‘A Certain Share of Low Cunning’ – The Provincial Use and Activities of Bow Street ‘Runners’ 1792-1839

Eras Journal – Cox, D.: ‘A certain share of low cunning’…Bow Street ‘runners’

‘A Certain Share of Low Cunning’ – The Provincial Use and Activities of Bow Street ‘Runners’ 1792-1839[1]
David Cox
(Lancaster University)

Henry Fielding is now remembered chiefly as a novelist, but just a few months prior to the publication of his bestseller Tom Jones he had been appointed as Justice of the Peace for Westminster.[2] He consequently moved into his predecessor, Thomas DeVeil’s house at No. 4 Bow Street (officially known as Bow Street Public Office). Here he carried out the duties of his new post until his death in 1754, being succeeded by his half-brother, Sir John Fielding, who was magistrate there until his demise in 1780. Much of the history of the Fieldings’ respective tenure as magistrates at Bow Street remains unclear, but ongoing research by Professor John Beattie into the earliest history of the Bow Street office is illuminating some of the darker recesses.[3]

The Fieldings transformed the role of the Bow Street magistracy, and provided the model on which the other London Police Offices were based. By refusing to act as ‘trading justices’ i.e. charging fees directly to those requiring magisterial services, and instead becoming stipendiary magistrates financed by the Home Department, they sought to raise law enforcement in Westminster above the charges of corruption and veniality that had frequently been levied during DeVeil’s tenure. Magistrates within the metropolis were then widely regarded as corrupt individuals with the contemptuous nickname of ‘trading justices’, eager to line their own pockets at the expense of justice. Henry Fielding seems to have gone to considerable pains to rectify this view of his magistracy. He stated that:

By composing, instead of inflaming, the quarrels of porters and beggars (which I blush to say hath not been universally practised), and by refusing to take a shilling from a man who most undoubtedly would not have had another left, I had reduced an income of £500 a year of the dirtiest money upon earth to little more than £300, a considerable portion of which remained with my clerk.[4]

This claim may of course be little more than self-aggrandisement, but Pringle, one of the few historians who has seriously studied the early development of Bow Street Public Office, lends a degree of reinforcement to the validity of Fielding’s claim, stating that ‘after a thorough search I have been unable to discover the slightest evidence that Fielding ever took a bribe or any other illegal payment.’[5]

Whatever his exact degree of honesty, Fielding was unquestionably the prime mover in creating the force that was soon to be colloquially known as the Bow Street ‘Runners’. The first documented use of this term is credited to the Reverend Henry Bate, who wrote a poem that included the lines:

Like Bow Street Runner – most uncivil / Bringing the theft to light.[6]

Thegeneral term ‘Runner’ as used when describing a messenger or minor member of an organisation dates back to at least the seventeenth century, whilst Leon Radzinowicz suggests that the specific term in regard to Bow Street was first employed in 1773.[7] In his ongoing research, John Beattie has also come across the term in common use as early as 1773, but he states that ‘it clearly refers not to the men doing the heavy work of detecting and apprehending felons, but to those who conducted prisoners back and forth between Bow Street and the gaols’.[8] The term Bow Street ‘Runner’ has caused much subsequent confusion with its frequent misapplication by numerous historians and commentators to the other forces based at Bow Street.

These forces included a Foot Patrole, established on a permanent basis in 1790 by Sir Sampson Wright during his tenure as chief magistrate (1780-97), and operative throughout sixteen districts of central London during the hours of darkness. This force continued in various guises until the advent of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. A Horse Patrole was permanently established in 1805 by Sir Richard Ford (chief magistrate 1800-06), and this force continued under the aegis of Bow Street Public Office until being finally placed under jurisdiction of the Metropolitan police on 13 August 1836.[9] The Horse Patrole was fundamentally responsible for patrolling the various turnpiked roads leading into the metropolis. Finally, in 1821 a Day Patrole, often known by its official (though somewhat paradoxical) title of the Dismounted Horse Patrole, was created; this force operated in the area of the metropolis between the jurisdiction of the Horse Patrole and the Foot Patrole.

Whilst Pringle’s view that Henry Fielding ‘founded the English police’ somewhat overstates the case, the Fieldings certainly played a pivotal role in the creation of a more coherent and unified approach to law enforcement.[10] Part of the Fielding brothers’ plans involved the creation of a small force of salaried law-enforcement officers. This force was originally created in the winter of 1748/9. Officially known as principal officers, the Runners became well established, although always small in number; never numbering more than twelve at any given time throughout their period of existence.[11]

Fielding may have referred to the principal offices in his Journey of Voyage to Lisbon as ‘a set of thieftakers, whom I had enlisted into the service, all men of known and approved fidelity and intrepidity’, but he viewed them as having a much wider remit than private individual thief-takers such as the infamous Jonathan Wild (c. 1682-1725), who operated by encouraging the committing of felonious acts and then informing on the participants.[12] Fielding was keen to have his embryonic force put on an official footing, and in August 1753, after a series of daring highway robberies had generated widespread fear throughout the capital, he successfully petitioned the Duke of Newcastle, First Lord of the Treasury, for £600 of government money to fund the continuation of the force, thus achieving at least semi-official recognition of his body of men:

At which small charge I undertook to demolish the reigning gangs, and to put the civil policy into such order, that no gangs should ever be able, for the future, to form themselves into bodies, or at least to remain any time formidable to the public.[13]

By this time, Henry Fielding had also founded a twice-weekly paper entitled the Covent Garden Journal, in which he advertized the services of Bow Street Public Office and his dedicated band of ex-constables. By 1754, Henry’s successor, his half-brother, John was regularly advertising the services of ‘a set of brave Fellows…who have long been engaged for such Purposes, and are always ready to set out to any Part of this Town or Kingdom, on a Quarter of an Hour’s notice’.[14]

It is apparent that even at this early stage of their creation the Bow Street principal officers were regarded by the Fieldings as more than simply a metropolitan force -they were willing to despatch the officers throughout Great Britain in order to investigate and detect crimes. This was a new and unique approach to crime prevention and detection, although private thieftakers had existed for a considerable period before the mid-eighteenth century. There is evidence that thieftakers did operate in large provincial towns -the entrepreneurial industrialist, Matthew Boulton, after a series of robberies at his Soho Manufactory, ‘procured some of the constables and thief-takers from Birmingham, to the number of twenty in the whole, who were well-armed, and concealed in the Manufactory’ in order to arrest the offenders, but such thieftakers appear to have been localized in their operations.[15]

Little has been written about the Bow Street Runners in general, and even less about their provincial activities. The few available studies have often treated them as a little more than a footnote in the history of policing, and have frequently confused the roles and activities of the various constituents of the personnel based at Bow Street.[16] The earliest book about the Runners was written in 1888, and was a two-volume series of anecdotes about the activities of the Runners, with little historical analysis or contextualization.[17] Nothing more was published about Bow Street until 1932, when Gilbert Armitage wrote his History of the Bow Street Runners 1729-1829.[18] This book offered little new in the way of information concerning the functioning of Bow Street and its personnel. It was not until Patrick Pringle published Hue & Cry: the Birth of the British Police and The Thief Takers in 1956 and 1958 respectively that any academic study of Bow Street was made.[19] In 1956, Pringle also reproduced and annotated the only surviving autobiography of a Bow Street Runner, the Memoirs of Henry Goddard, originally a four-volume manuscript, written from memory in the 1870s and dealing with Goddard’s career as a principal officer at Bow Street from 1834-9.[20] In 1969, Anthony Babington produced a fascinating history of the Bow Street office, A House in Bow Street: crime and the magistracy, London 1740-1881, but this dealt only superficially with the operation and functioning of the Runners, while Joan Lock’s Tales from Bow Street, published in 1982, is essentially a non-academic series of anecdotes about the predominantly metropolitan activities of the Bow Street personnel.[21] Since this date, no book has been published dealing specifically with Bow Street.

In recent years, several books and journal articles have discussed and debated the wider field of policing history within the metropolis, and have often challenged the traditional teleological view of a linear progression from outdated and corrupt watchmen to the modern and efficient Metropolitan Police, but none have dealt at any great length with Bow Street.[22] This article considers the provincial use of the Bow Street Runners in the early nineteenth century and so represents a small but significant step towards placing the Bow Street Runners in the development of policing. It does not aspire to deal comprehensively with the formation and early development of the Bow Street Public Office, nor does it concentrate on the activities of the other various law-enforcement bodies based at that office. Rather it focuses on the work of a specific group of Bow Street personnel, relating their provincial employment and utilisation to many of the wider issues of policing history.

The main primary sources utilized were Hue & Cry and Police Gazette (1797-1839), The Times(1792-1839), theManchester Guardian (1821-1839), the Staffordshire Advertiser (1795-1839) and the Annual Register(1792-1839).[23]All available issues of these publications have been consulted for details of provincial cases involving Bow Street principal officers, and various spreadsheets, graphs and maps created to indicate the results. Other primary sources consulted include the series of Parliamentary Select Committee Reports into the policing of the Metropolis from 1770-1839.[24] These provide a great deal of primary information about the functioning and operation of Bow Street office and the activities of the principal officers, together with a considerable amount of explicit and implicit evidence with regard to the way in which the committee members, informed members of the general public, and the personnel of the Bow Street office viewed the role and function of Bow Street. Further primary sources consulted include numerous official records held at the PRO, including Home Office, Treasury, Metropolitan Police and Assize documents, as well as several trial pamphlets, numerous contemporary polemics on the state of policing, and the sole surviving autobiography of a Bow Street principal officer.[25]

It is realized that such sources cannot and do not provide a complete record of all provincial cases involving Bow Street principal officers. Although the sources can provide a certain amount of quantitative analysis of the number and location of provincial cases, they cannot claim to be a definitive account of all such provincial cases -quite apart from the limited number of sources available to be utilized, there appears to have been a considerable amount of under-reporting of such cases. An example of this can be seen with regard to poaching. Only sixteen cases involving principal officers are reported in the sources during the forty-eight year period under discussion, but John Stafford, chief clerk at Bow Street, in his evidence to the 1823 Select Committee on Laws relating to Game, was specifically asked, ‘in the course of your practice are many informations lodged in the office at Bow Street, for offences against the Game Laws?’ He replied that:

All the offences against the Game Laws, which are of an atrocious description, I think are generally reported to the public office in Bow Street, more especially in cases where the keepers have either been killed or dangerously wounded, and the assistance of an officer from Bow Street is required… I should think,…that perhaps the number of applications within the last two or three years, may have amounted to nearly twenty; they have been much more numerous of late years than they were formerly. [26]

In this instance there were clearly a large number of cases that were not reported in the sources, and there is no reason to suppose that the level of under-reporting was unique to poaching cases. The reported cases are therefore best seen as indicative of the types of case investigated, rather than an accurate reflection of the total number of cases involving Bow Street principal officers. Furthermore, those cases that were reported probably largely reflect the perceived interests of the various publications’ readerships. Cases that were considered of limited interest to the readership of the various publications may well therefore have been unreported in either national or local newspapers or journals, and conversely, cases involving high-profile and prominent people such as the aristocracy or well-known political figures would probably have merited a considerable degree of attention; Sir Nathaniel Conant (chief magistrate 1813-20), in his evidence to the 1816 Select Committee, was of the opinion that serious offences, ‘where they are of any importance, are universally known through the newspapers’.[27]

The extent to which the Fieldings envisaged a national adoption of their policing plans is difficult to quantify. Both Henry Fielding’s An enquiry into the causes of the late increase of robbers and Sir John’s A Plan for Preventing Robberies within Twenty Miles of London were written in response to perceived increases of crime within London, but conversely Sir John made it clear in his series of notices in the Public Advertiser that the Bow Street personnel were available to travel throughout Britain.[28]However, there is little evidence that either the Fieldings or their successors ever seriously considered the creation of a nation-wide system of policing based on Bow Street lines.

The idea of a national police force has always met with resistance within Britain; the only practical attempt to create such a force took place in August 1655 when Oliver Cromwell introduced a scheme to divide England into districts under the command of Major-Generals. This abortive plan, which contained an extremely unpopular militaristic element, lasted less than two years, and there was no more serious consideration of the creation of a national police force until the early nineteenth century. Fears of a continental style of a state-controlled national police force had greatly increased during the Napoleonic Wars, when reported excesses of the militaristic gendarmerie were prominently reported in British newspapers and journals. In 1812 the earl of Dudley, referring to calls for the creation of a new police force following a series of particularly grisly murders in the Ratcliffe Highway, London, remarked that:

They have an admirable police at Paris, but they pay for it dear enough. I had rather half a dozen peoples’ throats be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all the rest of Fouché’s contrivances.[29]

Conversely, some of those directly involved in law enforcement did perceive that benefits would accrue from the creation of a national system; John Vickery, a highly experienced Bow Street principal officer, in his evidence to an 1816 Select Committee, suggested that national officers be created -‘whether it would be considered at all a trespass upon the liberties of the subject, to make a certain number of officers constables for England, is a consideration I would submit’.[30]

His ideas were echoed by a convicted recidivist some twenty-three years later; in the 1839 Select Committee Report, the statement of a twenty-one year-old habitual thief includes his view that:

It would be one of the best things as ever was established if there were forty or fifty clever constables to travel through England, and go to all fairs, races, etc, and if they knew the cant they might detect them when taken, as they use cant words to one another; and they would soon know the faces of thieves and drive them off; they should change their rounds.[31]

Recent research by David Philips and Robert Storch has thrown new light on the Grey Ministry’s ultimately abortive National police scheme of 1832, which proposed the creation of a centralized police force for England, but it remains the fact that in subsequent years, although there has been what Tom Bowden describes as an ‘important piecemeal drift towards the creation of a de facto if not de jure national police force’, there is still considerable disquiet at the notion of creating a truly national police force.[32]

Despite such reservations, the principal officers did operate, on an admittedly small scale, as a de facto national force, and, as the Webbs remarked in their monumental work, English Local Government, ‘Bow Street Police Office gradually became the centre of the police administration, not only of the Metropolis, but, to some extent, also of the whole country’.[33] Information was sent to Bow Street from local magistrates and constables and then disseminated throughout Britain by means of the Hue & Cry and Police Gazette, the official publication of Bow Street, founded in 1786 and eventually metamorphosing into the Police Gazette. It is also the case that in at least some provincial towns, certain of the Fieldings’ ideas and methods of policing were put into practice. The deputy-constable of Manchester from 1821 to 1833 was an ex-Bow Street principal officer, Stephen Lavender, who created a police force based largely on methods employed at his former place of employment, and often corresponded and co-operated with both Bow Street and other police offices throughout Britain.[34] This level of efficiency and co-operation does not however appear to have been widespread throughout the country; in his evidence to the 1816 Select Committee, John Vickery states that ‘at Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester, there was a Police office and regular communication between the offices and Bow street, but elsewhere, the situation was very poor’.[35]

Figure 1 shows the number of cases mentioned in the utilized sources that occurred in each of the counties (for the purposes of this article, Ireland is not treated as part of Great Britain). It can be seen that the Officers are recorded as being active throughout England and Scotland. This facet of their work was certainly recognized at the time -in 1829 the indefatigable commentator on policing matters, John Wade, remarked that Bow Street’s ‘officers are frequently despatched into the country, to Scotland and Ireland, and even to the Continent, for the apprehension of offenders’.[36]This widespread geographical use is not perhaps surprising in a period when there was no system of public prosecution.[37]

Almost a third (33.3%) of the provincial cases were in the four counties in the immediate vicinity of the Metropolis, in which Bow Street magistrates and Officers had official legal jurisdiction during much of the period under discussion i.e. Middlesex, Surrey, Kent, and Essex.[38] This bias is therefore perhaps not too surprising, given the additional fact that travelling distances were obviously relatively short and therefore involved less expense to the prosecutor. The time delay between offence and investigation would also be significantly diminished the lesser the distance from London.

The number of cases does not however seem necessarily to diminish proportionately to the distance from the Metropolis -for example, Gloucestershire or Lancashire cannot have been the easiest of places to reach from London in the early nineteenth century, despite the advent of turnpikes and metalled roads, but both have a significant amount of cases, despite the inevitable time-lag between detection of the offence and subsequent investigation. In both counties, however, there were concentrations of landed gentry and self-made industrialists, both of whom possessed significant land and property, and who would not have had to worry too much about the cost of financing private prosecutions. However, in all cases where property or valuables were stolen or misappropriated, those concerned with prosecuting suspect(s) must have considered a balance between loss of property and prosecution. Perhaps more significantly, Lancashire and Gloucestershire also possessed the second and fourth largest centres of population in Britain; respectively Manchester and Bristol. In 1801, Manchester had a population of c. 80,000, whilst Bristol, although by this time declining in economic importance, was still home to over 50,000 people.[39] By this period, Liverpool in Lancashire had also become the third most populous city in Britain.[40] All but one of the Lancashire cases reported in the sources emanated from either Manchester or Liverpool, whilst almost a third of the Gloucestershire cases originated in Bristol.

There is a fairly obvious southern bias to the distribution of reported cases – taking the North of the nation to be that area north of a line from the Dee estuary to the Wash, fifty-three cases are recorded (12.3% of total), whilst the Midlands, taken as that area to the north of a line drawn from Hereford to Ipswich, has sixty-seven cases in the sources (15.6% of total). By contrast, the remaining sixteen counties of England account for three hundred and ten cases reported in the utilized sources (72.1% of total). The relative nearness of these counties to the Metropolis, and the concomitant comparative ease by which they could be reached from London was probably a major factor for this preponderance of reported cases, and must not be underestimated. However, this large concentration of cases could also partially be explained by the economic dominance of many of these counties in what was still an overwhelmingly agrarian society. The south of England generally enjoyed more productive agriculture than the rest of Britain, and there were consequently a disproportionate number of landed gentry or aristocrats based in the area. These wealthy landowners (who were often also magistrates or similar such office-holders) could easily afford to employ the services of Bow Street, and the reported cases suggest that they frequently did so. Many of the reported cases involving damage or threatened damage to property or possessions e.g. arson, threatening behaviour, poaching etc., were located in the south of England and this would appear to at least partially corroborate this reason for the overwhelming amount of reported cases in this area of Britain.

There is also a marked discrepancy between the numbers of cases in each of the three mainland countries. In 1821, Scotland had a population of c. 2.1 million (14.8% of total of mainland population of c. 14.2 million), but only 2.8% of cases reported are from Scotland. This may be largely related to the time-consuming distance involved in travelling from the capital to Scotland, and indeed, many of the cases reported as originating in Scotland involved the capture of suspects in London following the circulation of their descriptions and suspected whereabouts.[41] The almost complete absence of reported cases in Wales is something of an enigma; I am currently undertaking further research into this aspect.

Figure 2 is a bar chart showing the provincial cases involving Bow Street principal officers that research for this article uncovered. It is stressed that this chart should not be seen as an accurate figure of the total number of provincial cases involving principal officers, due to the high level of under-reporting of such cases -rather it should be seen as representative of the types of case, and as such it provides clear evidence that the Officers were involved in investigating a wide variety of provincial crimes. Unsurprisingly, serious crimes such as murder (successful or attempted), burglary and theft figure prominently in the chart. However, less serious offences were also often investigated by the Officers, suggesting that the ability to pay handsomely for the services of Bow Street personnel or the status of the victim were sometimes more important factors than the nature of the crime in the decision to employ the Officers. Examples of this include a number of abductions or elopements (usually involving rich and naïve young heiresses and older men), together with cases of bigamy and adultery.

Serious interpersonal offences were by no means the only form of crime investigated. The number of fraud/forgery etc. cases is perhaps at first sight surprisingly large, given that the period covered is somewhat earlier than that usually associated with such ‘white-collar crime’. However, many of the individual crimes within this category relate to crude attempts to defraud the State by forging military service records in order to gain additional pensions, or forgeries of individual promissory notes, rather than more elaborate and ambitious frauds perpetrated by middle class employees of banks or other financial institutions.[42]

The various types of case investigated by the principal officers can be seen to generally reflect the interests and fears held by the middle and upper classes. They include threatening behaviour (often linked to periods of economic instability), sedition/treason, and smuggling/poaching -often seen by those who took part in such activities as a legitimate means of supporting themselves, but by others as extremely serious offences.

Figure 3 shows types of crimes committed in each year and suggests that the investigation of particular types of crime was more prevalent in specific periods: for example, arson cases seem to have increased significantly from 1830 and continued throughout most of the rest of the decade. This increase may reflect the concerns felt by the propertied classes during the Swing Riots and the increasing tension over agitation for the introduction of a Reform Act, together with unease at the social and political unrest generated by the continuing plight of agricultural labourers in a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society. There appears to have been a general shift throughout the period from interpersonal crimes such as highway robbery to impersonal property crimes such as burglary and theft. However, the ultimate interpersonal crime -murder- seems to have been relatively stable in occurrence throughout the period, with few ‘highspots’ in the chart, and at least one appearance in most years. Even bearing in mind the necessary caveats, figure 3 suggests that the general level of provincial activity by the principal officers reflects periods of economic and political instability: there are noticeable peaks of activity in the periods 1811-14, 1826-30, and 1835-39. All of these periods contain times of great instability, caused either through the pressures of war or political and social uncertainty. This is reflected in other types of crime such as sedition/treason/rioting, which again seems to mirror the instability of particular periods. This latter category of crime indicates that the Bow Street principal officers were occasionally employed directly by the State (usually the Home Department) in cases that involved both a high degree of undercover infiltration and preventive work.

This use of Bow Street personnel, including principal officers, appears to have been fairly commonplace; theStaffordshire Advertiser of 10 March 1798 carried the following correspondence from Margate, dated 28 February:

Five persons have been apprehended here this morning by two of the Bow Street Officers, upon suspicion of carrying on a Treasonable Correspondence with the French Government…It is pretended that these officers were down in Kent, at Gravesend, on other business; but we believe they were sent from London specially on this business, and that Government had good intelligence of the proceedings of the parties now in custody.

Numerous Bow Street personnel were also involved in the Luddite disturbances in the Nottingham area during 1811 and 1812; sources often do not make it clear whether or not the personnel involved were principal officers or Patrole personnel, but there was certainly a considerable contingent from Bow Street. A letter sent in early January 1812 from Nathaniel Conant to a Mr Beckett of Nottingham states that ‘you may be assured that no assistance on our part or of the force we have with us shall be wanting’, and he proposed to ‘get our men sworn in as Special Constables both for this County and Derbyshire, that they may be ready to act at any moment opportunity may arise’.[43]

It was not just for cases of sedition, rioting or treason that the Home Department utilized principal officers; they were often used in conjunction with other governmental bodies in various preventive and detective roles. In several smuggling cases, principal officers were engaged by the State to work in conjunction with other law enforcement bodies such as the Revenue or the Coastal Blockade.[44] Reports of the arrest of members of the notorious Aldington Gang show that Bow Street principal officers were utilized in conjunction with members of the Coastal Blockade, and that the Officers were subordinate to the leader of the Blockade.[45]

Such use of principal officers was not a decision taken lightly; there are numerous instances where applications made by local magistrates or other provincial bodies were not accepted by the Home Department. During the Luddite disturbances, the Home Department ‘had…refused requests for Bow Street Officers or a Special Commission, and had been unwilling to accept financial and other responsibility for prosecuting offenders and preparing witnesses’.[46] Similarly, requests from the magistrates of Huddersfield for the creation of a Night Watch under the auspices of Bow Street and from the Mayor of Leicester to utilize Bow Street personnel as spies to infiltrate seditious meetings were also refused.[47]

Quite apart from the unsustainable drain on the resources of Bow Street, the Home Department seems to have been reluctant to employ the services of the principal officers in provincial cases except when absolutely necessary because of the precedents this would create. It clearly wished the onus of arresting and prosecuting offenders to remain within the remit of the local authorities, and therefore discouraged a reliance on central government.

This article has been a brief attempt to demonstrate that the study of the provincial activities of the Runners can be useful in regard both to furthering understanding of how and where the Runners operated and to the wider study of the history of English policing. It has not been able to cover any areas in the depth that they deserve, and has not dealt with the frequent accusations of corruption levelled at the principal officers (this aspect of their history merits an article in its own right). However, it has hopefully given an indication of the functioning of Bow Street principal officers in the provinces, and their varied usage throughout Britain. The Runners are worthy of study for several reasons. They predated the Metropolitan police by over eighty years in being the first professional salaried police force within Britain. Their provincial activities were varied and often involved considerable professionalism and detective ability. Several of the cases reported in the sources show the use of basic forensic analysis -in a Staffordshire murder case of 1812, a principal officer matched the lead ball fired from a flintlock pistol with a bullet mould found some distance from the scene of the crime, whilst in 1834, Henry Goddard details his forensic analysis of an apparent burglary in Hampshire where the butler stated that he fought off his attackers. The principal officer proved by his forensic skills that the ‘burglary’ was in fact carried out by the butler himself.[48]

Moreover, the principal officers became a very well-known body both within the metropolis and in the country as a whole, and provided much of the stimulus for a great deal of debate concerning the need for, and role of, a civilian police force. As shown above, much of this debate centred around the functioning and duties of such a prospective force -Bow Street showed that there was an alternative to both the parish constabulary system, which was increasingly perceived as outmoded and inefficient, and the creation of a large, centralized police force. Much recent research concerning the history of policing has shown that the previously accepted teleological and linear progression from an old inefficient parish and watch system to a efficient and effective ‘modern police’ was not as clear-cut as many police historians of the earlier twentieth century would have had us believe.[49] A thorough study of Bow Street, and especially an analysis of its personnel’s activities in the provinces can add much to this debate. If police offices along the lines of Bow Street had been created in each of the major cities and towns of Britain, who can tell how our ‘modern’ police forces may have developed?







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[1] Quotation from Rev. J. Richardson,Recollections: Political, Literary, Dramatic, and Miscellaneous of the last half-century, 2 vols., London, C. Mitchell, undated, c. 1860, vol. 1, p. 58. Richardson was referring to a particular Bow Street principal officer, John Townsend, who ‘became, by effrontery and impudence, enhanced by a certain share of low cunning and low wit, the head of his profession’. Back

[2] Henry Fielding took the oath of appointment as Justice of the Peace for Westminster on 25 October 1748. The History of Tom Jones, a Foundling was published in 1749. Back

[3] Professor Beattie as yet has not published any results of this research at the time of writing this article, but in March 2002 he delivered a paper, English detectives in the late eighteenth century , at the European Social Science History Conference, The Hague, in which some of his preliminary findings were discussed. Back

[4] Quoted in Patrick Pringle, Hue & Cry: the Birth of the British Police, London, Museum Press, 1956, p. 79. Back

[5] Patrick Pringle, Hue & Cry, p. 80. Back

[6] The poem appeared in the Morning Herald, 5 March 1785. The term ‘Runner’ as referring to a constable also appears in Sir William Blizard, Desultory Reflections on Police, with an essay on the means of preventing crimes and amending criminals, London, not given, 1785, p. 3. Back

[7] Leon Radzinowicz, A History of English Criminal Law and its administration from 1750, London, Stevens & Sons, 1956, vol. 2, p. 57. Back

[8] Professor Beattie, personal communication, 3 February 2003. Back

[9] Gilbert Armitage, The History of the Bow Street Runners 1729-1829, London, Wishart & Co., 1932, p. 129.Back

[10] Patrick Pringle, Hue & Cry, p. 77. Back

[11] Footnote required. Back

[12] Quoted in Gilbert Armitage,The History of the Bow Street Runners 1729-1829, p. 57. Jonathan Wild, born in Wolverhampton, styled himself as ‘thieftaker-general’ and was the model for Peachum in Gay’s Beggar’s Opera. He was finally caught and hanged as a receiver of stolen goods. Back

[13] Henry Fielding, A journey from this world to the next and the journey of a voyage to Lisbon. Ed. by Ian A. Bell and Andrew Varney, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1997, pp. 130-31.. Back

[14] Advertisement in the Public Advertiser 17 October 1754. Back

[15] Staffordshire Advertiser, 3 January 1801. Back

[16] For examples of the misapplication of the term ‘Bow Street Runner’, see George Howard, Guardians of the Queen’s Peace: the development and work of Britain’s police, London, Odhams, 1953, pp. 128-9, David Eastwood,Government and Community in the English Provinces 1700-1870, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1997, p. 68, and P. D James and T. Critchley, The Maul and the Pear Tree: the Ratcliff Highway Murders 1811, London, Faber & Faber, 2000, pp. 75-6. All of these examples confuse various other Bow Street personnel with the principal officers, who alone were originally known as ‘Bow Street Runners’. Back

[17] Percy Fitzgerald, Chronicle of Bow Street Police Office: with an account of the Magistrates, “Runners” and Police, London, Chapman & Hall, 1888, 2 vols. Back

[18] Gilbert Armitage, The History of the Bow Street Runners 1729-1829Back

[19] Patrick Pringle, Hue & Cry: the Birth of the British Police, and Patrick Pringle, The Thief Takers , London, Museum Press, 1958. Back

[20] Henry Goddard, with introduction by Patrick Pringle, Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, London, Museum Press, 1956. Goddard’s four-volume original manuscript Memoirs are held at the Metropolitan Police Museum, Charlton.Back

[21] Anthony Babington, A House in Bow Street: crime and the magistracy, London 1740-1881, London, Macdonald, 1969, and Joan Lock, Tales from Bow Street, London, Hale, 1982. A second edition of Babington’s work was published by Barry Rose Law Publishers in 1999, but is an unaltered reprint of the first edition. Back

[22] Most important among these studies are Ruth Paley, ‘”An Imperfect, Inadequate and Wretched System”? Policing London Before Peel’, Criminal Justice History vol. X (1989), 95-130, and Elaine A. Reynolds, The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, unpublished PhD thesis, Cornell University, 1991. Reynolds subsequently published a book based on her thesis, Before the Bobbies: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London: 1720-1830, Basingstoke, Macmillan, 1998. Both Paley and Reynolds question the ‘traditional’ view of an inefficient and corrupt London watch system, suggesting that a teleological reading of policing history is too simplistic, and both touch on the subject of the Bow Street principal officers, but neither deal with the officers’ work outside the Metropolis. John Beattie covers the eighteenth-century situation admirably in his Policing and Punishment in London 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2001, but the focus of this work largely predates the activities of the principal officers. Back

[23] The dates in brackets after each publication are the dates of the first and last available issues. Extant copies ofHue & Cry and Police Gazette are severely limited before 1801, whilst the Manchester Guardian did not begin publication until May 1821. The Staffordshire Advertiser was first published in 1795, but a complete original run through to the end of the period under discussion survives at the William Salt Library, Stafford. The Annual Registercan be consulted in original format at the University of Birmingham Main Library, whilst The Manchester Guardian is available on microfilm at the same location, as is a complete run of The TimesBack

[24] Parliamentary Papers consulted include: Reports from Committees of the House of Commons Vol. XIII Finance Reports XXIII to XXXVI 1803, containing Twenty-eighth Report from the Select Committee on Finance Police, including Convict Establishments Crime and Punishment Police vol. I (IUP Reprints Series); Report from the Select Committee on the Nightly Watch of the Metropolis PP 1812 (127) vol. II;Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1816 (510) vol. V. Extracts from the Evidence of Reverend Thomas Thirlwall PP 1817 (231) vol. XVII Crime and Punishment Police vol. II (IUP Reprints Series); First Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1817 (233) vol. VIISecond Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1817 (484) vol. VII Crime and Punishment Police vol. III (IUP Reprints Series); Third Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1818 (423) vol. VIII Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1822 (440) vol. IV Crime and Punishment Police vol. IV (IUP Reprints Series):Report from the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis PP 1828 (533) vol. VI Crime and Punishment Police vol. V (IUP Reprints Series);Report from the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis PP 1833 (675) vol. XIII Petition of Frederick Young and William Popay PP 1833 (627) vol. XIII Conduct of the Police on 13th May 1833 at Coldbath Fields PP 1833 (718) vol. XIII Crime and Punishment Police vol. VI (IUP Reprints Series);Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1834 PP 1834 (600) vol. XVI Crime and Punishment Police vol. VII (IUP Reprints Series): Metropolis Police Offices PP 1837 (451) vol. XII Metropolis Police Offices PP 1837/8 PP 1837-38 (578) vol. XV Crime and Punishment Police vol. VIII (IUP Reprints Series): First Report on the Constabulary Force in England and Wales PP 1839 (169) vol. XIX Crime and Punishment Prisons vol. XI (IUP Reprints Series): Report relating to the Petitions of Messrs Lovett and Collins (Warwick Gaol) PP 1839 (462) vol. XXXVIII Report from the Select Committee on the Laws relating to Game PP 1823 (107) IV 260Back

[25] Primary sources consulted at the Public Record Office include: HO 41 Home Office: Disturbances Entry Books 1815-1916; HO 42 Home Office: Domestic Correspondence, George III 1782-1820; HO 43 HomeOffice: Domestic Entry Books 1782-1898; HO 44 Home Office: Domestic Correspondence 1773-1861; HO 52 Home Office: Counties Correspondence 1820-1850; HO 58 Home Office: Police Accounts 1813-26; HO 59 Home Office: Police Courts and Magistrates In-letters and returns 1820-59 ; HO 60 Home Office: Police Court Entry Books 1821-65; HO 61 Home Office: Metropolitan Police Correspondence 1820-29 ; HO 62 Home Office: Daily Reports from Metropolitan Police Offices 1828-1839; HO 64 Home Office: Criminal (Rewards and Pardons) Correspondence and Secret Service Reports 1820-1840 ; HO 65 Home Office: Police Entry Books Series I 1795-1921 ; HO 73 Home Office: Various Commissions: Records and Correspondence 1786-1949; MEPO 1/2-33 Office of the Commissioner, Letter Books 1829-1839 MEPO 1/49 Police Letter Book from Bow Street Public Office to Home Office 1830-38; MEPO 1/50 Police Letter Book from Home Office to Bow Street Public Office 1830-39; MEPO 2/25 Bow Street Horse Patrol (mounted) register 1827-45; MEPO 4/508 Bow Street Foot Patrol Register 1821-29; T38/671 Treasury: Departmental Accounts, Public Office, Bow Street 1756-59; T38/672 Treasury: Departmental Accounts, Public Office, Bow Street 1800-1807; T38/673 Treasury: Departmental Accounts, Public Office, Bow Street 1793-1816; T38/674 Treasury: Departmental Accounts, Public Office, Bow Street 1816-35.Back

[26] Report from the Select Committee on the laws relating to Game 1823 (107) IV 260, p. 37. Back

[27] Crime and Punishment Police vol. 1 (IUP Reprints Series): Report from the Committee on the state of Police of the Metropolis PP 1816, p. 11. Back

[28] Henry Fielding, An enquiry into the causes of the late increase of robbers etc., London, A. Millar, 1751, and John Fielding, A plan for preventing robberies within twenty miles of London, with an account of the rise and establishment of the real THIEFTAKERS, London, A. Millar, 1755. Back

[29] Letter written by John William Ward, 1st Earl of Dudley, to his sister and quoted in Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History 2nd edn., London, Longman, 1996, p. 22. Fouché had been Minister of Police in Paris during Napoleon’s reign as Emperor. John William Ward (1781-1833) was Foreign Secretary from April 1827-June 1828. Back

[30] British Parliamentary Papers (BPP) 1816, p. 175. Back

[31] Crime and Punishment Police vol. 8 (IUP Reprints Series): Constabulary Force in England and Wales PP 1839, pp. 17-23. Back

[32] David Philips and Robert D. Storch, ‘Whigs and Coppers: the Grey Ministry’s National Police Scheme, 1832’,Historical Research vol. LXVII (1994), 75-90, and Tom Bowden, Beyond the Limits of the Law: a comparative study of the police in crisis politics, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1978, p. 213. Back

[33] Sidney Webb and Beatrice Webb,English Local Government vol. 1: The Parish and the County, London, Frank Cass & Co., 1963, p. 342. Back

[34] Stephen Lavender was a Bow Street principal officer from 1809-20, and succeeded the notorious Joseph Nadin as Deputy Constable of Manchester in 1821. Nadin had been discredited in the eyes of the public through his actions in the ‘Peterloo Massacre’ of 1819, and was commonly thought to have been extremely corrupt. For an account of Nadin’s career, see J. L. Hammond and Barbara Hammond, The Town Labourer 1760-1832: The New Civilisation, 2nd edition, 2 vols., London, Guild Books, 1949, vol. 1. p. 85. Back

[35] BPP 1816, p. 178. For accounts of the policing situation in early nineteenth-century Manchester, see Charles DeMotte, ‘Policing Manchester in the nineteenth century’, Police Studies vol. 7 no. 3 (Fall 1984), 155-174, and Eric J. Hewitt, A History of Policing in Manchester, Manchester, E. J. Morton, 1979. Back

[36] J. Wade, A treatise on the Police and Crimes of the Metropolis, London, Longman, Rees et al., 1829, p. 39. Back

[37] For an account of the lack of a public prosecutor, see Douglas Hay and F. Snyder, eds., Policy and Prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850 , Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1989, pp. 23-4. Patrick Colquhoun, magistrate at Thames Police Office, had suggested the creation of an office of a Crown Prosecutor in a series of suggestions to the 1798 Finance Committee (Twenty-eighth Report from the Select Committee on Finance: Police, including Convict Establishments, June 1798, p. 355), but the suggestion was not accepted at the time. Back

[38] BPP 1822, p. 63 – evidence of Matthew Wyatt, Whitechapel magistrate, and J. Wade, A treatise on the police and crimes of the metropolis etc, pp. 57-8. Prior to an Act of 1814 (54 Geo III c.37), Bow Street had enjoyed a more limited jurisdiction within the counties of Middlesex and Surrey from 1802 (42 Geo III c.76), and before that time had held jurisdiction solely in its Westminster district. In the area of its jurisdiction, Bow Street principal officers were sworn in as constables and therefore had the power to serve warrants. Elsewhere in Britain, they had to rely on the local constable to accompany them if a warrant was required to be served. Back

[39] Gerald Newman, ed., Britain in the Hanoverian Age 1714-1837, New York and London, Garland Publishing Inc., 1997, p. 433 (Manchester population) and p. 75 (Bristol population).Back

[40] Gerald Newman, ed., Britain in the Hanoverian Age 1714-1837, p. 414. Back

[41] Travel to Scotland from London was rarely accomplished in under three days before the advent of the railway; the Manchester Guardian exemplified the timescales involved when it reported on 2 September 1826 that a steamboat from London to Leith took forty-seven hours to cover 495 miles. The paper commented ‘who would have dreamed of such a velocity being obtained?’ Back

[42] For examples of such relatively minor forgery, see The Times, 24 January 1812 and the Annual Register , 15 September 1828. Back

[43] Letter dated 22 January 1812,Home Office: Domestic Correspondence, George III 1782-1820, HO 42, Public Record Office. Back

[44] The Coastal Blockade was created in 1817 and was the forerunner of the modern Coastguard. It ran from Sheerness to Chichester, a distance of some 200 miles, and employed over 3,000 men.Back

[45] The Aldington Gang could reputedly call upon over 200 men in smuggling runs, and gained notoriety after the murder of a Coastal Blockade Officer, Richard Morgan. The raids by the Coastal Blockade and the Bow Street principal officers netted a total of nineteen men, most of whom (including the gang leader, George Ransley) were transported to Australia after what appears to have been a bout of frantic ‘plea-bargaining’. Back

[46] Frank Ogley Darvall, Popular disturbances and public order in Regency England, London, Oxford University Press, 1969, p. 82. Back

[47] Frank Ogley Darvall, Popular disturbances and public order in Regency England, pp. 109, 150-1. Back

[48] For a detailed contemporary account of this murder case, see Anon., The Trial of William Howe, alias John Wood, for the Wilful Murder of Mr. Benjamin Robins of Dunsley, near Stourbridge on the 18th of December 1813 [sic], Stourbridge, Heming, 1813. A brief synopsis of the case can be found in David Cox, ‘Bow Street Runners in the Black Country: the arrest, trial and execution of “Lord Howe”‘, The Blackcountryman vol. 33 no. 1 (Winter 1999/2000), 27-31, whilst a more detailed analysis of the issues raised by the case is David Cox, The Dunsley Murder of 1812, Kingswinford, Dulston Press, 2003. For Goddard’s forensic analysis, see Henry Goddard, with introduction by Patrick Pringle, Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner, pp. 98-103. Back

[49] For ‘traditional’ teleological accounts of policing history, see Charles Reith, A Short History of the British Police , Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1948, David Ascoli, The Queen’s Peace: the Origins and Development of the Metropolitan Police 1829-1979, London, Hamish Hamilton, 1979, and T. A. Critchley, A History of Police in England and Wales , London, Constable, 1978. Apart from the previously mentioned work by Paley and Reynolds, revisionist accounts can be found in V. A. C. Gatrell and others, Crime and the Law: a social history of crime in Western Europe since 1500, London, Europa, 1980, and Douglas Hay and others, Albion’s Fatal Tree: Crime and Society in Eighteenth-Century England, London, Allen Lane, 1975. In more recent years, there has been a tendency toward a more ‘pluralistic’ approach in policing history; examples of this can be found in Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 2nd edition, London, Longman, 1996, and Robert Reiner,The Politics of the Police , 2nd edition, Hemel Hempstead, 1992. The latter contains an extremely succinct and useful summary of the ‘traditional’ and revisionist arguments. Back