The Dogs That Stopped an 18th Century Crime Wave

By Joseph Hayes on at

Dogs have long been considered man’s best friend, but it wasn't until the 18th century that they truly secured that honour. All by doing one of the things dogs do best: stopping burglars and saving their owners a fortune.

Back in May 1764, a group of thieves found themselves  in the middle of a jewel heist. As Dr Tom Almeorth-Williams, author of “The Watchdogs of Georgian London: Non-human Agency, Crime Prevention and Control of Urban Space” in the London Journal notes, they had no problem getting past the guards and breaking into the shop in question. Sadly they found their path blocked by a dog rather than a human being. Despite their best efforts, the criminals aren’t able to get inside and are forced to leave.

In the midst of failure by all human security, it’s a humble dog that prevents the theft.

The 18th century and early 19th century were the centre of a mass crime wave. The situation was particularly bad in London, with £500,000 worth of goods being stolen from the docks area each year. That’s half a million pounds at the time, mind; roughly equivalent to £40 million today.

Needless to say a response was needed, and that wasn’t going to be found from the ‘police’ of the time. Law enforcement wasn’t centralised and instead consisted of a rag-tag group of ‘Watchmen’ that were often as corrupt as those they were tasked with pursuing. Not all ‘Watchmen’ were dishonest, as JM Beattie notes, but they had enough on their hands dealing with drunks at the time, let alone organised crime.

The situation was reaching fever pitch. Newspapers of the time, such as the London Daily Advertiser, reported stories of horror as overblown as anything in the Daily Mail today, and took the view that only way to solve the problem was with more hangings. As Almeroth-Williams highlights however, the gangs were very well organised and “shutters, locks, bolts and chains” didn’t seem to do anything to  stop them. The only thing that seemed to have any effect was man’s best friend.

The situation at the time hadn’t been great for the dogs. Kirstin Olsen has recognised that “the 18th century was also an age of casual cruelty to animals”.  Dogs were regarded by the upper classes as vermin, especially when they belonged to those at the lower strata of society. Yet by the end of the 18th century the dogs’ social had drastically changed for the better. Once viewed as a liability, dog ownership was now recognised as a ‘right’. What happened?

Of course ,their contributions to crime fighting might not have been the sole reason for improving dogs’ standing in 18th century society, but it certainly helped. There were several factors that made dogs incredibly useful for tackling crime, especially in this corner of history. The main one, unsurprisingly, was that a barking dog  was a key deterrent for any criminal.

Crime in this era operated on the basis of the “Bloody Code”. Authorities had no uniformed officers and lacked the resources for preventing or investigating crimes. So all they could feasibly do was be as punitive as possible to any criminals they did catch. Naturally, a dog’s bark proved incredibly helpful in raising the alarm against criminals.

As Almeroth-Williams comments, a dog’s bark could scupper a criminal and bring “arrest and trial, frequently followed by death or transportation” to the crook.

The second big factor was that dogs have teeth and know how to use them. That’s the kind of time where things could get particularly nasty for any would-be robber. As dogs became a more effective weapon against the ongoing crime wave, attack dogs were trained to bring down criminals quickly and ruthlessly. Even other more domestically focused breeds generally referred to as lapdogs were willing to give it a go and attack criminals if they could catch them with their guard down.

Finally, the third big factor was that people were increasingly recognising the continued vigilance of dogs. Whereas the city’s watchmen might simply abandon their posts or fall asleep, the dogs stayed on patrol. “As one resident of London Oliver Goldsmith stated in 1774, “seems proud of the charge; he continues a watchful centinel” [sic].

That made dogs an incredibly strong deterrent to the organised gangs. Sadly, just as law enforcement changed their tactics so did the thieves. Criminal gangs began to factor in the danger of dogs into their plans, and one popular tactic was to use an inside man to help in their schemes. As Alemorth-Williams states, “A familiar face was often enough to dissuade a dog from barking”.

If this didn’t work then plan B involved stopping a dog through petting or the use of food to keep it quiet. Unfortunately, not all thieves were as peaceful as this. In fact, dogs sometimes made the ultimate sacrifice at the hands of particularly violent criminals.

In one instance in 1774, the dog was slaughtered to stop it preventing a warehouse robbery, while another was burnt with acid in the process of defeating  a gang of thieves seeking to rob a grocer that same year. Other dogs were given poison which gave the thieves free run of the premises.

They didn’t limit their brutality to dogs, either. In some criminal escapades, unwilling servants would be forced to try and dissuade the dogs from attacking. In November 1751, during a farm yard raid, a servant’s ear was chopped off when he refused to obey the criminals that demanded he silence one of the dogs on the estate. Thankfully, in the end, the gang’s plans were scuppered.

But while the gangs of criminals grew more vicious in their approach, the sacrifices dutiful dogs made throughout London did a huge amount to help tackle the hostility people had towards them. The bond between the dogs and those they protected grew ever stronger as a result of the violence they sought to prevent.

The backdrop amongst all of the conflicts between dogs and criminals was a move by a member of parliament named John Dent. Dent had a particular dislike of dogs, or rather the fact they were being owned by the poor, and sought to have them taxed. This would have put dogs out of the reach of the ordinary people, and only the privileged would be able to afford them. Dent was not alone in this either and there were several members of the upper classes who felt that dogs should not be owned by those without property of their own.

Happily this was a relatively extreme view, even amongst the wealthy. Dent was met with resistance by a fellow MP, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who highlighted the important role of guard dogs and that "dogs were better than watchmen for the protection of property". The dog tax bill was nonetheless introduced, and it proved to be a very bizarre piece of legislation. Greyhounds were regarded as a prize possession and taxed very highly, whereas animals used for group purposes, such as fox hounds, were taxed collectively.

There was good news for the poor, though, as Almeroth-Williams comments that all of the steeper taxes fell on the wealthiest members of society. In fact, the Dog Tax managed to achieve the complete opposite effect of that John Dent had desired. For the first time in law dogs were enshrined as being the best friend of the common man, all while those members of the upper class who had sought to penalise dog owners from poorer backgrounds had been thwarted.

Dogs were the unsung heroes of this period, but as Almeroth-Williams highlights, they were usually “taken for granted”. However, what dogs showed during the 18th century wasn’t just that they could guard a storehouse or shop often far better than human guards. Instead, they showed they had a consistent loyalty and devotion, not only to those trying to protect their property but also those looking for company and affection.

As Dr Almeroth Williams states in an email to Gizmodo, “Attitudes to dogs were complicated in Georgian England, especially in London because both populations lived cheek-by-jowl in a unique and very intense environment.  The same dog could be viewed as a pest, friend, useless luxury, brave defender and terrifying assailant all in the same week. This was still the case in 1800 as it had been in 1700, but the social acceptability of non-elite people owning dogs clearly increased in this period”.

Dogs consistently showed how useful they could be to owners in the 18th century, and met their owners’ kindness with a loyalty that saved their owners skin as well as their wallets.

Dr Tom Almeroth-Williams’ book ‘City of Beasts: How Animals Shaped Georgian London’ is out 31st May 2018