The English have always had an ambivalent attitude toward law enforcement. The common law, on which society was based, was merely a code of laws based on the mores of the time, and the regents were loathe to codify offenses in writing. London was a criminal's heaven, as it was the responsibility of the victim to catch and bring suit against the criminal. Since theft was a capital offense for which the accused could be executed, criminals were just as likely to kill their victims as spare them, as the penalty for murder was also hanging and the dead couldn't testify.
Britain's first attempt at formal law enforcement began in the age of King Edgar toward the end of the 10th century. Edgar divided the country into various shires and placed a lower nobleman in charge of keeping the King's Peace. These shire reeves, as they were first called (later shortened to sheriff), proved no match for the country's lawlessness, and in fact, like the Sheriff of Nottingham of the Robin Hood legend, contributed to the general corruption. Much later, the duty of law and order was assigned to the military, which put "Masters of the Horse," or constables, on the scene to mete frontier justice. These constables were proven ill-equipped to handle the unruly natives.
After the Restoration of Charles II, the London constables were replaced with "Old Charlies," pensioned military men who patrolled the streets of the city at night. For two hundred years, Old Charlies incurred the wrath of London's underworld, and demonstrated their inability to catch criminals or even thwart crime. At the end of the 1600s, Parliament decided it takes a thief to catch a thief and passed the Reward System, which offered a 40 pound bounty for capturing a thief. This prompted a huge influx of thieves turning in other thieves, and led to the rise of Jonathan Wilde, London's master thief, as the chief law enforcement officer in the city.
Wilde was employed by the city to capture thieves and return property to its rightful owner. He took the system and ran with it, charging finder's fees and creating an extortion racket that required property owners to share a portion of the recovered loot with him. He created the Office of Lost and Stolen Property within the Marshal's portfolio and became a multimillionaire until an embarrassed Parliament shut him down in 1725. For his malfeasance in office, Wilde was hanged.
In 1748, Henry Fielding, who had been forced by pressure from Parliament to abandon his successful role as author, playwright and social critic, was named court justice for Middlesex and Westminster and took offices at No. 4 Bow Street. He hired a number of strapping men to assist him in bringing law and order to the area, and created the city's first paid, professional police force. The Bow Street force was able to respond to a reported crime in around 15 minutes, and for this, they acquired the nickname "Bow Street Runners."
But they were clearly shoveling against the tide. At no time did the Bow Street Runners comprise more than 15 men, and at the time of its foundation an estimated 30,000 people made their living through larceny, writes H. Paul Jeffries in Bloody Business, a fascinating history of Scotland Yard.
"Londoners lived in a world where violence, disorder and brutal punishments were still part of the normal background of life," said Dorothy George in 1930.
This was the world into which Sweeney Todd was born in 1748.