Policing From Bow Street: Principal Officers, Runners and The Patroles

Today, it is a pleasure to welcome another new guest to All Things Georgian, Peter Kennison, co-author of  ‘Policing From Bow Street: Principal Officers, Runners and The Patroles’, who is going to tell us more about the early origins of policing, so I’ll hand over to him to tell more:

In 2014 Lucy Inglis was perceptive in her brilliant book Georgian London when she wrote that “Less has changed than you might think” something which is certainly true of Bow Street as the centre from which policing in the UK commenced.

Today the Bow Street Tavern exists at 37 Bow Street and if you are lucky enough to be invited down in the cellars you will see the dark damp cell where the Bow Street constables of the 1750s onwards lodged their prisoners. In their day the public house was called the Brown Bear and in 270 years only its name has changed. The Brown Bear was not only the prison for lodging prisoners by the court, but it was also the place where the so-called Bow Street runners took their refreshments. Situated Immediately opposite the public house was the Bow Street Public Office and courthouse at no. 4  Bow Street – originally established by the Trading Justice Sir Thomas De Veil.

The existing medieval system of watch and ward designed to police the masses was breaking down. Societal change and urban growth were destabilising the fabric of society. Weak, independent local Government added another layer of complexity and ineffectiveness. The playwright and magistrate Henry Fielding realised the ineffectiveness of the Parish Police Parochial Watch system that press-ganged traders and merchants into doing their civil duty for one year as Constables. Each Parish Watch operated independently within its own boundary, but since crime fails to respect boundaries many perpetrators escaped.

Crimes committed often went unreported and unrecorded for want of a real central police organisation. A further weakness in the law enforcement system inevitably bred public corruption and led to a deterioration in public morals. Unscrupulous and dishonest individuals found themselves in positions of power as Trading Justices, dispensing the law to a fee-paying public.

Public disorder became a problem; religious, political and social grievances expressed themselves in public scenes of dissatisfaction. Life on the Hogarthian margins was laid bare, with rampant prostitution, drunkenness, hooliganism, bawdy houses and civil disorder. Something had to be done.

Cartoon by Gilray depicting the Bow Street Runners
Cartoon by Gilray depicting the Bow Street Runners

The Runners were created by the playwright and magistrate Henry Fielding who in 6 short years created a plan of policing to combat the crime problems into principals we follow today.  Fielding created his own constabulary of 6 trusted men taken from the 80 parish constables who had been elected in the City of Westminster for 1 year. This indicated that not many of those selected were up to the job. With the help of Sanders Welch the High Constable of Holborn they established rules in policing practice which every person who holds the office of constable today.

Later they were erroneously known as Runners was a title given to them by the newspapers in the 1780s at roughly the same time that the Bow Street Foot Patroles were introduced. The names and details of these six or so early policemen were deliberately kept secret by Fielding to avoid them being identified as constables nonetheless these were like-minded public-spirited individuals seeking the common good. But who were the men of Bow Street? Those intrepid constables who were the first Principal Officers of the court who from the start – learned the so-called  “fundamentals of policing” or its perceptual blueprint. Henry Fielding became the first Stipendiary magistrate funded by the Government as he wished to distance himself from the corrupt practices he witnessed by the other Westminster Trading Justices in dispensing justice. He needed to build an honest reputation that would give confidence to victims and witnesses of crime to come forward and report what they knew. The Bow Street officers made good progress in ridding the streets and highways of dangerous Robbers and footpads.

The Brown Bear circa 1760
The Brown Bear circa 1760

Bow Street’s gradual success took on something akin to a mythical status. The myth attributed to the Runners was acquired in retrospect was of a group of active individuals who uncovered law-breaking and arrested felons. There was seemingly no hiding place for offenders and Bow Street always got their man, even though they were just a small group of no more than eight investigators.[i] What also added to this myth were numbers of other Bow Street constables because these were not just small numbers.

There were other patroles at Bow Street who supplemented the “Thief Takers”, and they sometimes numbered nearly 300. By the 1780s public signs of hostility over religious grievances caused public disorder resulting in military overreaction. A civil body was needed.

A Bow Street Foot patrole was created in 1782 numbering over 68 although a Bow Street Horse patrole had been experimented with in 1763 and whilst very successful only lasted a year when the Government withdrew funds. These mounted patroles, however, were resurrected in 1805 and later laid the basis of the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch.

The Horse patrole consisted of 2 Inspectors, 4 deputy Inspectors and 54 constables. Then there were the 100 constables of the Dismounted Horse Patrole and by 1821 28 members of the uniformed day patrole so in the later stages of Bow Street they numbered 264 in total. The Runners built up a reputation based on their detective skills and investigated mainly property crime whilst the plain clothes heavily armed foot patroles went out onto the streets at dusk until midnight in groups of 5 operating out from Westminster to a distance of 4 miles. This was every day, 365 days a year and they became a familiar sight on the streets of Westminster Surrey, Kent, Essex and Middlesex becoming a familiar sight on  London’s streets.

Fielding and Welch both instilled an esprit de corps that helped galvanise the group into an effective crime-fighting force. It was this spirit of comradery which contributed to the myth in what Critchley (1967) asserts:

This roisterous body of men some of whom made substantial fortunes out of shady business in trafficking in crime, undoubtedly… creating in their own lifetime the myth of the Bow Street Runners.

The success of Bow Street not only hinged on its mythical status, but the way Henry Fielding laid out his plan to combat crime was unique. This he termed as moving from “Madness to Method”. Once his constabulary was in place they went out onto the streets established informants for information on offenders who they paid them out of their own pockets and if successful they would pocket the state reward of up to £40 on successful conviction of a felony – a more serious crime.

He established Bow Street as the ‘Go to’ place to report their crimes where he had his men available to record these matters into Criminal Registers. These early Registers reported the time, place, method descriptions, value of property stolen, witnesses (+ their addresses) or either real or likely names (or pseudonyms) of suspects.

Gillray cartoon with Townsend in left section brandishing his tipstaff whilst helping to protect George III
Gillray cartoon with Townsend in left section brandishing his tipstaff whilst helping to protect George III. National Portrait Gallery

Prisoners were brought to his court on other matters where he had invited the general public to view proceedings and possibly identify likely perpetrators. Also invited were the newspapers who meticulously reported proceedings under the heading of Bow Street daily to a news-hungry public.

Fielding also established his own successful newspaper which he used to highlight particular crimes reported to Bow Street and these also included matters alerted to him at Bow Street from Magistrates in the shires surrounding London and sometimes beyond. On the report of a felony, a reserve of 2 Bow Street principal officers were waiting to take details, search the registers for descriptions before they ventured out at any time of the day or night on the fast response vehicle at the time – the horse. Fielding only selected those of his officers for the job if they were highly-skilled as good horsemen, often brave battle-hardened ex-cavalry soldiers who had served the army with credit. The men were well-trained, properly armed and good marksmen.

A figurine showing John Townsend with his tipstaff – badge of office
A figurine showing John Townsend with his tipstaff – badge of office

The constables appreciated the dangers of violence towards them under these circumstances and often went in sufficient numbers. His methods of sudden pursuit paid dividends since many highwaymen were swiftly caught and brought back to court to face examination. With an added confidence, soon more witnesses and victims of crime attended the court to make their reports, with each case being investigated and acted on quickly. Quick response has become a useful police strategy.

The Fieldings newspaper was the early forerunner to the Police Gazette still circulated to Police organisations today. Historians have viewed this part of police history at Bow Street Public Office as an irrelevance not to be taken seriously because little is known about the detail.  The Whig historians claim that these later Runners were a corrupt group of men whose services could be bought or who would frame innocent people to gain the state (£40) reward. Whilst this was more true later at the turn of the century onwards the men of Bow Street were properly regulated, honest, public-spirited thief-takers.

These honest men were not to be confused with the common and disreputable thief-taker general, Jonathon Wild, whose corrupt gang fitted up unsuspecting people to claim the rewards. What seems to add fuel to this flame and probably a reason none of the runners were employed as Metropolitan Police detectives was that when for example, the most famous Bow Street Runner John Townsend died in 1832 he left investments totalling £25,000, getting on for £1,237,250 in today’s money and this was the same for other principal officers.

Peter’s book can be obtained from Mango Books by following the highlighted link, at  £25 plus £3.55 postage for the hardcover cover. He also has a limited supply at £21 post free via PayPal at pcdogberry@hotmail.com on a first-come, first-served basis.

[i] Beattie, J. M. (2012) The First English Detectives. Oxford University Press, Oxford, p. 264.

2 thoughts on “Policing From Bow Street: Principal Officers, Runners and The Patroles

  1. Darcy Burke

    Great article, thank you! Peter, do you know where I can find an image of number four Bow Street circa 1800-1820? Maybe it doesn’t exist, but I thought you might know. Thank you!


    1. Peter Kennison

      Hi Darcy
      Im sorry I have just come across your request. Email me at my email at the end of my article and I believe I may be able to help.
      Best wishes


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