07 March 2011

Crimes & Law Enforcement: The Bow Street Runners

Michelle Styles

If you have read Sherlock Holmes, you have encountered them--the mysterious Bow Street Runners or simply the Runner. But who were they and what part did they have in the formation of the modern day police force?

The British Police can be traced back to the very beginnings of British law. Even during King Alfred's reign, ordinary people were employed in the court system to enforce laws aka Folk Moot. The first usage of constable was in 1252 and probably comes from the Latin meaning Master of the Horse. Edward I passed legislation requiring each parish to provide two constables. It was not a popular occupation and many people bought their way out of the obligation. In 1285 the Statue of Winchester was passed requiring the appointment of nightwatchmen. During the reign of Charles II the parish constables were& known as Charlies, a term that stuck until they were abolished 150 years later. They were noted for their corruption and drunkenness.

Henry Fielding (also the author of Tom Jones) was the Chief Magistrate of London and despaired. In 1753, he decided to take matters into his own hands. He trained six honest men who had previously served as parish constables, and paid them a retainer of 11shillings 6 pence per week. They were allowed up to 14 shillings for expenses. They wore no uniforms but were highly successful in catching criminals. They are considered to be the forerunners of the CID (Criminal Investigations Department) or detectives. Because Fielding's office was in Bow Street Magistrates Court, they became known as the Bow Street Runners.

When Henry Fielding died, his brother John aka The Blind Beak took over. Blind since birth, Sir John had the reputation of knowing over 3,000 criminals by voice alone. In 1763 he formed the Bow Street Horse Patrol--ten mounted men who patrolled an area within six miles of Charing Cross.  They were extremely successful and rid London of is highwaymen. The government of the day (in its infinite wisdom) decided that there was no longer any need for the Horse Patrol and they were disbanded. As a result, the highwaymen returned (surprise, surprise). As time went on the Bow Street Runners acted more and more like a detective agency and the general order continued to be enforced by the Charlies and the night watchmen.

By 1822, it had become clear that crime was continuing to rise and new better organised police force was required. Robert Peel was the Home Secretary responsible for creating the force--the New Metropolitan Police. This spelt the end of Charlies, night watchmen, and the Bow Street Runners. The general public for a number of reasons initially distrusted the Police, and preferred the old system of Charlies and Runners. The Police for their part wore a new uniform, and were obliged to be civil and obliging to the public at all times. They were also forced to pay for failed prosecutions if any of their offenders were found 'not guilty.' Thus in time, the Bobbies became a popular fixture in British culture.

Michelle Styles writes historical romance for Harlequin Historical, set in a variety of different time periods. Her most recent UK release, BREAKING THE GOVERNESS'S RULES, takes place in 1837 after the establishment of Peel's New Police Force. You can read more about her books on her website.


tarenn98 said...

Crimes & Law Enforcement: The Bow Street Runners what great information. Thank you for sharing.I read a lot with the Bow Street Runners in the stories.I so enjoy your books.Again thank you

librarypat said...

Thank you for an interesting and informative post on British law enforcement. I had wondered about the Bow Street Runners. In most books, the way they are referred to makes them sound like more of a private investigation agency. I had no idea they were part of the official police force.

Good luck with the release of your newest book. Sounds good.

Dr J said...

A very interesting and educational post . . . but I think that in much historical fiction there are "mixed" reviews: some authors seem to portray them as not-very-well-educated public servants, taken from the "lower" classes, while the aristocratic hero finds the missing heroine, or child, or whomever. Other authors seem to write of them as rather clever, extremely in touch with real life, even the seamy side of society, and are very effective. So I think most American readers needed to read something that gave factual boundaries to our understanding of this part of the British law enforcement community.
Very nice article.

CJ Archer said...

Great article, thank you. I love learning about law enforcement in different eras and this one was particularly informative.