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Bow Street Runners

Bow Street Runners
Bow Street Runners, London's first, professional police force. A 19th century depiction, of the courtroom at 4 Bow Street, initially, a room in the private house of magistrate Thomas de Veil
Founder Henry Fielding
Founding location London, England
Years active 1749-1839
Territory London, England
Ethnicity English
Membership 6-?

The Bow Street Runners have been called London's first professional police force. The force, originally numbering only six individuals, was founded in 1749 by the British magistrate Henry Fielding, who was also well known as an author.[1] 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".[2] The Bow Street group was disbanded in 1839.


  • History 1
    • Policing in the early 18th century 1.1
    • Sir John's Runners (1754-1765) 1.2
  • Fiction 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4
  • External links 5


Bow Street Runners are considered the first British police force. Prior to them, the law enforcing system was very much in the hands of private citizens and of single individuals with very little intervention from the State. Due to the high rates of corruption and mistaken or malicious arrests, judge Henry Fielding decided to regulate and to legalize their activity, therefore creating the Bow Street Runners.

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.[3]

Henry Fielding's work was carried on by his brother, John Fielding, when he succeeded him as magistrate in the Bow Street office. Under John Fielding, the institution of the Bow Street Runners gained more and more recognition from the government and 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 professionalization 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,[4] wore a distinctive scarlet waistcoat under their blue greatcoats.

Policing in the early 18th century

Up to the early 18th century, Britain did not have an official policing system backed by the State. A police force like the one already present in France would have been ill suited to Britain, that saw examples such as the French one as a threat to their liberty and balanced constitution in favor of an arbitrary and tyrannical government. The enforcement of the law then was mostly up to the private citizens, who had the right and duty to prosecute crimes in which they were involved or in which they were not. At the cry of 'murder!' or 'stop thief!' everyone was entitled and obliged to join the pursuit. Once the criminal had been apprehended, the parish constables and night watchmen, who were the only public figures provided by the State and who were typically part-time and local, would make the arrest.[5]

As a result, the State set a reward to encourage citizens to arrest and prosecute offenders. The first of such rewards was established in 1692 of the amount of £40 for the conviction of a highwayman and in the following years it was extended to burglars, coiners and other forms of offence. The reward was to be increased in 1720 when, after the end of the war of Spanish Succession and the consequent rise of criminal offences, the government offered £100 for the conviction of a highwayman. Although the offer of such a reward was conceived as an incentive for the victims of an offence to proceed to the prosecution and to bring criminals to justice, these efforts of the government also increased the number of private thief-takers.[6]

Thief-takers became infamously known not so much for what they were supposed to do - that is catching real criminals and prosecuting them - as for "setting themselves up as intermediaries between victims and their attackers, extracting payments for the return of stolen goods and using the threat of prosecution to keep offenders in thrall".[7] Some of them became very famous at the time, figures such as Jonathan Wild, also for staging robberies in order to receive the reward.[8]

Sir John's Runners (1754-1765)

When Henry Fielding died in 1754, he was succeeded as Chief Magistrate by his brother Sir 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.


In Robert Louis Stevenson's St. Ives (1897) Bay Street runners go as far afield as Edinburgh looking for the protagonist, "Mr Ives."

Dark Streets (RPG) is a fictional combination of a crime and horror Role-playing game from Cakebread & Walton. Players take on the role of Bow Street Runners working for Henry Fielding trying to stop the incursion of the Cthulhu Mythos in 18th Century London [9]

A fictional Bow Street Runner named Edmund 'Beau' Blackstone is the protagonist of the "Blackstone" series of historical thrillers by Richard Falkirk (Derek Lambert), set in 1820s London and comprising Blackstone, Blackstone's Fancy, Beau Blackstone, Blackstone and the Scourge of Europe, Blackstone Underground and Blackstone on Broadway (see [4])

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. A paragraph in Great Expectations mentions them as well, but they are described as ineffectual bumblers or butts.

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. A bow street runner also features in Dangerous (1993).

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 [5])

Many historical romance novels, i.e. the Bow Street Runners series by novelist 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 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.

Mr. Buchan, played by Steve Pemberton mentions the Bow Street Runners in the BBC TV show Whitechapel in 2009.

Sherlock Holmes, played by Benedict Cumberbatch mentions the Bow Street Runners on the BBC TV show Sherlock in 2013.

Bow Street runners are mentioned in Patricia Wrede's Mairelon the Magician.

The Bow Street Runners are mentioned in Rem Oscuro's book I am the Dark where the vampire protagonist is sought by them on suspicion of multiple murders.

The Bow Street Runners are mentioned in several of C. S. Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr mysteries.

See also


  1. ^ Newman, Gerald (1997). "Bow Street Runners". Britain in the Hanoverian age, 1714-1837: an encyclopedia. London: Taylor & Francis. p. 69.  
  2. ^ Ruthven, George Thomas Joseph (1792/3–1844), police officer. David J. Cox, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, Sept 2010 accessed 30 Nov 2010
  3. ^ Senior, Hereward (1997). Constabulary: the rise of police institutions in Britain, the Commonwealth, and the United States. Toronto, ON: Dundurn Press. p. 26.  
  4. ^ Hetherington, Fitzgerald Percy (1888). "The Patroles". Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office: With an Account of the Magistrates. London: Chapman and Hall. p. 90.   [6]
  5. ^ Tim Hichcock & Robert Shoemaker (2006) Tales From the Hanging Court, Bloomsbury. p. 1 ISBN 978-0-340-91375-8
  6. ^ J. M. Beattie (2012) The First English Detectives. The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840. Oxford University Press. p. 7 ISBN 978-0-19-969516-4
  7. ^ J. M. Beattie (2012) The First English Detectives. The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840. Oxford University Press. p. 7 ISBN 978-0-19-969516-4
  8. ^
  9. ^

External links

  • Bow Street Runners in the Literary Encyclopedia
  • The Metropolitan Police Service Historical Archives
  • Game About the Bow Street Runners
  • The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London's Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913
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