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Bow Street Runner

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Title: Bow Street Runner  
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Subject: The Reverse of the Medal, The Commodore (novel), Recurring characters in the Aubrey–Maturin series, Charles Frederick Field
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Bow Street Runner

The Bow Street Runners have been called London's first professional police force. The force was founded in 1749 by the author Henry Fielding and originally numbered just six.[2] Bow Street runners was the public's nickname for these officers, "although the officers never referred to themselves as runners, considering the term to be derogatory".[3] The Bow Street group was disbanded in 1839.


Similar to the unofficial 'thief-takers' (men who would solve petty crime for a fee), they represented a formalisation and regularisation of existing policing methods. What made them different from the thief-takers was their formal attachment to the Bow Street magistrates' office, and that they were paid by the magistrate with funds from central government. They worked out of Fielding's office and court at No. 4 Bow Street, and did not patrol but served writs and arrested offenders on the authority of the magistrates, travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals. In charge was Saunders Welch, an energetic former grocer elected High Constable of Holborn, who selected his men from former constables, discharged at the end of their year in office, who were prepared to receive legal training and carry on the work.[4]

When Henry Fielding died in 1754, he was succeeded as Chief Magistrate by his brother John Fielding, who had previously been his assistant for four years. Known as the "Blind Beak of Bow Street", John Fielding refined the patrol into the first truly effective police force for the capital, later adding officers mounted on horseback.

Although the force was only funded intermittently in the years that followed, it did serve as the guiding principle for the way policing was to develop over the next eighty years: Bow Street was a manifestation of the move towards increasing professionalisation and state control of street life, beginning in London.

Contrary to several popular sources, the Bow Street Runners were not nicknamed "Robin Redbreasts", this epithet being reserved for the Bow Street Horse Patrol. The Horse Patrol, organised in 1805 by Sir John Fielding's successor at Bow Street, Richard Ford,[5] wore a distinctive scarlet waistcoat under their blue greatcoats.


A fictional Bow Street Runner named Edmund 'Beau' Blackstone is the protagonist of the "Blackstone" series of historical thrillers by Richard Falkirk ([1])

Ben Healey writing under the name Jeremy Sturrock wrote seven novels featuring a Bow Street Runner - The Village of Rogues [1972], (The Thieftaker in the US),A Wicked Way to Die [1973], The Wilful Lady [1975], A Conspiracy of Poisons [1977],Suicide Most Foul [1981], Captain Bolton's Corpse [1982], and The Pangersbourne Murders [1983].

The Bow Street Runners feature in an episode of the popular "Carry On" comedy series—"Carry On Dick". In this episode they are made out to be a set of bungling idiots who are frequently outsmarted by the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin, played by Sid James. The Bow Street Runners are also mentioned briefly and with apparent regard in Charles Dickens' "Oliver Twist".

Andrew Pepper's "The Last Days of Newgate" (2006) describes a fictitious Bow Street Runner, Pyke, who tries to prove his innocence in a murder trial.

Bruce Alexander penned eleven "Sir John Fielding" historical mystery novels. The series, beginning with "Blind Justice" (1994), features a fictionalised "Blind Beak Of Bow Street", ingeniously solving murders, assisted by the Bow Street Runners.

Novelist James McGee has written a series about a Runner named Matthew Hawkwood.

Novelist Jayne Ann Krentz (writing as Amanda Quick) has the hero of her historical novel I Thee Wed (1999, second book in the Vanza series) use them as bodyguards for his fiancee.

City of Vice, a 2008 drama series from Channel 4, depicted the early days of the Runners. Ian McDiarmid played Henry Fielding.

There is also a BBC Radio play "The Last of the Bow Street Runners", part of the "London Particulars" stories.

In the Further Adventures of Doctor Syn from the Doctor Syn-Series by Russell Thorndike one of the episodes introduces a Bow Street Runner who comes to Dymchurch-under-the-Wall to capture the Scarecrow, the notorious leader of a gang of smugglers.

In Colonel Thorndike's Secret by G.A. Henty, young Mark Thorndike becomes a volunteer runner in order to find the man, Arthur Blastow, who he believes responsible for the death of his father, John Thorndike, the brother of Colonel George Thorndike.

The movie The Tale of Sweeney Todd (1998) portrays a young American, Ben Carlyle, who comes to London in search of a diamond merchant who has defaulted on a payment of $50,000 worth of diamonds. Carlyle stops in at the Bow Street Runners' headquarters in search of the man.

The play Sweeney Todd: His Life Times and Execution devised by Finger in the Pie (2009) features a fictionalized Sir John Fielding portrayed as a symbol of the enlightenment whose zealous belief in social reform is ultimately undermined by his idealism. (see [2])

Many historical romance novels i.e. the Lisa Kleypas which includes Someone To Watch Over Me (1999), Lady Sophia's Lover (2002) and Worth Any Price (2003), features the Bow Street Runners/Magistrates as the heroes in them.

A novel entitled Richmond : Scenes in the life of a Bow Street runner, author unknown, was originally published in 1827 in London, and republished by Dover Publications in 1976. It follows the adventures of the titular narrator Richmond, first his early wandering life, then cases he investigates when he later joins the Runners.

The books The Diamond of Drury Lane by Julia Golding and Sovay by Celia Rees feature the Bow Street Runners in the story.

Bow Street Runners appear in some of the Aubrey–Maturin series novels by Patrick O'Brian. In the novel The Commodore, Parker, a Bow Street Runner, is employed by Maturin and Sir Joseph Blaine to investigate the Duke of Habachtstal. In The Reverse of the Medal, Mr. Pratt, a former Bow Street Runner, is employed by Maturin to investigate the stock market fraud in which Aubrey has been implicated.

The song "Be Back Soon," from the Lionel Bart musical Oliver! references the Bow Street Runners.

Sean Russell and Ian Dennis, under their common pen-name “T. F. Banks”, wrote a two-volume "Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner".

A fictional Bow Street Runner called Gabriel Stogumber is a main character in The Toll-Gate by Georgette Heyer.

The rivalry between Bow Street Runners and Fellers is a major theme in the steampunk graphic novel "Captain Swing And The Electrical Pirates Of Cinderey Island".

Sherlock Holmes periodically employs a group of street urchins whom he facetiously terms 'The Bow Street Runners' in his investigations.


External links

  • Bow Street Runners in the Literary Encyclopedia
  • The Metropolitan Police Service Historical Archives
  • Game About the Bow Street Runners

See also

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