modern in our cities than one might suppose. But I must except Paris; for it appears that night-watching was established there, as at Rome, in the commencement of its monarchy. De la Mare 462  quotes the ordinances on this subject of Clothaire II., in the year 595, of Charlemagne, and of the following periods. At first the citizens were obliged to keep watch in turns, under the command of a miles gueti, who was called also chevalier. The French writers remark on this circumstance, that the term guet, which occurs in the oldest ordinances, was formed from the German words wachewacht, the guard, or watch; and in like manner several other ancient German military terms, such as bivouaclandsquenet, &c.463  have been retained in the French language. In the course of time, when general tranquillity prevailed, a custom was gradually introduced of avoiding the duty of watching by paying a certain sum of money, until at length permanent compagnies de guet  were established in Paris, Lyons, Orleans, and afterwards in other cities.

If I am not mistaken, the establishment of single watchmen, who go through the streets and call out the hours, is peculiar to Germany, and was copied only in modern times by our neighbours. The antiquity of it however I will not venture to determine 464. At Berlin, the elector John George appointed watchmen in the year 1588 465 ; but in 1677 there were none in that capital, and the city officers were obliged to call out the hours 466. Montagne, during his travels in 1580, thought the calling out of the night-watch in the German cities a very singular custom. “The watchmen,” says he, “went about the houses in the night-time, not so much on account of thieves as on account of fires and other alarms. When the clocks struck, the one was obliged to call out aloud to the other, and to ask what it was o'clock, and then to wish him a good night 467.” This circumstance he remarks also when speaking of Inspruck. Mabillon likewise, who made a literary tour through Germany, describes calling out the hours as a practice altogether peculiar to that country.

The horn of our watchmen seems to be the buccina  of the ancients, which, as we know, was at first an ox's horn, though it was afterwards made of metal 468. Rattles, which are most proper for cities, as horns are for villages, seem to be of later invention 469. The common form, “Hear, my masters, and let me tell you,” is very old. I am not the only person to whom this question has occurred, why it should not rather be, “Ye people, or citizens.” The chancellor von Ludwig deduces it from the Romans, who, as he says, were more liberal with the word Master, like our neighbours with Messieurs, than the old Germans; but the Roman watchmen did not call out, nor yet do the French at present. If I may be allowed a conjecture on so trifling an object, I should say that the city servants or beadles were the first persons appointed to call out the hours, as was the case at Berlin. These therefore called out to their masters, and “Our masters” is still the usual appellation given to the magistrates in old cities, particularly in the central and southern portions of Germany, and in Switzerland. At Göttingen the ancient form was abolished in the year 1791, and the watchmen call out now, “The clock has struck ten, it is ten o'clock.”

Watchmen who were stationed on steeples by day as well as by night, and who, every time the clock struck, were obliged to give a proof of their vigilance by blowing a horn, seem to have been first established on a permanent footing in Germany, and perhaps before watchmen in the streets. In England there are none of these watchmen; and in general they are very rare beyond the boundaries of Germany. That watchmen were posted on the tops of towers, in the earliest ages, to look out for the approach of an enemy, is well known. In the times of feudal dissension, when one chief, if he called in any assistance, could often do a great deal of hurt to a large city, either by plundering and burning the suburbs and neighbouring villages, or by driving away the cattle of the citizens, and attacking single travellers, such precaution was more necessary than at present. The nobility therefore kept in their strong castles watchmen, stationed on towers; and this practice prevailed in other countries besides Ireland and Burgundy 470. It appears by the laws of Wales, that a watchman with a horn was kept in the king's palace 471. The German princes had in their castles, at any rate in the sixteenth century, tower-watchmen, who were obliged to blow a horn every morning and evening.

At first, the citizens themselves were obliged to keep watch in turns on the church-steeples, as well as at the town-gates; as may be seen in a police ordinance of the city of Einbeck 472 , in the year 1573. It was the duty of these watchmen, especially where there were no town clocks, to announce certain periods, such as those of opening and shutting the city-gates. The idea of giving orders to these watchmen to attend not only to danger from the enemy but from fire also, and, after the introduction of public clocks, to prove their vigilance by making a signal with their horn, must have naturally occurred; and the utility of this regulation was so important, that watchmen on steeples were retained, even when cities, by the prevalence of peace, had no occasion to be apprehensive of hostile incursions.

After this period persons were appointed for the particular purpose of watching; and small apartments were constructed for them in the steeples. At first they were allowed to have their wives with them; but this was sometimes prohibited, because a profanation of the church was apprehended. In most, if not in all cities, the town-piper, or as we say at present, town-musician, was appointed steeple-watchman; and lodgings were assigned to him in the steeple; but in the course of time, as these were too high and too inconvenient, a house was given him near the church, and he was allowed to send one of his servants or domestics to keep watch in his stead. This is the case still at Göttingen. The city musician was called formerly the Hausmann, which name is still retained here as well as at the Hartz, in Halle, and several other places; and the steeple in which he used to dwell and keep watch was called the Hausmann's Thurm 473 . These establishments, however, were not general; and were not everywhere formed at a period equally early, as will be shown by the proofs which I shall here adduce.

If we can credit an Arabian author, whose Travels were published by Renaudot, the Chinese were accustomed, so early as the ninth century, to have watchmen posted on towers, who announced the hours of the day as well as of the night, by striking or beating upon a suspended board. Marco Paulo, who, in the thirteenth century, travelled through Tartary and China, confirms this account; at least in regard to a city which he calls Quinsai, though he says that signals were given only in cases of fire and disturbance. Such boards are used in China even at present 474 ; and in Petersburg the watchmen who are stationed at single houses or in certain parts of the city, are accustomed to announce the hours by beating on a suspended plate of iron. Such boards are still used by the Christians in the Levant to assemble people to divine service, either because they dare not ring bells or are unable to purchase them. The former is related by Tournefort of the inhabitants of the Grecian islands, and the latter by Chardin of the Mingrelians. The like means were employed in monasteries, at the earliest periods, to give notice of the hours of prayer, and to awaken the monks 475. Mahomet, who in his form of worship borrowed many things from the Christians of Syria and Arabia, adopted the same method of assembling the people to prayers; but when he remarked that it appeared to his followers to savour too much of Christianity, he again introduced the practice of calling out.

The steeple-watchmen in Germany are often mentioned in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. In the year 1351, when the council of Erfurt renewed that police ordinance which was called the Zuchtbrief, letter of discipline, because it kept the people in proper subjection, it was ordered, besides other regulations in regard to fire, that two watchmen should be posted on every steeple. A watchman of this kind was appointed at Merseburg and Leisnig so early as the year 1400. In the beginning of the seventeenth century the town-piper of Leisnig lived still in apartments in the steeple. In the year 1563, a church-steeple was erected in that place, and an apartment built in it for a permanent watchman, who was obliged to announce the hours every time the clock struck.

In the fifteenth century the city of Ulm kept permanent watchmen in many of the steeples. In the year 1452 a bell was suspended in the tower of the cathedral of Frankfort-on-the-Maine, which was to be rung in times of feudal alarm, and all the watchmen on the steeples were then to blow their horns and hoist their banners. In the year 1476, a room for the watchman was constructed in the steeple of the church of St. Nicholas. In the year 1509, watchmen were kept both on the watch-towers and steeples, who gave notice by firing a musket when strangers approached. The watchman on the tower of the cathedral immediately announced, by blowing a trumpet, whether the strangers were on foot or on horseback; and at the same time hung out a red flag towards the quarter in which he observed them advancing. The same watchman was obliged, likewise, to blow his horn on an alarm of fire; and that these people might be vigilant day and night, both in winter and summer, the council supplied them with fur-cloaks, seven of which, in the above-mentioned year, were purchased for ten florins and a half.

In the year 1496, the large clock was put up in the steeple of Oettingen, and a person appointed to keep watch on it 476. In 1580, Montagne was much surprised to find on the steeple at Constance a man who kept watch there continually; and who, on no account, was permitted to come down from his station.

[One of the greatest improvements of modern times, in this country, is the establishment of that highly efficient body, the new police. The first introduction of the police was made by the magistrates of Cheshire in 1829, under an authority from parliament (Act 10 Geo. IV. c. 97). The first metropolitan establishment was also made in 1829. Before this time the total old force of the metropolitan watchmen consisted of 797 parochial day officers, 2785 night-watch, and upward of 100 private watchmen; including the Bow-street day and night patrol, there were about 4000 men employed in the district stretching from Brentford Bridge on the west to the river Lea on the east, and from Highgate on the north to Streatham on the south, excluding the city of London. The act of parliament creating the new police force (10 Geo. IV. c. 44) placed the control of the whole body in the hands of two commissioners, who devote their whole time to their duties. The total number of the metropolitan police in January 1840 consisted of 3486 men. These are arranged in divisions, each of which is employed in a distinct district. The metropolis is divided into “beats” and is watched day and night. Since August 1839, the horse-patrol, consisting of seventy-one mounted men, who are employed within a distance of several miles around London, has been incorporated with the metropolitan police. The Thames police consists of twenty-one surveyors, each of whom has charge of three men and a boat when on duty. The establishment is under the immediate direction of the magistrates of the Thames police-office.

The police affairs of the city of London are still under its own management. In 1833, the number of persons employed in the several wards of the city was,—ordinary watchmen, 500; superintending watchmen, 65; patrolling watchmen, 91; beadles, 54; total, 710. There are about 400 men doing duty in the city at midnight. In addition to the paid watchmen, about 400 ward-constables are appointed. The expense of the day-police, consisting of about 120 men, amounts to about £9000 a year, and is defrayed by the corporation: and the sum levied on the wards for the support of the night-watch averages about £42,000 per annum.

The police of the metropolis and the district within fifteen miles of Charing Cross (exclusive of the city) is regulated by the acts 10 Geo. IV. c. 44, and 2 and 3 Vict. c. 47. In nearly all the boroughs constituted under the Municipal Reform Act, a paid police force has been established on the same footing as the metropolitan police.]


456  They were called bell-bearers or bellmen, because while going the rounds they gave a signal with their bells, which the sentinels were obliged immediately to answer. See the Scholiasts on the Aves  of Aristophanes, ver. 841. Dio Cassius, lib. liv. 4, p. 773, says, “The watchmen in the different quarters of the city have small bells, that they may make signals to each other when they think proper.” The bells therefore did not serve for announcing the hours, as some have imagined.

457  The Persian sentinels sung in this manner when they were surprised in the city by the Romans.—Ammianus Marcell. xxiv. 15.

458  That the servants in many houses were wakened by the ringing of a bell, appears from what Lucian says in his treatise, De iis qui mercede conducti in divitum familiis vivunt, cap. xxiv. p. 245, and cap. xxxi. p. 254, Bipont edition, vol. iii. It does not however follow that there were then striking or alarm-clocks, as some have thence concluded. See Magius De Tintinnabulis, cap. 6, in Sallengre, Thesaurus Antiquit. ii. p. 1177.

459  Vegetius De Re Milit. iii. 8. That Cæsar had such clocks may be concluded from the observation which he makes in his Commentaries, on the length of the day in the islands near Ireland, lib. v. 13. Maternus, in Romische Alterthümer, iii. p. 47, endeavours to prove by what Suetonius relates of Domitian, cap. 16, that this prince had in his palace neither a sun-dial nor a water-clock. But what kind of a proof! Domitian asked what the hour was, and some one answered, the sixth. Such insignificant dicta probantia  have been banished from philosophy by the moderns, and ought they not to be banished from antiquities likewise? The often-quoted passage also of Valerius Maximus, viii. 7, 5, proves nothing, unless we first adopt the amendment of Green. Carneades, it is said, was so engaged in the study of philosophy, that he would have forgot his meals had not Melissa put him in mind of them. Green reads monitrix domestica ; but Valerius says, “Melissa, quam uxoris loco habebat.” See Sallengre, Thes. Antiq. Rom. i. p. 721. A passage likewise in Pliny's Epistles, iii. 1, p. 181, “ubi hora balinei nunciata est,” does not properly prove that it alludes to one of those boys who announced the hours. That such servants however were kept, is evident from the undoubted testimony of various authors. Martial, viii. ep. 67.—Juven. Sat. x. 216.—Seneca De Brevit. Vitæ, c. 12.—Alciphron, Epist. lib. iii. p. 282.—Sidon. Apollin. ii. ep. 9, p. 120.

460  Cic. Orat. pro Muræna, cap. 22.

461  Sil. Ital. vii. 155.

462  Traité de la Police, vol. i. in the Index under the word Guet.

463  Bivouac, from the German beiwacht, is an additional night-guard during a siege, or when an army is encamped near the enemy. Lansquenets  were German soldiers added by Charles VIII. of France to his infantry, and who were continued in the French army till Francis I. introduced his legions.—Trans.

464  [With respect to the institution of night-watch in this country, Stow says, “For a full remedy of enormities in the night, I read, that in the year 1253 Henry III. commanded watches in the cities and borough towns to be kept, for the better observing of peace and quietness among his people.... And further, by the advice of them of Savoy, he ordained, that if any man chanced to be robbed, or by any means damnified by any thief or robber, he to whom the charge of keeping that country, city, or borough, chiefly appertained, where the robbery was done, should competently restore the loss. And this was after the use of Savoy, but yet thought more hard to be observed here than in those parts; and therefore, leaving those laborious watches, I will speak of our pleasures and pastimes in watching by night.” (Survey of London, Thoms's edition, 1842, p. 39.) He then describes the marching watches which were instituted in the months of June and July, on the vigils and evenings of festival days; with the cresset lights, &c. But he does not state whether these watches were continued in his time; nor does he state the author of the information which he gives us from his reading. The statute of Winchester, 13 Edward I. c. 4, enforces a continuation of the watches as they had previously been made, from Ascension-day to Michaelmas-day; the night-watch from sun-set to sunrise, in every city by six men at each gate, in every borough by twelve men, in every open town by six or four men.]

465  Nicolai Beschreib. von Berlin, i, p. 38.

466  Ib. p. 49.

467  Iter Germanicum. Hamburgi, 1717, 8vo, p. 26.

468  Lipsius De Milit. Rom. iv. 10, p. 198.—Bochart. Hierozoic. i.

469  From the name of this instrument, called in some places of Germany a ratel, arose the appellation of ratelwache, which was established at Hamburg in 1671. In the Dutch language the words ratelratelaar,ratelenratelmannratelwagter  (a night-watchman), are quite common.

470  Stanihurst De Rebus in Hibernia Gestis, lib. i. p. 33.

471  Leges Walliæ. Lond. 1730, fol.

472  The person whose turn it was to watch at the gates, was obliged to perform the duty himself, or to cause it to be performed by a fit and proper young citizen. Those who attended to trade and neglected the watch, paid for every omission one mark to the council. The case was the same with the watch on the tower in the market-place.

473  In the Berlin police ordinance of the year 1580, it was ordered that the Raths-thurn oder Hausmann, steeple-watchman or city-musician, should attend at weddings with music for the accustomed pay, but only till the hour of nine at night, in order that he might then blow his horn on the steeple, and place the night-watch.

474  Martini Atlas Sinens. p. 17. Matches or links, to which alarums are sometimes added, are employed in China to point out the hours; and these are announced by watchmen placed on towers who beat a drum. See Kæmpfer's Japan, where the mention of matches is omitted. Thunberg says, “Time is measured here not by clocks or hour-glasses, but by burning matches, which are plaited like ropes, and have knots on them. When the match burns to a knot, which marks a particular lapse of time, the hour is announced, during the day, by a certain number of strokes on the bells in the temples; and in the night by watchmen who go round and give a like signal with two pieces of board, which they knock against each other.”

475  A great deal of important information, which is as yet too little known, has been collected on this subject by Reiske, on Constantini Lib. de Ceremoniis Aulæ Byzant. ii. p. 74.

476  This is related in the Oettingisches Geschichts-almanach, p. 7, on the authority of an account in the parish books of Oettingen, said to be extracted from an ancient chronicle of that town. The author of this almanac, which is now little known, was, as I have been told, Schablen, superintendant at Oettingen.