The problem in policing London to 1829

The traditional view of the system of policing before 1829 was that it was inefficient and corrupt and that the ‘real’ history of policing for London and England begins in 1829. This was certainly the view of contemporary critics such as Patrick Colquhoun but Quarter Session and other local records suggest that to view policing simply from Westminster slanted the issue of law enforcement in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth century unjustifiably in favour of reformers.[1] Although there was ineffective policing before 1829, the same inefficiency was also evident after 1829. Magistrates and local administration in the eighteenth century was not hopelessly ineffective and local leaders were prepared to adopt effective methods of policing. Effective parochial and county administration was pivotal to the implementation of national policies. [2] There was a

significant degree of continuity between the old and the new—the ‘bobbies’ of Scotland Yard carried on what the ‘Charlies’ on the night watch had begun.[3]

The problem of policing was at its most severe in London.[4] The result was the development of professional policing at local level from the initial use of paid watchmen in key West End parishes in 1735 through to the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. By 1823, twenty-three parochial night watch acts has been passed largely before 1790. Even if policing was neither uniform nor centralised over the entire metropolitan area, London was far more extensively policed in 1828 than was the case a century earlier. In 1730, the government decided to appoint a chief magistrate for London to hold court at Bow Street.[5] The first was Sir Thomas de Veil. He was followed by two half brothers, Henry and John Fielding. Henry Fielding had little faith in petty constables or watchmen and he appointed six men to act as full-time ‘runners’ or thief-takers.[6] They were paid a guinea a week plus a share of the reward for each successful prosecution. Later the blind[7] Sir John Fielding, who succeeded his brother, established the Bow Street Runners on a permanent basis and ran it from 1754 to until his death in 1780. The Fieldings transformed the role of the Bow Street magistracy, and provided the model on which the other London Police Offices were based. [8]

The Bow Street Police Office and its personnel have long been regarded by many historians as little more than a discrete and often inconsequential footnote to the history of policing, leading to a partial and incomplete understanding of their work. 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 Patrol, established on a permanent basis in 1790 by Sir Sampson Wright during his tenure as chief magistrate (1780-1797), 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 Patrol was permanently established in 1805 by Sir Richard Ford (chief magistrate 1800-1806), 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. The Horse Patrol was responsible for patrolling the various turnpiked roads leading into the metropolis. Finally, in 1821 a Day Patrol was created; this force operated in the area of the metropolis between the jurisdiction of the Horse Patrol and the Foot Patrol.[9]  The Thames River Police was set up in 1800 to police the river and its banks.[10]

Crime 26

The Bow Street principal officers were regarded by the Fieldings as more than simply a metropolitan force and they were willing to send the officers throughout Great Britain in order to investigate and detect crimes. Cox argues that in several ways the utilisation of Principal Officers, who alone were originally known as the ‘Bow Street Runners’, in provincially instigated cases paved the way for important subsequent developments in policing, especially with regard to detective practices. The principal officers did operate, on an admittedly small scale, as a de facto national force. Fielding also began a system of publishing information about serious crimes committed in London with descriptions of wanted criminals and in 1772 called for the collection, collation and circulation of information on a national basis. 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. Bow Street showed that there was an alternative to both the parish constabulary system that was increasingly perceived as outmoded and inefficient and the creation of a large, centralised 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.


[1] For ‘traditional’ teleological accounts of policing history, see Reith, Charles, A Short History of the British Police, (Oxford University Press), 1948, Ascoli, David, The Queen’s Peace: the Origins and Development of the Metropolitan Police 1829-1979, (Hamish Hamilton), 1979, and Critchley, T. A., A History of Police in England and Wales, (Constable), 1978.

[2] See, for example, Kent, Joan R., ‘The centre and the localities: state formation and parish government in England, circa 1640–1740’, Historical Journal, Vol. 38, (1995), pp. 363-404 considers state formation at the base of the governmental system and examines the extent of, and reasons for, support of national policies at the parochial level. See also, Innes, Joanna, Inferior Politics: Social Problems and Social Policies in Eighteenth-Century Britain, (Oxford University Press), 2010 and Davies, Stephen, ‘The Private Provision of Police during the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries’, in Beito, David T., Gordon, Peter and Tabarrok, Alexander, (eds.), The Voluntary City: Choice, Community and Civil Society, (University of Michigan Press), 2002, pp. 151-181.

[3] Ibid, Reynolds, E.A., Before the Bobbies, p. 5, see also, pp. 148-166.

[4] Beattie, J. M., Policing and Punishment in London, 1660–1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror, (Oxford University Press), 2001.

[5] Beattie, J.M. ‘Sir John Fielding and Public Justice: The Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, 1754-1780’, Law and History Review, Vol. 25, (1), (2007), pp. 61-100.

[6] On Henry Fielding see, Fielding, Henry, An Enquiry into the Causes of the late Increase of Robbers, (A. Miller), 1751 and Bertelsen, Lance, Henry Fielding at Work: Magistrate, Businessman, Writer, (Palgrave), 2000.

[7] It was said that Sir John could recognise 3,000 criminals by their voices and that they were unnerved by this talent. There is no modern study of Sir John Fielding but see, Leslie-Melville, R., The Life and Work of Sir John Fielding, (Lincoln Williams), 1905 for useful, if on occasions, anecdotal material.

[8] In 1805 some of the runners were issued with blue coats and trousers, black boots and hats, white gloves and scarlet waistcoats – hence the name ‘Robin Redbreasts’. Each carried a pistol, cutlass and truncheon. See, Cox, David J., A Certain Share of Low Cunning:
A history of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839
, (Willan Publishing), 2010 and Beattie, J. M., ‘Early Detection: The Bow Street Runners’, in Emsley. Clive and Shpayer-Makov, Haia, (eds.), Police Detectives in History, 1750–1950, (Ashgate), 2006, pp. 15-32. See also, Hetherington, F.P., Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office: With an Account of the Magistrates, Runners, and Police, (Chapman & Hall), 1888.

[9] Styles, John, ‘Sir John Fielding and the Problems of Criminal Investigation in Eighteenth-Century England’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 33, (1983), pp. 127-149 Reynolds, Elaine A., ‘Sir John Fielding, Sir Charles Whitworth, and the Westminster Night Watch Act, 1770-1775’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 16 (2002).

[10] See, Colquhoun, P., Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames, (J. Mawman), 1800, pp. 157-208 and Budworth, G., The River Beat: The Story of London’s River Police since 1798, (Historical Publications), 1997.

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