History: the Watchman’s sentry box

A Watchman was a forerunner of today’s police constable and their base was a watch box, just like the one in Bath’s Norfolk Crescent. Find out more in this abbreviated version of a paper by Melanie Gilbert-Smith and Professor Barry Gilbertson

A Watchman was a forerunner of today’s police constable specifically tasked with providing a night-time presence on the streets to deter criminal activity and reassure the populace about their safety.

Early concepts of policing in Britain were based on ancient laws that relied heavily on subjects having a responsibility to assist in maintaining law and order. Gradual regulation saw the creation of the office of Sheriff in the ninth century with responsibility for mobilising the citizenry to suppress lawlessness and defend the country.

In the 13th century provisions for further maintaining order were introduced, including the roles of Constables, Watchmen and Beadles. The Constables were unpaid and untrained, and carried out policing duties on a rota, keeping order with powers to arrest and punish criminals. The purpose of the Watchman – a paid position – was primarily to deter criminal activity, with a secondary role in ensuring public safety by raising alarms. Beadles were paid Ward functionaries, organising and upholding discipline. A system of ‘Watch and Ward’ also came into being where householders were required to maintain the peace in their parishes and the duties of the night (watch) and daytime (ward) were defined with the numbers of Watchmen specified according to the size of the community.

In 1663 Charles II funded a force of paid Watchmen to patrol the streets in all towns and cities, although local initiative did affect the efficiency of the local force. Town authority local Improvement Acts in the 18th century often included provision for paid Watchmen or Constables to patrol at night and Constables (or Beadles) to patrol by day at public expense through the rating (or local tax) system. Rural areas had to rely on more informal arrangements, and it became clear that provision across the country was inadequate to the scale of the growing problem of crime that came in the wake of industrialisation.

Tighter law enforcement evolved through legislative ‘Improvement Acts’ into development of the police service we know today, which was founded in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. It took until 1856 for policing to become a requirement throughout England and Wales so, in parts of the country, the Watchman role continued well into the 19th century.

The role of the Watchman

The Watchmen generally gathered at the Watch House at nine o’clock in winter and ten o’clock in summer where the Ward Beadle called the roll. Armed with a staff, a lantern, and later a clapper to signal another Watchman for help, they took their positions at watch boxes or anywhere they had a good view of a street. Their locations were printed and posted in public areas to notify citizens. Watchmen often worked in pairs, patrolling their beat, calling the time and announcing the weather. They came off duty in the morning at seven in winter and five the rest of the year. An offender arrested by a Watchman would spend the night in the Watch House. In the morning, the Constable would take the offender to a magistrate.

As any male citizen (with exceptions) could be co-opted to serve as Constables or Watchmen, many sought to avoid the duty by paying a fine or hiring a deputy – often elderly men or ex-soldiers who needed the money. The syst­­­em was not designed to attract the brightest and best. By the 18th century the service had come into disrepute and was known for corruption, incompetence and drunkenness.

Watchmen in Bath

Like every other walled city Bath had a City Watch and it is likely that it was based on the 13th-century system of Watch and Ward. Bath avoided the negative aspects of industrialisation, but urbanisation brought poverty, unsanitary conditions and increased crime. National Improvement Acts between 1757 and 1825 brought Bath better roads, street-lighting and regulation of the Watch. Co-operation between the three separate forces in Bath (Walcot, City and Bathwick) was poor, however, and crime flourished. It was not until 1835 that Bath’s Watch Committee organised a single police force incorporating Lyncombe and Widcombe into the original three areas.

Bath’s watch boxes

Watch boxes made of timber or stone increased in number during Queen Anne’s reign (1702–1714), but there is no way to know how prevalent they were in Bath. Three are believed to remain – two outside the Holburne Museum (formerly the 18th-century Sydney Tavern and Gardens) and one in Norfolk Crescent. All three are fabricated from Bath stone. The Holburne ones resemble a soldier’s sentry box built into the ex-hotel’s boundary wall, whereas the one in Norfolk Crescent is free-standing which makes it unusual and a rare survivor.

The crescent of 19 houses was originally called Norfolk Place and named for Nelson’s home county. Norfolk Place was very fashionable when built so it makes sense that it might feature a watch box, although for one to survive is unusual. The box dates to c.1810 and would probably have become redundant in 1835 when the old watch system was abolished. Historic England describes the watch box as being “set into a corner of triangular green to the west of Norfolk Crescent. It faces north towards the street and is open to the approaches to the Crescent. It is comprised of a small, plain, cylinder-like construction using limestone ashlar to the sides and roof.”

There are four pilasters to the moulded capitals carrying entablature and eight plain, raised paterae to the frieze and moulded cornice below a flat, conical dome with two steps. No bases are visible but may be concealed by a rise in the pavement and the ground level. There is a worn plank door with strap hinges. Architectural historian Neil Jackson speculates that the box could be an early interpretation of the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens. Versions of this classical monument became a popular feature in Georgian Britain.

It is not clear from written sources whether a door to the Norfolk Crescent box was originally there or added after its initial construction and use. Certainly, the door has changed over time. The watch box was integral to a railings and low wall enclosure scheme surrounding the communal garden outside the crescent. Photographs show the railings partially removed in 1945 and completely removed by 1965.

The two (presumed) watch boxes at the Holburne Museum do not appear to have ever had doors. The Historic England listing for them advises that they were constructed c.1840 when the pleasure gardens around the tavern underwent a period of enhancement. They share with the box in Norfolk Crescent a high level of quality in their architectural style, materials, and craftsmanship. However, they were built late in the history of watch boxes and well after the creation of a single police force in Bath, so it is reasonable to speculate that their purpose was ornamental.

The Norfolk Crescent watch box is a rare and important structure. It became redundant within 30 years of construction, yet it has stood for over 200 years as a modest emblem of Bath’s (and indeed the whole country’s) social, architectural, policing and cultural history.

Main image: Georgian Watchman’s Box of c.1810, Norfolk Crescent, Bath. This Grade II* listed structure is a very rare survival of its type, showing a high level of architectural finish. It was restored in the 1890s, and again in 2012 

The Norfolk Crescent watch box was restored in 2012 by the World Heritage Enhancement Fund (WHEF). The Fund carried out further minor restoration work in 2022. The full paper on The Watchman’s Sentry Box can be found on the WHEF website: bathworldheritage.org.uk/bath-world-heritage