Rembrandt's "The Nightwatch"
Friday, May 18, 2018 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

This is National Police Week, a time when our nation reflects on the value of our professional peace keepers and remembers those who have fallen in the line of duty.  If you have an inquisitive sort of mind, you might have wondered how this invaluable service got started in our community. You might be surprised to learn that the roots of the Charleston police department, and of all law enforcement services in South Carolina, stretch back more than seven hundred years to thirteenth-century England. Today we’ll turn our time machine back to the beginning of the Carolina colony and learn how a medieval law shaped the volunteer “night watch” of 1670s Charleston, our community’s first peace-keeping service.

The modern concept of round-the-clock police protection is a relatively recent phenomenon that requires the commitment of considerable resources, personnel, and funds. The first 24-hour peace-keeping force in the English-speaking world appeared in the greater London area as a result of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. Big cities like New York and Boston passed similar legislation soon afterwards, but things were different in the smaller cities of the South. The City Council of Charleston, for example, always mindful of preserving a conservative economy, cautiously adopted this expensive practice by degrees during the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Between 1846 and 1856, the city vacillated several times between the perpetuation of old traditions and the adoption of new practices. This reluctance to modernize wasn’t just a matter of money or resources, however. The advent of 24-hour policing represented a major culture shift in Charleston and other cities. Prior to that time, the landscape of urban Charleston was patrolled by a part-time, paramilitary force born of a unique and often misunderstood blend of circumstances. Here the ancient English legacy of policing was transformed by the desire to control and intimidate an enslaved majority. To understand this transformation, and its long-lasting impact on the peace and security of our community, we need to start from the very beginning of this ancient story.

The roots of all law enforcement agencies in South Carolina, and elsewhere in the American colonies, are firmly planted in a piece of medieval legislation called the Statute of Winchester (13 Ed. I), which was ratified in October 1285 by King Edward I of England. This law, enacted more than two centuries after the Norman Conquest of England, represented a fusion of older Anglo-Saxon and newer Norman ideas about keeping the “king’s peace” throughout the land. You can read the entire text of the law online, but for our purposes I’ll summarize the three “practical measures” established or revived by the Statute of Winchester. First, it established the system of “watch and ward” in urban towns, performed by volunteer watchmen between sunset and sunrise, as a supplement to the duties performed by the town constable (a position created by statute in 1252). The constable was required to place the names of all able-bodied men of the town on a roster and to require a portion of the men to perform voluntary watch duty each night in rotation. During the night, it was their duty was to challenge anyone found on the streets. Think of the phrase, “Hark! Who goes there?” If the watchmen encountered strangers or suspected criminals during their rounds, they were obliged to “arrest” (detain) them until morning, when they could be examined by a magistrate.[1] Second, the statute of 1285 revived the Anglo-Saxon practice known as the “hue and cry,” which required all citizens, whenever summoned, to participate in the pursuit and apprehension of fugitive offenders. The third measure was the “assize of arms,” which required every male between the ages of fifteen and sixty to possess and maintain arms (the type of arms depending on their wealth), and to bear those arms in times of crisis if required.[2]

From this quick summary of the Statute of Winchester, we can see the outline of our modern law enforcement services. The nocturnal watchmen of 1285 evolved into our municipal police departments that protect and serve urban and suburban areas. The Anglo-Saxon “hue and cry” formed the basis of both the sheriff’s department, which serves unincorporated and rural areas, and our modern highway patrol. The medieval duty to bear arms in case of emergencies it at the root of our colonial militias and the second amendment to the Constitution of the United States of America. Each of these three branches has a story of its own in the early history of South Carolina, but for the moment I’d like to follow the urban branch—the nocturnal watchmen who performed the “watch and ward” of the earliest days of Charleston.

The first European settlers who pitched the original Charles Town at Albemarle Point, on the west bank of the Ashley River in April 1670, no doubt mounted some sort of nightly watch to protect themselves against the potential clandestine advance of hostile Spaniards from nearby St. Augustine or the neighboring Native American tribes, but the details of such mundane defensive measures are lost to time. It is noteworthy, however, that the earliest surviving references to Charleston’s “town watch” echo many of the practices prescribed in the Statute of Winchester. These clues suggest that the early South Carolina settlers probably established an ad hoc “night watch” modeled on familiar English traditions soon after the beginning of the first settlement at Charles Town on Albemarle Point.[3]

The inaugural meeting of South Carolina’s first legislative body, styled the “Grand Council” of Carolina, took place at Albemarle Point in late August 1671.[4] Two months later, while gravely considering the security of the infant colony, the Grand Council complained “as of late there hath been a great neglect in the due observance of the watches in this towne whereby the safety of this collony is very much hazarded.” In order to improve their collective safety, the Grand Council ordered the provincial marshal to make “a list of all the persons in this collony as they are modellized in the Watch and accordingly shall give notice to every person the time when he is to watch.” In case legitimate illness should prevent a man from performing duty on his appointed night, the marshal was ordered to summon the next able man on the list “soe the number of five men may be preserved entire to watch every night.”[5] The number of five watchmen (led by a constable) may seem like an insufficient force, but it is consistent with the prescriptions of the Statute of Winchester. That medieval law prescribed that the complement of the nightly watch should be determined by the size of the settlement: “in every city by six men at every gate; in every borough, by twelve men; in every town, by six or four, according to the number of the inhabitants of the town.”[6]

How long this ad hoc system of mounting a night watch continued is unknown, but undoubtedly it was carried across the Ashley River in 1680 when the seat of government was transferred to “new” Charles Town on the peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper Rivers. After that time, the paucity of extant records from the early 1680s renders it impossible to know whether the provincial Grand Council continued the fledgling watch without innovation or passed laws to organize the watch more formally. The earliest surviving record of the formal institution of the night watch appears in a statute passed in April 1685, titled “An Act for the clearing the lotts and streetes of Charles-town, and for the settlement and regulation of a night-watch in the said towne.” Demonstrating that the town was still very much a frontier settlement, the first two sections of this law required the owners of urban property to clear the shrubs and weeds from their own lots and from the streets in front of their respective lots. The law’s third section turned its attention to the “peace and good weall of this Province and town,” which depended on the “orderly government thereof, and particularly the settlement of a constable’s watch in the night, during great part of the yeare.” Accordingly, the law required the town’s “two constables and their deputie constables” (apparently appointed by the Grand Council by a now-missing law) to make a list of all the “householders, masters and mistresses of families, and freemen lodgers” who have dwelt in the town for at least three months and to divide the list into four divisions or precincts. The four precincts were to be divided among the constables and deputies, each of whom was obliged to notify the heads of household (or their servants or substitutes) in his precinct of their appointed “tyme of guarding and watching.” Every night, “so long and during such tyme as the grand council shall direct,” one of the constables or their deputies, accompanied by six male inhabitants drawn from within his respective precinct, were to “set a guard” and patrol the town from ten p.m. until half an hour before sunrise.[7]

Observant readers will note that the 1685 “Watch Act,” as we might call it for the sake of convenience, neglects to specify the duties and powers of the watchmen raised from among the urban citizens. From this conspicuous omission we may infer that their primary duty was identical to that performed by countless generations of English watchmen raised since the Statute of Winchester: to enforce a nightly curfew by detaining streetwalkers and suspicious persons and to present them to a magistrate in the morning for questioning. The earliest known references to the watch enforcing such a curfew in Charleston appears in a pair of laws passed in March 1696 to regulate the watch and to constrain the movements of transient mariners. The latter law imposed a fine on the keeper of any public house or tavern who entertained sailors “after eight of the clock in winter at night, and nine of the clock in summer at night,” unless the sailors had written permission from their masters to remain on shore, and required “the captain of the night watch” to enforce this curfew during his usual rounds. From this text we see that the hour of “setting of the watch,” as it was commonly called in England, changed with the seasonal variations in sunlight. A 1696 revision of the “Watch Act,” ratified on the same day as the law relating to mariners, states that these seasonal adjustments to the curfew occurred on the tenth day of March and the tenth day of October each year. A further refinement of the “Watch Act” ratified in October 1698 defined more specifically the seasonal duration of the curfew, requiring watchmen to patrol the town “from the hour of eight at night to the hour of six in the morning, from the tenth day after the ratification of this Act to the tenth day of March following; and from the hour of nine at night, to the hour of four in the morning, from the tenth day of March to the tenth day of September following, yearly.”[8] Although later refinements of the Watch Act amended the calendar of the seasonal adjustments, this stringently enforced curfew was a regular feature of daily life in Charleston for the next century and a half.

As the continuation of a long-established English practice, Charleston’s dusk-to-dawn curfew was not a unique phenomenon in late-seventeenth-century colonial America. Every urban settlement on the mainland, as well as those in the West Indian islands, followed a similar pattern of establishing some system of a nightly guard. In settlements where African slaves were imported in large numbers, however, the role of the night watch took on a specifically New World dimension. In such communities, from Barbados to Virginia and beyond, white European settlers lived in constant fear of a domestic uprising among their enslaved Africans, and the task of restraining their nocturnal movements soon became one of the principal duties of the urban watch. This process evolved gradually in early South Carolina, where the number of imported Africans increased steadily from the 1670s until they formed a majority of the population by 1708. The contemporary practice of enslaving Native American Indians not “in amity” with the English settlers, controversial even at that time, further increased the number of persons living in bondage in early Carolina. Although the majority of South Carolina’s enslaved population lived on rural plantations, the number of urban slaves residing in Charleston similarly outnumbered Europeans by the early years of the eighteenth century.[9]

The earliest known mention of the nightly curfew being applied specifically to enslaved people appears in a law passed in February 1686/7, “An Act inhibiting the trading with servants and slaves,” which prohibited “negroes, or other slaves, upon any pretence whatsoever, to travel or goe abroad, from his or their master or mistresses house in the night time, between the sunsetting and the sunrising, or in the day time, without a note from his or their master or mistresse or overseer.”[10] Although Charleston’s watchmen were undoubtedly responsible for enforcing this law in the 1680s, the earliest known confirmation of this duty appears in an October 1698 revision of the Watch Act, which complained that “negroes frequently absent themselves from their masters or owners houses, caballing, pilfiring, stealing and playing the rogue, at unseasonable hours of the night.” This colorful phrase was repeated in several subsequent revisions of this law, and the strict enforcement of the slave curfew continued to be one of the most notorious characteristics of Charleston’s urban police force until the demise of slavery in Charleston in February 1865. Upon meeting with any enslaved person who “cannot give [a] good and satisfactory account of his business,” the town’s watchmen were required to apprehend and detain such person until morning, at which time their masters could retrieve their property on payment of a fine or after permitting the administration of corporal punishment to the slave.[11]

Since the enforcement of the nightly curfew was important to the preservation of the peace and good order in early Charleston, it was likewise imperative that the town’s polyglot inhabitants understand and observe the beginning and end of the nocturnal restrictions. For centuries, cities and towns in England and on the European Continent had answered this need by means of an audible signal, usually given by a drummer parading through the streets in a twin practice known as the tattoo (or taptoo) and reveille (or travallia). The beating of the tattoo at sunset announced the “setting of the watch” and served as a warning to slaves, servants, and sailors to repair to their respective domiciles or vessels for the evening. At sunrise, the beating or sounding of the reveille lifted the curfew and signaled the official beginning of the workday. The medieval Statute of Winchester mentions neither the tattoo nor the reveille, nor does it mention the use of the drum to set and relieve the night watch. Such practices evolved in subsequent centuries, however, and reflect many generations of experience in guarding both civilian settlements and military garrisons. The immortal plays of William Shakespeare, for example, contain numerous references to the daily setting and raising of the night watch, and thus testify to the ubiquity of the practice in seventeenth-century English society.[12]

The earliest reference to drums in South Carolina appears a half-century after Shakespeare’s death, among the earliest records of the nascent colony. A drum is included in the 1669 inventory of materials shipped with the first English settlers to South Carolina, and in 1671 the colonists requested additional drums, heads, snares, and tensioning ropes from their agents in London.[13] Although evidence from the early years is lacking, it is likely that Charleston’s urban night watch employed drums to perform the daily tattoo and reveille from the beginning of its existence. The earliest known mention of beating the nightly tattoo and morning reveille, however, appears in a revision of the militia law ratified on 2 March 1695/6. During times of alarm or general muster, this law states, it shall be illegal to dispense “any strong drinke from and after the beate of the tattoo or before and untill the beate of the travallia [reveille].”

By means of several statutory extensions and reiterations, the volunteer nocturnal patrol prescribed in the initial “Watch Act” of 1685 continued in force for a dozen years with only a few small changes. Following the outbreak of “King William’s War” between England and France in 1689, Governor James Colleton imposed martial law in South Carolina and quickly drew the ire of many Charlestonians. In a confusing power struggle, Colleton was forced out of office and Seth Sothel, one of the Lords Proprietors of Carolina then residing in the province, claimed the governorship in late 1690. Almost immediately afterward, the South Carolina parliament observed that “in this time of warr and eminent danger, it is necessary and convenient that there be a due and faithful watch.” In December 1690, they ratified a refinement of the watch law, specifying that the six “masters of families, or freemen” (or their substitutes) who attended “the constable or his deputy every night” should appear with “a gun well fixt, and six charges of powder and ball.”[14]

In the ensuing year, however, reports of political and legal abuses perpetrated by Sothel’s administration reached the Lords Proprietors of Carolina back in England. In September 1691 the Proprietors sent orders to Charleston that all of the acts passed by his “pretended Parliaments” had been disallowed, but it was not until April 1692 that Governor Sothel was removed from office and the Grand Council of South Carolina formally dissolved.[15] When the vestiges of the Grand Council met again June 1692 to consider temporary means of restoring order to South Carolina, one of their first concerns was the enactment of proper laws to regulate the watch. For the “present preservation of the counttrey,” the provisional government ordered that “the measure and rule of Government shall be the Laws of England. . . together wth: such orders and ordinances for the better preservation of the publique peace as shall be from time to time made and published” by the subsequent legitimate government of South Carolina. Accordingly, the interim government’s first action was to order “thatt all persons capable of bearing armes in Charles Towne doe performe theire duetyes in the Constables watch in theire respective turnes and all houses that have nott an inhabittant capable of bearing armes shall furnish [a substitute] to the watch in theire turnes under the penalty of twenty foure howers close imprissonment for every default.”[16]

Three months later, after holding a general election, representatives from throughout the infant colony gathered in Charleston in September 1692 to form a bicameral legislative system in which the elected representatives of the people, the Commons House of Assembly, shouldered the majority of the governmental work. Among their first actions was to draft a new law for regulating the watch in Charleston, which was ratified in October 1692. The text of this law does not survive, but it was probably very similar to that passed in 1685.[17] The next surviving revision, ratified in January 1695, also perpetuated much of the same language as the 1685 law, but reduced the residency grace period for eligible candidates liable to serve as volunteer watchmen from three months to two.[18]

One year later, in the spring of 1696, the citizens of Charleston were alarmed by the arrival of credible intelligence that French forces in the Caribbean were planning to attack and invade South Carolina. The strict observance of the night watch suddenly seemed to be a very important matter, on the coastal islands as well as in urban Charleston. Over the ensuing decade, the South Carolina legislature repeatedly expanded and refined the “Watch Act” to address their collective fears of both enemy invasion and the dangers inherent in the growing population of enslaved Africans. All of that business represents another chapter, however, so let’s put a book mark in our story of the rise of Charleston police department and save the rest for a future conversation.



[1] George Burton Adams and H. Morse Stephens, eds., Select Documents of English Constitutional History (New York: Macmillan, 1901), 76–79. In 1285 the Statute of Winchester specified that watchmen should patrol their town every night from the feast day of the Ascension (forty days after Easter) to the feast day of St. Michael (September 29th), but this limited calendar was expanded to a year-round system in later refinements of the statute.

[2] T. A. Crichley, A History of Police in England and Wales, 2nd edition (Montclair, N.J.: Patterson Smith, 1972), 6–7.

[3] One might ask if the South Carolina legislature every formally adopted the Statute of Winchester. On 12 December 1712, our general assembly ratified “An Act to put in force in this Province the several Statutes of the Kingdom of England or South Britain, therein particularly mentioned,” but it does not mention the Statute of Winchester. See Thomas Cooper, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 2 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1837), 401–16. A similar statute was ratified on 20 June 1694, but only its title survives. See “An Act to put in force the several Acts of the Kingdom of England therein particularly mentioned,” in Cooper, Statutes at Large, 2: 81. The fact that the South Carolina legislature had ratified several acts to regulate the watch in Charleston prior to the abovementioned “reception” statutes of 1694 and 1712, however, renders the point moot.

[4] Langdon Cheves, ed., The Shaftesbury Papers and Other Records Relating to Carolina and the First Settlement on Ashley River Prior to the Year 1676, vol. 5 of Collections of the South Carolina Historical Society (Richmond, Va.: William Ellis Jones, 1897), 330–31.

[5] Proceedings of the Grand Council for 26 October 1671, in A. S. Salley Jr., ed., Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina, August 25, 1671–June 24, 1680 (Columbia: The State Company, for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1907), 10–12.

[6] Adams and Stephens, Select Documents of English Constitutional History, 78.

[7] Act No. 25, “An Act for the clearing the lotts and streetes of Charles-town, and for the settlement and regulation of a night-watch in the said towne,” was ratified on 11 April 1685 and ordered to be in force for twenty-three months; see David J. McCord, ed., The Statutes at Large of South Carolina, volume 7 (Columbia: A. S. Johnston, 1840), 1–3. The legal attention to weeds and shrubs might seem irrelevant to police protection, but the fifth clause of the Statute of Winchester likewise commands property owners to clear the “underwood” bordering inter-city highways “whereby a man may lurk to do hurt.” In contrast to the English statute of 1285, however, the South Carolina law of 1685 concerns only urban lots and streets. See Adams and Stephens, Select Documents of English Constitutional History, 78.

[8] Act No. 136, “An Act to prevent Marriners [sic] and Seamen running into Debt,” ratified on 16 March 1695/6 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 118–19); Act No. 139, “An Act for the keeping and maintaining a Watch and good Orders in Charlestowne,” ratified on 16 March 1695/6 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 121); Act No. 162: “An Act for settling a Watch in Charles Town, and for preventing of Fires,” ratified on 8 October 1698 (see Statutes at Large, 7: 7–12).

[9] Peter H. Wood, Black Majority: Negroes in Colonial South Carolina from 1670 through the Stono Rebellion (New York: W. W. Norton, 1974), 144.

[10] Act No. 34, “An Act inhibiting the trading with servants or slaves,” ratified on 28 February 1686/7 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 22–23), which may be a repetition of a law ratified in September 1683, “An Act Inhibiting the Trading between Servants and Slaves,” only the title of which survives.

[11] Act No. 162: “An Act for settling a Watch in Charles Town, and for preventing of Fires,” ratified on 8 October 1698 (see Statutes at Large, 7: 7–12).

[12] See, for example, Romeo and Juliet, III: 3 and III: 5; Othello, I: 1; and Much Ado about Nothing, III: 3, IV: 2, and V: 1. My thanks to Professor George W. Williams for these citations.

[13] Cheves, Shaftesbury Papers, 147, 350.

[14] Act No. 36, “An Act for the cleaning the lotts and streetes of Charles-town, and for the settlement and regulation of a night-watch in the said towne,” apparently only a two-year extension of Act No. 25, was ratified in February 1686/7 (see Statutes at Large, 7: 4); Act No. 50, “An Act for Settling and continuing a Watch in Charles Town,” ratified on 22 December 1690 (see Statutes at Large, 7: 4).

[15] J. W. Fortescue, ed., Calendar of State Papers, Colonial Series, America and West Indies, 1689–1692 (London: Mckie & Co. for His Majesty’s Stationery Office, 1901), 546 (item No. 1781, from Colonial Entry Book, vol. 2: 186–87).

[16] A. S. Salley Jr., ed., Journal of the Grand Council of South Carolina, April 11, 1692–September 26, 1692 (Columbia: The State Company for the Historical Commission of South Carolina, 1907), 42–43.

[17] Act No. 90, “An Act for Settling and Continuing a Watch in Charlestown, and to clear the same from underwood,” ratified on 15 October 1692 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 76).

[18] Act No. 98, “An Act for Settling and Continuing a Watch in Charles town and to clear the Same from underwood,” ratified on 20 May 1693 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 77), does not survive in any form; Act No. 117, “An Act to Revive the several Acts within mentioned,” ratified on 17 January 1694/5 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 94); Act No. 123, “An Act to Revive the several Acts within mentioned,” ratified on 16 July 1695 (see Statutes at Large, 2: 96).


PREVIOUS: The Baird Brothers: Charleston's Cycling Stars
NEXT: The First Century of Ferry Service across the Cooper River
See more from Charleston Time Machine