Bow Street Runners to Bobbies

The Bow Street Runners

In 1748, Henry Fielding, assisted by his half-brother, John, took the position of Magistrate of Westminster, London. Henry was one of the major writers of the 18th Century. Bernard Shaw called his satirical political comedies among the best of the 18th Century.

Fielding’s play writing days ended when one of his political satires parodied the wrong person, portraying the Prime Minister as “a poor, impudent fellow” ever watchful for bribe opportunities. Soon thereafter, passage of the Licensing Act put licensing a play in to the hands of the government and Fielding became its first blacklisted writer. Thomas de Veil, his predecessor at Westminster, had had to “read the riot act” at a riot protest of the Licensing Act (Pringle, 77). Fielding penned Britain’s reputed first novel, Tom Jones, shortly after his Westminster appointment.

by Thomas Ryley, after William De La Cour (Delacour), mezzotint, published 1747

Sir Thomas de Veil, Bow Street Founding Magistrate, Justice Trader

The office was still located at its Bow Street residence, founded in 1728 by Sir Thomas de Veil, who had died two years prior. Fielding took the position from which de Veil had greatly prospered. By “trading justice”, as the term went for magistrates on the take, de Veil died a rich man. But he had also confronted criminal behavior aggressively and greatly lowered London’s street crime rate using networks of informants to identify and hunt down criminals. He was eulogized as someone whose unrelenting and severe temper and intemperate desires worked to his advantage in carrying through the rigors of his duties (Pringle, 76).

But Fielding’s desire for honesty and refusal to take bribes left him still a poor man. He eventually petitioned and was allowed to have Middlesex added to his jurisdiction to give him enough of a client base to make an honest living (Armitage, 38).

Henry Fielding, Founder of Bow Street Runners. Tried to instill honesty in to law enforcement.

Henry Fielding, Founder of Bow Street Runners. Tried to instill honesty in to law enforcement.

As he took office the end of 1748, a spike in crime occurred, likely spawned by regiments of soldiers returning from war and the repeal of the Gin laws that allowed the free flow of booze again. As a reformer, he saw need for reducing crime in the short term, which meant strengthening the police, while addressing the causes of crime over the longer term. To do this, he knew he needed the cooperation of the people, and, as a writer, he was pivotal as being one of the first to call on press help, issuing press advisories describing crimes, criminals and recovered merchandise. He, and later, his brother, also took out advertisements asking the public to report crimes and promising quick response (Pringle,  81).

To meet his goal of strengthening his force, he looked to the 80 constables at his command, most corrupt or incompetent, and chose a top aid, the capable High Constable of Holborn, Saunders Welch, to aid in establishing a small strike force, of sorts. Together they hand picked six of their best, most trustworthy constables and gave them special training to make them more efficient. Fielding was a trained lawyer and was able to give training on evidence collection and documentation, and worked so hard to keep the identities of these men secret that their names are unknown to this day. London had its first secret police force, and in its first week of operation, it was credited with arresting 40 felons, a small but significant start (Pringle, 88-90). The Bow Street Runners was born.

Using the Runners, Henry tested his theories on effective policing, with help from John. Although blinded at age nineteen while in the navy, John possessed extraordinary talents, eventually knighted after becoming Magistrate for his work to clean up London streets. Police, or “constables” of that time were one-year volunteer positions, eligible to receive the Parliamentary Reward of £40 offered for capture of a felon, although anyone able to capture a felon was entitled to the reward, spawning the thief-taking profession made infamous by Jonathan Wild.

John Fielding, Blind Beak of Bow Street

John Fielding, Blind Beak of Bow Street Beak was a common term for someone in charge.


Henry wanted a permanent force of trustworthy officers, stipended, not eligible to take the reward and not likely to take bribes. Despite his efforts, a stipended police force was still seen as potentially tyrannical, and, other than reimbursements for small expenses of pursuing felons, the Runners remained thief takers, just like all the rest.

In 1753, the ill Henry Fielding, nearing the end of his life, was called upon by the Duke of Newcastle to recommend ways to lower the still rampant street crime rate. In four days he wrote the plan he had been in the process of developing for years. The secret plan, excerpts of which were published years later by his half-brother, John, included some of the tactics he had been secretly testing with his runners. His plan called for a professionally run police force, not time limited volunteers, with officers stipended so as not to depend on the thief-taker money. Offices would be open 24/7, able to put two agents in horseback pursuit inside 15 minutes of a reported crime. He also wanted a small allowance for paying informants, and called for documentation of all crimes committed and solved, a precursor to Scotland Yard Records Office (106).

After a passage of some months, Fielding’s plan was finally adopted, although of the £600 requested to secure London’s streets in the first year, only £200 was paid. In his lifetime, Henry never saw sustainable funding for the Runners.


Reward Posters gained popularity, another blessing of the printing press

Still, with help from a media campaign and advertising promising payments for information leading to arrests, the Bow Street Runners were effective and crime on the streets plummeted.

Henry and later, John, advertised the Bow Street Runners in newspapers and a literary journal Henry founded, calling on people to report crime and offering to provide two men in horseback pursuit within 15 minutes of a reported crime. After Henry’s death in 1754, John took over and helped make Bow Street Runners feared among criminals for their undercover investigative skills and determined pursuit of fugitives. He was never given enough of a budget to pay the runners for their service, as the plan called for. Besides his small salary, he received enough to reimburse small costs for the pursuit of fugitives, to pay informants, and eventually to establish a horse patrol to protect roads surrounding London against highwaymen (Pringle,  128-32, 164-65). The Bow Street Runners would be the main law enforcement in London until the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.

On the Waterfront–Patrick Colquhoun and the first uniformed, stipended police force

In July, 1798, the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institution came into being. Three years before, Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish economist and social reformer, anonymously published his Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis, which argued for a preventive police force patterned on the French system of uniformed officers, separate from the courts and paid by the government (Foster). In 1798 the West India Company backed his plan for a Thames River Police to patrol and end the widespread theft of cargoes on the busy river docks and anchored ships, estimated to be valued at over half-million pounds in 1797 ( By 1799, the dock and boat patrols were able to reduce theft in the first six months by an estimated hundred thousand British pounds.

The Fleet River and River Thames London in the 18th century; Black and White Illustration;

The Fleet River and River Thames London in the 18th century

In 1800, a new, secure dock was built by the West India Company on the Thames, and the private force disbanded. But because of its success and perceived ongoing need to protect all shipping on the Thames and its tributaries, the Police Act of 1800 established it permanently as the Marine Police Establishment. The government agreed to pay for the force through taxation, likely because of all the tax revenue they were losing from the rampant theft and river piracy ( Thus was formed the first publicly funded, uniformed force tasked with deterring crime through visibility and legal authority (Williams).

Patrick Colquhoun established the first uniformed, stipended law enforcement in Lindon

Patrick Colquhoun established the first uniformed, stipended law enforcement in London

It has been argued that establishing a government funded police reflected the economic demands of empire to protect the gains of the wealthy. That was based not only on the influx of wealth being brought in by boat daily, but also that soldiers returning from imperial duty abroad were given special preference in placement for constables. And there was a growing class of rich merchants able to make their concerns heard in Parliament (, Williams). The question of government overreach in its protection of the interests of the wealthy has been a recurring theme throughout history and to the present day. But history also reflects a strong protectiveness of “constitutional rights”, whether from a collection of documents over hundreds of years in England establishing basic rights to be heard in court by a jury, and freedom from torture to get confessions, or the one document America synthesized from all those predecessors, granting life, liberty and property.

Bobbies- 1829 establishment of Metropolitan Police in London

Building on the success of the Thames Police and a perceived need to reign in the still sometimes opportunistic practices of thief-takers, with whom the Runners were still identified, Robert Peel introduced legislation in Parliament, the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829.

In 1814, as Secretary of Ireland, in response to political violence, Peel had established a public police force that was the forerunner to the Royal Irish Constabulary. He was named to the English Cabinet as Secretary of State for the Home Department in 1822, given responsibility for managing domestic affairs. In that time, London law enforcement consisted of a daytime force of mostly old soldiers, plus the Bow Street Runners, Bow Street Horse Patrol, and the Thames Police (Foster).

Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel

Peel’s bill tried to consolidate this array. His 1829 Metropolitan Police Act reformed the criminal code and established a set of principles that “helped establish the organizational structure and operational philosophies of police agencies in England and the United States.” These principles included advocating for the distribution of crime news, making sure the proper people were being well-trained and the keeping of police records used to assess efficiency (Gunter, et al, 6).

The imperial model seems an important aspect of the development of policing in London. As characterized by Bogden, Imperial policing was “preeminently missionary work to legitimize external governance” (Gunter, et al,7).

To say Londoners in 1829 distrusted any form of state-sanctioned, uniformed law enforcement would be a fair assessment. The model used in Peel’s legislation drew upon the “successful” French system of “preventive policing”. To the Londoner, that conjured images of a militarized Gendarme with unquestioned authority, supplemented by un-uniformed spies with coercive powers, and informants.

According to Pringle, “One great virtue of Victorian England: it hated discipline” (209), so Peel’s police were designed to be as non-coercive a force as possible. Their job was to be a visible deterrent to criminal activity, and specifically not take the French approach of plain clothed treachery (Hardy).

Bobbie breaking up a fight

Bobbie breaking up a fight

By 1839, gone to corruption through having to live the thief taker life, the Bow Street Runners had been disbanded. About the same time it was realized that, while “Bobbies” (a nod to Robert Peel) were certainly a deterrent, crimes were still committed that did not produce a ready suspect. Grudgingly, a small unit of investigative consultants moved in to the buildings that had housed visiting Scottish nobles during state visits at a place called Scotland Yard. Helped along by Charles Dickens and other writers, the exploits of Scotland Yard were romanticized, taking police investigators from the wary distrust of Jonathan Wild and the thief takers to the exalted status of Inspector Bucket and Sherlock Holmes (Hardy) in popular culture.