The First English Detectives
The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840
Oxford University Press 272pp £65
Once upon a time the history of the police was simple. Before 1829 all watchmen and constables resembled Shakespeare’s Dogberry, Verges and Elbow; increasing crime rates and popular disorder, particularly from the end of the 18th century, exposed the decrepit nature of the system; a few valiant voices were raised, until Sir Robert Peel, as home secretary, pointed the way ahead with the formation of London’s Metropolitan Police. Then social historians took an interest.
In recent years there have been important reassessments of the parish watches in 18th-century London, of how the perception of the parish constable fitted in with ideas of English local government and freedom, of how such constables were becoming increasingly efficient and serving for long periods and of how the men of Bow Street developed into a national detective agency. Henry and Sir John Fielding have always been recognised as having some significance by their organisation and expansion of the Bow Street office from 1750. In The First English Detectives John Beattie, perhaps the foremost historian of crime, the law and policing in Hanoverian London, brings his formidable knowledge and astute perception to tracing the history of the Bow Street police from the Fieldings to the abolition of the force a decade after Peel’s police constables took to the streets.
Britain was more often at war than at peace during the 18th century and every time that peace broke out there were concerns about demobilised sailors and especially soldiers turning to crime. Henry Fielding took over as the principal magistrate in Bow Street shortly after the demobilisation following the War of Austrian Succession. To meet the new crime threat he succeeded in persuading the government to provide money for the recruitment of half a dozen professional thief takers, subsequently known as the Bow Street Runners. Henry Fielding died before his experiment made a significant impression and it was left to his blind half-brother, Sir John, to develop the Runners to their full potential and to propose and develop other improvements in the policing of the metropolis.
The Runners employed some dubious practices in their pursuit of offenders and they were often brutal, but they were a marked improvement on the other thief takers in the city, who were notorious for, among other things, setting up offenders to claim the ‘blood money’ on conviction. The Runners were courageous – they needed to be; and some of them developed significant skills, including John Clarke, who took responsibility for dealing with coinage offences over two decades from the late 1760s. By the last quarter of the century the Runners were afforded considerable respect as witnesses at the Old Bailey but, at the same time, the appearance of other police offices broadly organised on Bow Street lines, the recruitment and deployment of armed patrols by Bow Street, together with the desire of the government to employ the Runners for a range of other tasks such as royal protection and state security led to their eclipse as detectives in London.
Beattie’s conclusions are challenging. He suggests that the Runners and the patrols were relatively successful in dealing with violent robbery, that this contributed to a shift in the kind of theft committed in early 19th-century London which, in turn, refocused the aims of ‘policing’ towards prevention and surveillance. At the same time Home Secretary Peel was determined to improve policing not just ‘in’ but also in parishes and villages ‘near’ the metropolis; in this, Beattie believes, he carried a majority of the governing class. A short review cannot do justice to the research and shrewd judgements that underlie this lively volume, but anyone interested in the history of crime and policing in England cannot afford to ignore it.
Clive Emsley is author of The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (revised edn. Quercus, 2010)
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