In 1729 the former army officer Thomas de Veil was appointed as a magistrate for Westminster and Middlesex. He initially based himself at Leicester Fields and was paid from a secret fund. He was a diligent legal officer by the standards of the day and an energetic prosecutor of illegal gin sellers, using informants to entrap them. In the 1730s he broke up criminal gangs that followed the downfall of Jonathan Wild and took a hard line against the leaders of the Gin Riots in 1736. He gained a knighthood in 1744 for suppressing riots by footmen. From 1744 he leased premises from the Duke of Bedford at 4 Bow Street but died in 1746.
It was Henry Fielding who, in 1748, replaced de Veil at Bow Street. He came from a West Country family, with a maternal grandfather who was a Justice of the King’s Bench. However, after attending Eton college he initially became a playwright in London, writing a number of scripts that were performed at Drury Lane and other theatres. His plays were highly critical of the Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole. In 1737 Walpole put a stop to the criticism by introducing an Act of Parliament that ensured that plays be censored by the Lord Chamberlain’s office. It was time for Fielding to take up a new career and, probably reluctantly and out of financial necessity, he followed his cousin Henry Gould by enrolling as a student, studying law at Middle Temple. After being called to the bar in 1740 he took work as a barrister, dealing with minor cases in the West Country. It was far from lucrative, so at the same time he began writing novels, the most famous of which is Tom Jones.
During the 1740s Fielding was becoming increasingly lame due to gout. Travelling around the country on horseback and by carriage became ever more difficult and uncomfortable. He sought a position close to his home in London but was unsuccessful in his application as a magistrate for Middlesex due to its requirement for the nominee to own property. There was no such necessity in Westminster and in 1748 he was able to fill one of two vacancies as a magistrate.
Fielding was already under the patronage of the Duke of Bedford who owned much of Covent Garden and Bloomsbury. It was no doubt the influence of the aristocrat that gained him the appointment. He was paid £550 from a secret fund, perhaps provided by the Duke. The court-room occupied the ground floor of the building in Bow Street and Fielding lived above, on the first floor.
The earliest existing record of Fielding’s work as a Justice of the Peace was recorded in the St. James’s Evening Post of December 1748: “Yesterday John Salter was committed to the Gatehouse by Henry Fielding, Esq., of Bow Street, Covent Garden, formerly Sir Thomas De Veil’s, for feloniously taking out of a bureau in the house of the Rev. Mr Dalton, a quantity of money found upon him.”
Covent Garden was an area Fielding knew intimately, having lived and worked within a short radius for many years. With an aristocratic background he had some influence amongst the governing elite, yet his years as a playwright and man about town had given him an understanding of the lowest levels of society. His judgments, using simple common-sense where appropriate, were tough on criminals but compassionate and lenient in cases of genuine hardship. Fielding’s mission was to fight crime and prostitution from his base at Bow Street but he clearly had sympathy for the plight of London’s poor who were driven into those ways, as well as their reliance on gin. Both Fielding and the artist William Hogarth were anti-gin campaigners who lobbied to change the law to control the alcohol.
Yet there were some who questioned some of Fielding’s judgements, with witnesses making false statements under duress and some clear miscarriages of justice. He was highly criticized in two cases in particular. The first was in 1749 when he sent the wig-maker Bosavern Penlez for trial and ultimately execution for the crime of theft during a riot by sailors, on the thin evidence of a brothel-keeper.
Less than a year after taking up his position as magistrate at Bow Street Fielding was also elected as Chairman of the Quarter Sessions at Hick’s Hall, the courthouse in John Street, Smithfield. In the summer of 1749 he sent the Lord Chancellor a draft of a Bill that aimed at “preventing street robberies”, something a previous novelist, Daniel Defoe, had considered 20 years earlier. Fielding’s plan included the restriction or banning of brothels, gaming houses and various forms of entertainment.
When he took up his post Fielding inherited a force of eighty men, of which he found he could trust only six, as well as Joshua Brogden, who had previously worked as the clerk for de Veil. All these men were paid in a variety of ways, including from rewards for the retrieval of stolen property.
Fielding occasionally worked with Saunders Welch, High Constable of Holborn, an imposing and extrovert man, with an encyclopaedic knowledge of London. They worked together in dealing with thieves in the slums of Shoreditch. In 1751 Fielding wrote of the experience about the ease with which criminals could escape in London’s slums and lodging-houses. In 1758 Welch published a proposal on how to fight prostitution.
Fielding took out advertisements in newspapers, such as the one in the Covent Garden Journal in 1752:
All persons who shall for the future, suffer by robbers, burglars, etc. are desired immediately to bring, or send, the best description they can of such robbers, etc., with the time, and place, and circumstances of the fact, to Henry Fielding, Esq., at his house in Bow Street.
He also issued reports of court cases in the press to inform people of successful prosecutions and warn potential offenders.