The Bow Street Runners – the emergence of policing in London —Page 3

The Bow Street Magistrates Court is crowded with people waiting to be heard by the magistrate, as depicted in 1808 by Thomas Rowlandson. The magistrate sits on a podium to the left.

Fielding was joined as a magistrate in 1751 by his half-brother, John, son of their father’s second marriage and fourteen years younger. That same year Henry drew up a set of guidelines for the constables under his control. Despite failing health he continued to work to combat both crime and its main underlying reason, that of poverty, by issuing a series of pamphlets, aimed at policy-makers and politicians. When a series of gang murders occurred in 1753 the Duke of Newcastle, brother of the Prime Minister, requested a plan from Fielding. He requested a sum of cash that was used to pay thief-takers as detectives who Fielding could trust. The crime-wave quickly ended.

The second notorious case that called into question Henry Fielding’s judgement was that of Elizabeth Canning, a domestic servant, which became the talk of London in 1753. She claimed to have been abducted and taken to a lodging-house in Enfield frequented by prostitutes. Based on her claim, a gypsy woman and the lodging-house keeper were arrested. A key witness was pressured by Fielding and an associate to corroborate Canning’s story and then herself sent to the Gatehouse Prison at Westminster. The gypsy was sentenced to death and the house keeper burned in the hand and imprisoned. The Lord Mayor, chief magistrate of the City of London, then stepped in. The key witness admitted that under duress she had given false evidence, and other evidence proved that the gypsy had been in Dorset at the time. The gypsy was pardoned and Elizabeth Canning transported to America for perjury.

Henry Fielding’s health had by the time of the Canning case deteriorated to the point that he was forced to hand over his case-work at Bow Street to John. His medical advisors recommend that he travel to a warmer climate. In June he and his family set out for Lisbon where he died that autumn and was buried there in the British cemetery. His eldest son William followed his father into a career in law and as a Westminster magistrate.

John Fielding continued his half-brother’s work, sitting on the Westminster bench from 1751 and Middlesex from 1754. He had eye-trouble as a youngster and an operation at 19-years-old left him blind. He worked with a black bandage across his eyes, gaining him the nickname of ‘the blind beak’. It was said that he could recognize 3,000 criminals from the sound of their voices. His view was that all prostitutes were victims of cruel seducers. He noted that most prostitutes arrested in raids on brothels were under the age of 18 and many “not more than twelve”. In 1770 he gave evidence to the House of Commons on the problems caused by brothels and the difficulty in prosecuting them.

The arrangement Henry had instigated to direct reliable detectives continued, each paid one guinea per week, supplemented by reward money. They became known as ‘Mr. Fielding’s Men’, ‘peace officers’ or ‘runners’. By 1785 the term ‘Bow Street Runners’ was being used. John Fielding placed advertisements encouraging victims to urgently send a messenger to Bow Street with details. Not only would the messenger be paid but Fielding “would immediately despatch a brave set of fellows in pursuit”. The runners formed an honest and efficient body of criminal investigators, London’s first professional detective force. References to runners were generally positive, unlike the earlier views of thief-takers. The efforts of the Fieldings transformed crime detection from that of self-help by the victims to one of relying on his body of men. The number of trials at which the victim had to take matters into their own hands declined during the 1750s. At the end of the century the reputation of the Bow Street office had spread around the country, with requests for assistance coming from victims from far and wide.

An innovation brought about by John Fielding was the circulation of information. From 1772 weekly circulars were distributed from Bow Street to local magistrates and parishes around London. In the following year night-time patrols by parish constables were undertaken in districts of high crime, led by a Bow Street officer. In the 1760s he persuaded the Treasury to fund a horse patrol to protect suburban roads from highwaymen. Funding only continued for a short period but was revived in the early 19th century. John Fielding spent 26 years in office and was knighted in 1761.

The organisation of magistrates in Westminster, Middlesex and Southwark was reorganized in 1763, with three districts in Westminster: at Bow Street, Soho, and around the Houses of Parliament. Justices became available throughout the day on rota, methods of funding were improved, and ‘peace officers’ were assigned to each office. Henry Fielding’s associate Saunders Welch was by then the magistrate for Soho. In 1792 magistrates and constables across the whole metropolis, from Westminster to Whitechapel, became salaried. By then there were 68 night-patrol men attached to Bow Street.

In 1798 an organized police force, with dedicated magistrates, was formed at Wapping as a security body to protect the ships and goods of the West India merchants. With the opening of the secure West India Docks their remit was broadened. Under the Police Act of 1800 they became the Marine Police Establishment to protect all shipping on the Thames. When the Metropolitan Police was created in 1839 it became the force’s Thames Division and still operates from Wapping Police Station.

Sources include: Jerry White ‘London in the 18th Century’; Pat Rogers ‘Henry Fielding’; Dan Cruickshank ‘The Secret History of Georgian London’; Jenny Uglow ‘Hogarth – A Life & A World’; Robert Shoemaker ‘The London Mob’; Sheila O’Connell ‘London 1753’

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