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|Courts of law||2|
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Period referred to: 15th century
Sound category: Authority > Sentries and nightwatchmen
Title of work: Knight's London
Type of publication: History and gazetteer
Author: Charles Knight
Year of publication: 1841
Page/volume number: Chapter VI
The cries of nightwatchmen
It is curious, in these our own days of police and gas-lights, to look back to the means by which the safety and preservation of the city were secured. The watchman had gradually been transformed from a sturdy constable in harness into a venerable personage bearing halberd and lanthorn. It was the business of this reverend person to make the cry inscribed under the figure of the watchman here given ['Lanthorn and a whole candle light! Hang out your lights! Hear!']. He had to deal with deaf listeners, and he therefore proclaimed with a voice of command, "Lanthorn!" But a lanthorn alone was a body without a soul; and he therefore demanded "a whole candle." To this the vital spark was to be given, and he continued to exclaim, "light." To render the mandate less individually oppressive, he went on to cry, "Hang out your lights!" And that even the sleepers might sleep no more, he ended with "Hear!"
We are told by the chroniclers that, as early as 1416, the Mayor, Sir Henry Barton, ordered lanthorns and lights to be hanged out on the winter evenings, betwixt Allhallows and Candlemas. For three centuries this practice subsisted, constantly evaded, no doubt, through the avarice and poverty of individuals, sometimes probably disused altogether, but still the custom of London up to the time of Queen Anne. The cry of the watchman, "hang out your light," was an exhortation to the negligent, which probably they answered only by snores, equally indifferent to their own safety and the public preservation. A worthy mayor in the time of Queen Mary provided the watchman with a bell, with which instrument he accompanied the music of his own voice down to the days of the Commonwealth. The "Statutes of the Streets," in the time of Elizabeth, were careful enough for the preservation of silence in some things. They prescribed that "no man shall blow any horn in the night, or whistle after the hour of nine of the clock in the night, under pain of imprisonment;" and, what was a harder thing to keep, they also forbad a man to make any "sudden outcry in the still of the night, as making any affray, or beating his wife." Yet a privileged man was to go about knocking at doors and ringing his alarum – an intolerable nuisance if he did what he was ordered to do.
But the watchmen were, no doubt, wise in their generation. With honest Dogberry, they could not "see how sleeping should offend;" and after the watch was set, they probably agreed to go sit upon the church bench till two, and then all to bed. Dekker, however, describes the bellman as a person of some activity "the child of darkness; a common night-walker, a man that had no man to wait upon him, but only a dog; one that was a disordered person, and at midnight would beat at men's doors, bidding them (in mere mockery) to look to their candles, when they themselves were in their dead sleeps." Stow says that in Queen Mary's day one of each ward "began to go all night with a bell, and at every lane's end, and at the ward's end, gave warning of fire and candle, and to help the poor, and pray for the dead."