The Watch Dogs of Georgian London

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Guest Blog from Tom Almeroth-Williams who recently completed a PhD at the University of York examining the role played by horses and livestock in Georgian London. He’s now writing book on the subject, including dogs …

You can find out more about Tom’s research at https://independent.academia.edu/TomAlmerothWilliams and tweet him at https://twitter.com/TomAlmerothW.

 House-breaking was a major problem in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century London. Parish watchmen and constables, thief-takers, and from 1753, the ‘Bow Street Runners’ prevented many crimes but Londoners could not rely on them. Householders and businesses invested in locks and bolts to protect their property, but their greatest ally was a house or yard dog. The city is often associated with moral panics about crime but the use of watch dogs shows that Londoners often took uncompromising action to avoid becoming a victim. [i]

Dogs offered two kinds of protection, a deterrent and an alarm. Ferocious dogs posed a serious occupational hazard for burglars and aroused genuine fear. In 1827, the Old Bailey heard that a large Newfoundland dog had attacked a gang after they barged into a respectable residence near Regent’s Park. One of the thieves, John Duxberry, received a deep laceration to one of his legs but the gang managed to overpower and tether the dog. They then threw down some meat to stop the dog barking and made off with cash, jewellery, silverware and clothes. Duxberry was later hanged, a common sentence, but the bite he received was less predictable.

A mastiff dog standing to left in a chained collar in a yard beside the Thames, a man working outside a building behind at right, bridge and the dome of St Paul's in the distance; illustration to "The Sportsman's Repository, or a Correct Delineation of th

John Scott after Philip Reinagle, ‘Mastiff’, published in The Sportsman’s Repository, or a Correct Delination of the Horse & Dog (etching & engraving, London, 1820).  http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3101035&partId=1&people=110197&peoA=110197-2-23&page=1

Recent animal behaviour studies have observed that guard dogs bark or snarl when confronted but generally back away or remain hidden to avoid being harmed.[ii] Nevertheless, sensible burglars steered clear of properties known to keep vicious animals or made careful plans to avoid confrontation. In 1818, the Old Bailey heard that Stephen Morris, a watchman-turned-thief, had broken into the Camden residence of William Clulow. Having previously apprehended thieves in the area, Morris not only knew that Clulow owned a dog but also that it had a propensity to bite. Morris’ solution was to pay the family’s footman to shut ‘the dog up in the scullery’ before letting him into the house.  Not all thieves, however, could count on the help of an insider; and a dog’s bark usually proved more deadly than its bite, triggering a chain of events which often led to arrest and trial, followed by death or transportation.

London’s dogs provided a valuable free service to parish rate payers because the watchmen they funded were often drawn to crime scenes by the sound of barking. It would be naïve to imagine, however, that dogs were just weapons wielded by humans or that they could be programmed to perform like a modern burglar alarm. When watch dogs served the interests of their master, they did so self-directed and with their own interests firmly in mind. Dogs barked at and bit intruders because it was in their own interests to guard what they perceived to be their own territory, and to protect the people who fed them and otherwise cared for them.

By the 1700s, centuries of selective breeding had created dogs with particular physical attributes and behavioural characteristics but the latter should not be overstated. London’s watch dogs were a heterogeneous group which included terriers, mastiffs, wappits, lap dogs and mongrels. What these animals had in common were their acute senses of sight, hearing and smell; and a powerful instinct to bark at perceived threats. Recent animal behaviour research has also shown that even when sleeping dogs make much more vigilant guards than their masters. Humans sleep for several hours in a single session during which we approach consciousness but generally avoid waking up. Canine sleep cycles operate very differently.[iii] Thus, while householders in Georgian London might have enjoyed seven hours of unbroken sleep, their dogs would have sprung back to life at least twenty times. This is significant because the majority of burglaries were committed in the dark of night. Georgian dog owners recognised and appreciated this so when Oliver Goldsmith extolled the virtues of dogs, he began by writing:

When at night the guard of the house is committed to his care, he seems proud of the charge; he continues a watchful centinel’ [iv]

Watch dogs did not have to be large or powerful to prove their worth. Sir John Fielding heard from many thieves that:

they never dreaded half so much the attacks of the fiercest large dog, as the tongues of the smallest, which they could find no possible means to quiet, but knocking them on the head.

Small ‘house dogs’ were thought to sleep less heavily than bigger dogs and ‘may even be said to be watchful in their sleep’.[v] This complicates the impression given by some eighteenth-century commentators, and repeated by historians, that small dogs were the very embodiment of idle luxury. No matter how artificially their fashionable owners behaved, lap-dogs never lost their natural instincts and newspaper reports often pointed out that it had been ‘the barking of a little Dog’ which had prevented thieves from robbing Londoners in their sleep.

A fashionably-dressed woman in a bonnet with a lace fringe that covers her eyes, taking breakfast at a round table set with a tray of tea things, a biscuit on a plate and a small book; a black page bringing a kettle on the left and a spaniel on a chair by the table.  1772  Hand-coloured mezzotint with some etching

Anon, Lady Nightcap at Breakfast (Hand coloured mezzotint, published by Carrington Bowles, London, 1772). http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3347742&partId=1

Ingrid Tague has rightly argued that the nature of pet keeping changes across periods and cultures but asserts that a key characteristic of a ‘pet’ is ‘its primary purpose for humans’ being ‘entertainment and companionship’. Tague also makes a clear-cut distinction between ‘working’ dogs which lived outside in a kennel or a yard, and ‘pets’ which shared domestic space with their owner. It is unclear whether London’s yard dogs offered companionship or entertainment, as well as keeping watch, but even if they did, these animals were, first and foremost, working dogs. The boundary between house dogs and working dogs was, however, blurred because the former were expected to raise the alarm in the event of a break-in.

No matter how pampered they were, pet dogs in Georgian London never stopped working. Kathleen Kete has reached similar conclusions about 1850s Paris, where dog owners resisted the state’s efforts to class dogs as either useful or for pleasure, for the purposes of taxation. But in London, many dog owners were challenging this concept in the 1750s, if not earlier. And this culminated in the passing of an English dog tax in 1796 which accepted the usefulness of pet dogs.[vi] I would argue, therefore, that London’s increasing reliance on dogs to protect property contributed to the growing acceptance of pet keeping in the eighteenth century.[vii]

[i] R.B. Shoemaker, ‘Worrying about crime: experience, moral panics and public opinion in London, 1660-1800’, Past and Present, 234 (2017), 71-100.

[ii] G.J. Adams & K.G. Johnson, ‘Guard dogs: sleep, work and the behavioural responses to people and other stimuli’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 46 (1995), 113-14.

[iii] G.J. Adams, ‘Sleep-wake cycles and other night-time behaviours of the domestic dog Canis familiaris’, Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 36 (1993), 233-48.

[iv] Oliver Goldsmith, An History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, 8 vols. (London, 1774), vol.3, p.253.

[v] John Scott, The Sportsman’s Repository (1820; London, 1845 edn.), p.161.

[vi] Public Act: 36 Geo. III, c.124, An Act for granting to his Majesty certain Duties on Dogs (1796).

[vii] I. H. Tague, Animal Companions: Pets and Social Change in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Pennsylvania, 2015), pp.4-6 & 228; K. Kete, The Beast in the Boudoir: Petkeeping in Nineteenth-Century Paris (Berkeley, 1994), ch.3.