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Crime Prevention Societies

Local crime prevention and thief-taking societies flourished during the period 1790 to 1850.  Therefore, it is a surprise to find that the earliest records are the account books of a society for the seizing of smuggled goods, 1780-1781 (refs: B747-8) which mostly carried out operations in London, Kent and Dorset.  The books are in the archives of the Brandreth family of Houghton Regis because Thomas Cooper, an excise officer, married into the family.  The society was self-financing, paying its officers and informers and buying pistols and equipment from the proceeds of seizures.

The earliest local crime prevention society, organised by local gentry and landowners was the Bedfordshire Association for the Speedy Apprehension and Effectual Prosecution of Horse and Sheep Stealers, Felons and Thieves (established in 1790).  There was also a county association for the preservation of game and fish although the date of foundation is uncertain.  Parish and district associations quickly followed: Potton (by 1793), Olney, Turvey and Harrold (1796), Hockliffe, Chalgrave and Battlesden (1800), Biggleswade (1802) and Ampthill and Silsoe (by 1821).  Worsening agricultural unrest in the County after 1830 encouraged the formation of new associations, including a short-lived one for Harrold and Sharnbrook (1830-1833), an Ampthill Society against the malicious maiming of cattle (1833) and a new association at Potton (1842).

In most cases occasional printed notices and resolutions are all that remind us of these associations, but fortunately substantial archives comprising minutes, financial records and notices, survive among solicitors’ records for the Olney, Turvey and Harrold Association (ref: GA1108) and for the Biggleswade Association (ref: CD1040-1042).  The work and records of the former are described in the Bedfordshire Magazine (Vol. 2, no. 12, Spring 1950).


During the second half of the nineteenth century the associations declined in importance, but the Biggleswade Association lasted until at least 1884 and the Olney, Turvey and Harrold Association until 1909.  In some ways the wheel has come full circle in recent years with the foundation of Neighbourhood Watch in the 1980s, but as yet we have no records equivalent to those of the old associations.