Bow Street Runners – London’s First Police Force
Published on August 26, 2015 by LA Hilden | Views: 2106

Bow Street Runners were considered London’s first professional police force and were instituted due to the high levels of crime and vice in the city.  In 1748, London was dealing with a gin consumption problem, which caused more crime.  The British Magistrate and writer Henry Fielding reported, “that every fourth house in Covent Garden was a gin shop.”  As a means to tackle these issues, Magistrate Henry Fielding brought together eight constables, known as “Mr. Fielding’s People.”  His people soon gained a reputation for their honesty and efficiency in pursuing criminals.  These constables became known as Bow Street Runners.
Henry Fielding

Initially there were only eight Bow Street Officers, Runners was the public’s nickname for them.  The Runners had a formal attachment to the Bow Street Magistrate’s office and were paid by the magistrate with government funds.  This made them unlike the “thief-takers” who were men for hire who solved petty crimes for a fee.  The Runners worked out of Fielding’s office at No. 4 Bow Street in London’s Covent Garden.  This was also the courthouse and Fielding’s residence.  The officers did not patrol the streets, but served writs and arrested offenders.  They had leeway to travel all over the nation in search for criminals.  To improve relations between the public and the law, Henry Fielding began a newspaper called The Covent Journal.  The following appeared regularly in the journal: “All persons who shall for the future suffer by robbers, burglars, etc., are desired immediately to bring or send the best description they can of such robbers, etc., with the time, and place, and circumstances of the fact, to Henry Fielding, Esq., at his house in Bow Street.”  In my suspense Regency thriller The Heiress Killer, which is not yet released, my hero, the Earl of Ravenswood is a great “thief-taker.”

After Henry Fielding’s death, his brother Sir John Fielding succeeded him as Chief Magistrate in 1754.  Blinded by an accident at the age of 19, John Fielding became known as the “Blind Beak.”  It was said that John could recognize 3,000 thieves by voice alone.  It was Sir John who turned the Runners into an effective police force for London.  He persuaded the government to contribute more to the expense of the small police force and made pamphlets for his runners, listing the criminal’s descriptions.  In 1805, Bow Street Officers included a horse patrol, this was the first uniformed police unit in Britain.  In the 1800’s, concerns about thefts in the dockyards led to the Thames Police Office at Wapping.  This office eventually had 3 stipendiary magistrates and 100 constables to police.

To encourage people to report crimes made against them, there were rotation offices established in the City of London and Middlesex.  These offices were established to assure that a Londoner could always find a magistrate during the fixed hours.  Two well-known runners who gained reputations for their good works as officers were John Sayer and John Townsend.  These two also made a fair amount of coin in pay, reward, and upon an offender’s conviction.  The coin offered for capture and conviction ended up altering criminal trials, as the witnesses testimonies against the criminals were challenged by defense lawyers who questioned the honesty of a witness who was set to gain a reward.

In 1829, Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act was instituted; this system centralized the police force of 3000 men under the control of the Home Secretary, with responsibility to police the entire metropolitan area.  These uniformed officers wore blue tailcoats, top hats, and carried wooden batons, handcuffs, and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm.  A whistle eventually replaced the wooden rattle in the 1880’s.  These officers were referred to as the “Peelers” or “Bobbies,” which is a reference to Peel’s name.  Bobbies was one of the nicer nicknames given to the officers.  Policing caused fear due to the repressive secret police that aided Napoleon in the French Revolution, which is why the public did not readily accept them.

Even with all the new officers, the victim of a crime was still responsible to report the crime, identify the criminal, and prosecute them.  Gradually a change was made as officers assumed the responsibility for prosecuting the offenders.  In 1839, a second Metropolitan Police Act pretty much cemented the institutions existence as the police extended their jurisdiction and increased the number of officers to 4300.  This Act also abolished the post constable employment at the old magistrates offices.  At the same time another Act was instituted to create a similar police force for the City of London.

By the end of the 18th century, London had a substantial body of watchmen employed to prevent crime and apprehend criminals.  By the end of the 19th century a full-fledged police force was in effect.  Due to the Turf Fraud Scandal the Metropolitan Police Detectives were reorganized with the formation of the Criminal Justice System.  By the 20th century, the Criminal Justice System could claim to be modern and scientific in their pursuit of criminals.  The first conviction made from an offenders fingerprint was in 1902, when Harry Jackson was convicted of burglary.  Nevertheless, the policing system still relied on the victims reporting the crimes and making positive identifications.  The most significant changes from the late 17th century was the introduction of uniformed, salaried officials who were controlled by the Home Office and responsible for tracking down suspects and making arrests.  In my Time Travel Destiny Series, two of my heroes work for the Home Office.

The rise in crime led to vicious penalties.  To read more about Judicial Beheadings and to read more about Judicial hangings:


A special thank you to:, and Jane Austen’s England by Roy and Lesley Adkins and