The streets in London were dark and had the shortage and poor quality of artificial light. It had been recognized for centuries that the coming of darkness to the unlit streets of a town brought a heightened threat of danger, and that the night provided cover to the disorderly and immoral, and to those bent on robbery or burglary or who in other ways threatened physical harm to people in the streets and in their houses.
The anxieties that darkness gave rise to had been met by the formation of a night watch in the 13th century, and by the rules about who could use the streets after dark. These rules had for long been underpinned in London and other towns by the curfew, the time (announced by the ringing of a bell) at which the gates closed and the streets were cleared. Only people with good reason to be abroad could then travel through the City. Anyone outside at night without reason or permission was suspicious and potentially criminal.
Allowances were usually made for people who had some social status on their side. Lord Fielding clearly expected to pass through London’s streets untroubled at 1 am one night in 1641, and he quickly became piqued when his coach was stopped by the watch, shouting huffily that it was a ‘disgrace’ to stop someone of such high standing as he, and telling the constable in charge of the watch that he would box him on the ears if he did not let his coach carry on back to his house. ‘It is impossible’ to ‘distinguish a lord from another man by the outside of a coach’, the constable said later in his defence, ‘especially at unreasonable times’.