Monday, February 23, 2009

Bow Street Runners

Bow Street Runners, Legends and Facts

Next to Robin Hood’s Merry Men, few other groups inspire images of mystery and intrigue quite as well as Bow Street Runners. They were a unique and unprecedented fighting force that paved the way for the modern police. They are also no longer in existence, and very little is actually known about them. Hence the mystery. And the tragedy.

Before they were formed, there was no organized police. The few constables in London were untrained and failed to do much to protect the innocent or bring justice to the guilty. There was a night watch that was supposed to be served on a rotating basis by the men in a particular district, but most working class men wouldn’t or couldn’t be up all night keeping watch. Besides, it was dangerous. So they hired out others to take their turn, often elderly men who needed the money because they could no longer work. These night watchmen typically huddled in groups around the nearest light and hoped no one would harass them. Needless to say, they were too feeble to affect much of a threat to a thief.

Therefore, the majority of the arrests were performed by the average citizen. The citizen who’d been wronged had to gather all his own evidence, perform the arrest, drag the person before the magistrate (judge) and convince the magistrate this was their man. Investigator, policeman, and lawyer all in one. A daunting task, to be sure. Although since the accused were considered guilty unless proven innocent, receiving a guilty verdict was usually a no-brainer.

Into this ineffective chaos step the Fielding brothers. Henry Fielding was a magistrate who operated his office on Bow Street. In 1750, he organized an elite fighting force of highly trained and disciplined young men known as the Bow Street Runners. Nick-named the “Robins Redbreasts” for their distinctive red waistcoats, they knew how to conduct investigations including a rudimentary forensics, and question witnesses and victims. They even carried handcuffs. How early they began carrying them and wearing the red waistcoats is anyone’s guess but there are Bow Street Runners with handcuffs and red waistcoats in a book by Robert Louis Stevenson.

In the early years, there were only six Bow Street Runners in London and for some reason, that number was kept constant. But later, those figures grew and there was even a mounted patrol who protected the highways from the dreaded and dangerous highwaymen. The patrol changed safety, and therefore nature, of travel.

While the office of a magistrate belonged exclusively to gentlemen of the nobility or gentry, the Bow Street Runners were working class men. They were smart, skilled and cunning, and hand-picked by the Fielding brothers. Though they typically remained in the London area, there are accounts of them tracking fugitives as far as the Scottish border. They drew a modest salary from Bow Street, so most of their pay came in the form of a bounty or reward, usually paid by the victim or a group who had a vested interest in solving the crime. Runners could also be hired out to conduct special investigations, or act as body guards. I have found no evidence of any foul play or briberies taken, suggesting that they were men of honor and that they had a strong loyalty to their magistrate.

Other magistrates followed the Fielding’s example by having a specific group of investigators, but none achieved the acclaim that the Runners did.

In 1830, when Scotland Yard was organized, the Bow Street Runners became obsolete. Much of Scotland Yard’s procedures were adopted from those created by the Runners, and I can only assume that many Runners became investigators for Scotland Yard. Progress is usually a good thing, but I feel a sense of loss whenever such a unique organization is swept away to make room for something better. And yes, I’m plotting a book with a Bow Street Runner as the hero.


Julie Robinson said...

How fascinating, Donna! I did not even think about the history of the P.D. And law enforcement and military men are my favorite heroes.

Tanya Hanson said...

Hi Donna, I just love learning anything I can about London, one of my favorite cities. And I also love public servants!

Great post...thank you!