HIST 3130 Chapter Notes - Chapter 12: Bow Street Runners, Bow Street Magistrates' Court, St Andrew Holborn (Church)

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9 Aug 2016
Week 12
The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of
London, 1750-1840 – J.M. Beattie, 2012:
When Henry Fielding became a Westminster magistrate at the end of 1748 he made the
house he occupied in Bow Street, Covent Garden, a centre of magisterial work that was
different from anything that had gone before he built on the work of his predecessor, Sir
Thomas DeVeil, who in his 10 years in Bow Street had made his residence well known as a
place where the public would be able to find a justice of the peace with some regularity
But Fielding also began a process that was to give the room in which examinations were
conducted much more of a court-like setting in addition, he gathered together the first body
of officers dedicated to catching and prosecuting offenders
In his five-and-a-half years as the chief magistrate of Westminster, Fielding initiatives
practices and won government approval for a plan that was to make Bow Street the leading
centre of policing in the metropolis
Fielding has been called to the bar in 1740 and was thus unusually well prepared for a place
on the commission of the peace when he was named as a Westminster magistrate in
October 1748 and became chairman of the Westminster Sessions in the following March
In January 1749 he successfully sought inclusion on the Middlesex commission too, an
appointment that was only made possible by the patronage of the duke of Bedford who
transferred leases of sufficient value to Fielding to enable him to meet the property
qualification of 100 pounds a year required of a county justice of the peace
As an active and reform-minded magistrate, he also wanted the greater scope and the added
authority that membership on the county bench provided, for just as he came into office at the
end of 1748 London was engulfed by a considerable increase in crime, particularly robberies
and other violent offences
Bow Street felt the effects of this crime wave immediately, situated as it was in Covent
Garden, at the centre of a densely populated area that drew large numbers of pleasure
seekers to its theatres, its brothels, and its drinking and gambling places
It was also an area in which the problems of policing were complicated by its being at the
intersection of several jurisdictions, where the City of the Westminster met the crowded
western suburbs of the City of London as well as several large Middlesex parishes under the
jurisdiction of the county magistrates parishes like St Andrew, Holborn, St Giles in the
Fields, and St James Clerkenwell, all dangerous places
Fielding’s move to the Middlesex bench was almost certainly to made it easier for him to deal
with the increasing business that came his way from the wider environs of Covent Garden, a
well-known sink of iniquity that extended well beyond Westminster
The peace that brought the war of Austrian Succession to a conclusion in 1748 was no
exception to the common experience in the 18th century that the end of a long war abroad
meant an increase in prosecutions for property crime at home, much of it conducted with
Within months of the peace treaty being signed those predictions were proving to all be true
over the next several years the newspapers and monthly magazines were full of reports of
robberies and other violent offences in and around the capital, frequently involving wealthy,
even aristocratic, victims, which made them all the more newsworthy and made the crime
wave seem all the more serious to the opinion-makers and men of property who sat in
After being held up himself one night in Hyde Park, Horace Walpole wrote in the winter of
1749-1750 of there being ‘little news from England, but of robberies’
It was a measure of the seriousness with which the government came to regard the crime
problem in London and a measure too of the growing importance of parliament in the
shaping of domestic social policy by the middle of the eighteenth century that the
administration included in the kind’s speech opening parliament in November 1751 a request
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Week 12
that the members take into their consideration the crime wave in and around London and
‘consider seriously of some effectual provisions to suppress those audacious crimes of
robbery and violence which are now become so frequent, especially about this great capital’
Within weeks, a committee was established to ‘revise and consider the laws in being, which
relate to felonies,’ authorizing thereby a much more general investigation into the criminal law
and its institutions than had ever been undertaken by parliament
Fourteen bills were introduced over the next 2 years to give effect to these suggestions,
though in the end only 2 major pieces of legislation reached the statute book as a result of
the committee’s work
One was a compilation of unrelated measures in a statute that came to be known as the
Disorderly Houses Act because it imposed new controls over places of public entertainment
and aimed to make it easier to prosecute the keepers of brothels and gaming houses
o The statute also introduced the first scheme to pay some of the costs of prosecution,
imposed a stiff fine for advertising a willingness to pay for the return of stolen goods,
no questions asked, and strengthened the magistrates’ powers to hold persons
picked up on suspicion of the theft for up to 6 days to enable victims of robberies to
attend their re-examination authority that was to be crucial to the way the Bow
Street magistrates’ court worked under John Fielding
The second statute was simple and brutal the so-called Murder Act ordered that murderers
be executed two days after conviction and that their bodies either be hanged in chains or
given to surgeons to be ‘dissected and anatomized’ a response not an outbreak of ordinary
homicide (though there were some murder cases that attracted serious public attention in this
period), but to robbery
For his part, Henry Fielding had been preoccupied from the beginning of the crisis by the
consequences of the crime wave and had developed strong views about its causes and how
it might be diminished
Soon after arriving at Bow Street he had sent proposals to Lord Hardwicke, the lord
chancellor, for a bill to reform the night watch in Westminster and neighbouring Middlesex
parishes by creating better-organized patrols, manned by a larger number of younger and
more effective watchmen
Fielding made a much more substantial contribution to the mid-century debate about crime
and the criminal law in the form of his Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increases of
Robbers, published just as the parliamentary committee was forming in January 1751
Much of the analysis in this long pamphlet was conventional wisdom like the parliamentary
committee, he placed a good deal of the blame for the increase in crime on the deteriorating
behaviour and growing insubordination of the poor, a problem he saw in historical terms as a
consequence of the growth of luxury and social effects of enlarging commerce
Luxury, as Fielding saw it, has given rise to diversions and bad habits that wasted the time
and the money of those who could least afford to be deflected from their labour; it
encouraged drinking and gambling, and in general had turned the working population away
from following an honest and upright course of life
He also laid blame for the growth of crime on the weaknesses of the poor law and the law
relating to vagrancy, as well as on the lack of controls over pawnbrokers, most of whom, he
thought, were willing to take in goods without enquiring into their ownership and thus
provided outlets for the disposal of stolen property that encouraged theft
Fielding thus put much of the blame for the increase in crime on the deterioration of controls
over the poorest sections of society but he also criticized the way the criminal law was
administered, including what he thought was the indulgent tenderness of juries when dealing
with men and women accused of capital offences, and the tendency of the king and his
ministers to grant too many pardons
The ease, as he saw it, with which offenders escaped the gallows convinced robbers and
other violent men that they need have no fear of serious punishment he also thought that
the carnival atmosphere in which executions were carried out at Tyburn had become more of
an encouragement than a deterrent to crime
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