London’s First Professional Police Force
While scanning Amazon Prime offerings one evening, I had a rare experience. I came across a BBC series I had not previously viewed. I Googled the title and read that it was well researched despite compressing timeframes of events and characters, so I binge watched City of Vice. It was riveting. It also rekindled an interest in a subject found in but not always deeply explored by many beloved historical novels: the Bow Street Runners. Too often, they simply appear as a stage prop in the plot with little revealed about their origins.
Criminal investigation, prosecution, and punishment in England once looked nothing like their present incarnations of Scotland Yard, the Old Bailey, and Her Majesty’s Prison Service. Prior to the eighteenth century, law enforcement and criminal prosecutions were rather loosely conceived and administered things. As to keeping the peace, every male householder was required to participate in policing the streets and byways of his locale as a member of the 9:00 or 10:00 p.m. until dawn Night Watch. No pay came with their participation, which required them to deal with whatever miscreants came their way. One can envision how warmly a citizen must have greeted this call to duty. Once a crime had been committed, witnesses and victims were expected to report and prosecute them.
While this plan beggars the imagination, it may have worked while England was still a largely agrarian society and London was not so populous, but as the nation grew in empire and the city in size and wealth, attendant dangers increased. By the 18th century, citizens no longer wished to play a direct, personal role in law enforcement and prosecution. Instead, they turned to hiring out those roles to deputies and thief-takers. Initially, these surrogates were paid by the private citizens whose civic obligations the deputies were fulfilling and in prosecuting criminals. Watchmen spent their working hours walking the streets checking for unlocked doors, calling out the hour, and generally making enough racket that their whereabouts were known to all and sundry, including the thieves and burglars against whom the watchmen were hired to protect the public. Their service was overseen by constables hired through various methods.
This form of law and order stumbled along throughout the early modern era without any centralized supervision or governmental oversight. The problems presented by such a haphazard method of policing coupled with a rising tide of crime in the 18th century led parishes to request that Parliament grant Watch Acts giving them the right to tax their residents so that paid watchmen might be hired. By 1800, most of the watchmen and constables in London were paid, but they still did not constitute a centrally organized and supervised citywide police force. In addition, this hodgepodge of peace keepers was not expected or required to patrol beyond the borders of their employ. They did not pursue criminals beyond their own boundaries nor did they generally investigate crimes. One can surmise that a fleet-footed malefactor was rarely brought to justice.
Amid all of this ineptitude and lack of organization, one man realized that there had to be a better way of dealing with law breaking and he conceived a plan that would elevate the men he hired to the level of actual peacekeeping professionals. His name was Henry Fielding – novelist, dramatist, gentleman, jurist, and magistrate. He is perhaps best remembered as the author of Tom Jones and other novels, but of his many achievements, it is surely the founding of the Bow Street Runners that has had the greatest, most far reaching impact.
Henry and his blind brother, John, became magistrates in the Bow Street magistrate’s rotation office in 1748. Rotation offices had been established to encourage victims of crimes to report them by ensuring that a magistrate would be consistently and predictably available at posted times. Once in office, the brothers set out to address a rising post-war crime wave. They developed methods for detection and investigation of crime and for apprehending criminals. They hired former constables and thief-takers on a full-time basis to implement those methods. They instilled organization, methodology, and professionalism where there had once been chaos. A particular innovation was the introduction of intelligence work whereby information about crimes and suspected perpetrators was collected and disseminated. They organized foot and horseback patrols charged with the responsibility to prevent crime. Their men became well known and often appeared in court proceedings to offer testimony. The Fieldings’ influence was such that between 1792 and 1800, more rotation offices with paid magistrates and constables were established for detecting and investigating crimes and arresting criminals. Victims came to look on the rotation offices as their first line of defense in redressing their grievances.
From the foundation laid by Henry and John Fielding and their Bow Street Runners, the next phase of London policing developed and will be the subject of a future post.
The list of historical novels mentioning/featuring the Bow Street Runners is long. For a partial listing, click on the Library Thing link below.
Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.
Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.