Something for Theresa May to think about

John Barrell

  • The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 by J.M. Beattie
    Oxford, 272 pp, £65.00, February 2012, ISBN 978 0 19 969516 4

In September 2010, the home secretary was warned that her plans to cut police funding could undermine their ability to deal with the tensions that would result from the government’s austerity package. ‘The British public,’ she replied, ‘don’t simply resort to violent unrest in the face of challenging economic circumstances.’ Less than a year later, attempting to explain the riots in London and elsewhere, she denied that some of the British public had resorted to violent unrest in the face of challenging economic circumstances. The criminal behaviour of the rioters – will we ever forget her explanation? – was caused by ‘sheer criminality’. The word ‘sheer’ did most of the work: the cause of criminality, Theresa May was arguing, was criminality itself. Boris Johnson was quick to agree. When did it become a test of ideological purity to be able to say with a straight face that poverty and unemployment have nothing to do with the causes of crime? Who was the first politician to argue (if it can be called an argument) that to believe in such a link was to insult the poor and unemployed who do not steal or cheat?

In the 18th and 19th centuries no one seems to have felt under any obligation to pretend to believe this stuff. When in 1821, the magistrate George Boulton Mainwaring set out his thoughts on how to stop the poor stealing from the better-off, he first freely acknowledged that in periods of high food prices and high unemployment, the poor ‘must either live by plunder or die from starvation’. Everyone knew that when jobs were short, the number of robberies and of other crimes against property shot up. The incorrigible belligerence of 18th-century politicians meant that Britain engaged in war after unnecessary war, and with each return of peace the boys came home and either failed to find jobs or displaced the stay-at-homes who had them. Suddenly, it became much less safe to walk the London streets or travel on the highways. It was in the aftermath of the War of Austrian Succession that Henry Fielding, a Bow Street magistrate as well as a novelist and playwright, began forming the force that would come to be known by the unofficial title of the Bow Street Runners.

Fielding the novelist was a tolerant chap who found small infringements of the law more comic than reprehensible. He thought poverty was indeed a cause of crime, and liked to give first-time offenders a second chance. He was the exact opposite of Fielding the magistrate, who set out his views on crime in An Enquiry into the Causes of the Late Increase of Robbers, a law and order manifesto for a very nasty party. If Tom Jones had encountered this Fielding in his rambles round Britain, a longish novel would have become a short story. Tom’s sexual transgressions were matters for the ecclesiastical courts, but he was a poacher, an idler unwilling to earn his living by regular employment, and a vagabond. He could have been charged with malicious wounding and attempted murder – true, he could plead self-defence, but such a plea from an illegitimate idle vagrant who had stabbed a gentleman would hardly have been listened to at Bow Street. He was also guilty of what the Enquiry calls ‘a high Offence against the Public Good’ for failing to initiate a prosecution against the impoverished highwayman who attempted to hold him up. The highwayman was desperate to feed his family, but the Enquiry explicitly rules that out as a reason for leniency. One way or another, Fielding the magistrate would have found a way to hang Tom or to transport him out of the kingdom long before his true parentage could be revealed and he could marry that nice Susannah York.

Fielding died in 1754 and was succeeded at Bow Street by his half-brother John: ‘blind John’ as he had been since the age of 19, ‘Sir John’ as he became in 1761, after successfully agitating to be knighted so as to increase the prestige of his office. The government subvention by which the runners were established was only £200 to begin with, and when they finally came into being in 1754, there were only six of them, which precluded the possibility of their making much impact on crime by way of its prevention. John Fielding’s views on the relation between crime and the poor having fun, drinking, gambling, being idle and wandering about from parish to parish and pub to pub, seem to have been much like those set out in the Enquiry, but he and his successors were always limited by the small size of the force.

Before the Bow Street Runners, London was policed by the night-watch and by parish constables. The night-watch walked set beats at set times, equipped with lanterns and rattles, checking that doors were locked and calling out the time at regular intervals as if to alert robbers and burglars to their whereabouts. The parish constables were mainly amateur policemen who served for a year only. When instructed by a magistrate, they would search premises and make arrests, but their concern was for their own parish only. They were not obliged to pursue malefactors across parish boundaries, and, though required to keep the streets clear of vagrants and prostitutes, they could do that simply by chivvying them into the next parish. As J.M. Beattie points out in this superb book, neither night-watchmen nor constables were expected to investigate crimes. The runners were different: they were, he claims, ‘the first English detectives’.

The Fieldings wanted sharp-eyed, intelligent men who could look after themselves (crime in 18th-century London was particularly violent), who were prepared to sign on for a long time and who would be ‘honest thief-takers’, not the kind in The Beggar’s Opera, or in Fielding’s novel Jonathan Wild, who colluded with criminals until it became expedient to hand them over to justice. In the early years of the runners some worked as prison turnkeys; others had unexpected former careers: one was an ex-pickpocket, and one a highwayman who had turned king’s evidence to save his neck. Others came from thoroughly peaceable trades: a hatter, a pastry-cook, a button-maker, a saddler and a shoemaker all signed up in the course of the next few decades.

The court at Bow Street was on the ground floor of the Fieldings’ house and across the road from the Brown Bear, which became, as Beattie puts it, ‘a lock-up as well as a hang-out’ for the runners. They were expected to be ready to act at very short notice and most of them lived very near the court in the streets around Covent Garden, but hung out, when on call, in the Brown Bear, and like many TV cops must have done much of their investigating when half-cut. Like TV cops too they worked in pairs, but since there were so few of them, they all spent so much time in each other’s company, and usually enjoyed such long careers in the force, that they developed a strong sense of solidarity and teamwork. In this, the fact that there were only six runners at any one time was probably an advantage.

The court was handily situated at the epicentre of crime in London. Much of the runners’ business could be done locally, not only in the streets but in the ‘flash houses’ of the area, the particularly disreputable pubs where they bought drinks (on expenses) for themselves and for their ‘noses’, the informers whose names they would never reveal in court. But they ranged all over the city, and developed a deep and wide knowledge of the geography of crime. They got to know the London pawnbrokers, not only the out-and-out fences, but the more or less honest ones who might tip them off if they were offered pledges they thought might be dodgy. As the runners became better known in the underworld, they occasionally needed to adopt disguises. Sometimes they detected crime by inviting it: on occasions when it was proving hard to catch highwaymen operating on the main roads into London, they would hire coaches or post-chaises in the hope of being held up.

The six men who formed the Bow Street front line were supported by a small clerical staff, whose duties included advertising crimes in the newspapers (to solicit witnesses and alert pawnbrokers) and keeping the record books, which would become invaluable resources to the runners and the Bow Street magistrates. There was a book listing all the robberies reported to the office; a book listing the addresses of pawnbrokers; a list of persons tried at the Old Bailey, especially useful in detecting returned ‘transports’ – convicts who had been shipped off to America and had returned before time. There was a book of suspicious persons, those thought likely to be involved in crimes but not yet proven to be so; and there was a ‘watch book’, which detailed all stolen watches, including the makers’ numbers and the engraved names of the owners. Watches were the most valuable thing likely to be taken by pickpockets or muggers. Receivers of stolen watches arranged for them to be ‘christened’ as soon as possible: the old numbers and names were replaced by new ones, perhaps even the face repainted in a different style; but the watch book described watches so fully that sometimes an expertly ‘christened’ watch could still be identified and returned to its original owner.

All this represented an effort at professional policing beyond anything attempted in Britain before, and it was all done on a shoestring. John Fielding received an annual salary of £400, but the original subvention had to pay the runners, both their salaries and expenses, the salaries of the back-room staff and the cost of advertising. By thoughtful overspending, Fielding managed to get the £200 raised to £400 in 1758, and to £600 by 1765, in an effort to fund in particular more efficient street and highway patrols than the system of parish constables and the night-watch could provide. A modern home secretary or minister for justice could do worse than read this book to get hints on how to fund the police and the criminal justice system in an age of austerity. The DPP could go for a start: for most of the 90 years in which the runners operated, the victims of crime had to support the costs of prosecution themselves, including the expenses and in some cases the fees of witnesses; and having reported a crime, they could expect to be bound over in their own recognisance to appear at the trial. This had the doubly salutary effect of keeping down both the number of crimes reported and the costs of the criminal justice system; its advantages to a government on a mission to shrink the state are so obvious that it will surely figure in the next Queen’s Speech. Still more efficient, however, were the arrangements for providing the runners with an income at very little cost to the public purse. The Fieldings had invented an almost entirely privatised police force. What little government expenditure was involved was shared out among as many departments of state as possible. This was a strategy whose time has surely come again.

The runners’ annual stipend seems to have been, in the early decades of their existence, about £20 a year, roughly £2350 in terms of what it would buy today. By the early 19th century they earned about £50. But this was essentially a retainer, on top of which they could expect to receive public and private rewards, to be shared with the staff in the back office. Despite the obvious risks to the integrity of the judicial process, they could receive fees from victim-prosecutors for appearing as witnesses in trials. Their investigations were for the most part undertaken on a private basis, for a fee agreed with the victims. They were also free to take on jobs for government departments – at one time or another they were employed by the Mint, the Post Office, the Treasury, the Bank of England, the Admiralty, again on a private basis and for pretty fat fees. Their best source of income eventually turned out to be magistrates and victims of crime in the provinces. In detective novels of the right sort there is always a moment when a provincial chief constable has to decide whether a crime is beyond the competence of the local force, and it is time ‘to call in the Yard’. The runners were called to the provinces ever more frequently, and for the same reason.

All in all it is impossible to know how much they earned in any single year, but Fielding’s successor, Sir Sampson Wright, reckoned that they pulled in ‘a very comfortable Livelihood with Reputation to themselves and Benefit to the Public’. They certainly developed an impressive reputation. By the late 1760s they were well known by name to the public through newspaper reports, and were regarded as relatively respectable, certainly not as low thief-takers. They were represented so often on the stage that one critic wondered if it would now be ‘improper to leave them out in any modern play’. They were generally believed honest, one mark of which may have been that, as Beattie calculates, between 1770 and 1790, of prosecutions where the runners gave evidence 79 per cent ended in a guilty verdict; the figure fell to 59 per cent where they did not.

Fielding would have liked to run a force dedicated as much to the prevention of crime as to its detection, and though he could never secure the funds necessary to do so, he would occasionally, perhaps especially when stung by criticism, make a move on the places where the poor gathered to enjoy themselves, places he regarded, as had his brother, as the great nurseries of London crime. He sometimes sent the runners to raid pubs where gambling was going on, or to brothels, dances, amateur theatricals run by apprentices and even debating societies, which were really schools of civility – attended by men and women anxious to ‘improve’ – rather than of vice. He begged David Garrick to cancel a revival of The Beggar’s Opera at Drury Lane on the grounds that it inflamed young men with the ambition to be highwaymen, and sent, ‘every time it is acted, one additional thief to the gallows’.

These efforts did little, however, to appease his critics. One journalist thought that the six runners should attempt a form of zero-tolerance policing of the three-quarters of a million inhabitants of London. They should be as zealous in stopping people throwing orange peel on the pavement, in case an overburdened porter slipped on it, broke his leg and became unable to feed his family, as they were in chasing after highwaymen. They should stop fishwives throwing the guts of mackerel carelessly away, perhaps to besmirch the white silk stockings of a foreigner who would then conceive a very bad opinion of law and order in Britain. This man was serious, and so was a critic who, ridiculing the idea that the appearance of Macheath on stage was a chief cause of crime, offered to reveal to Fielding the real reasons for the increase in crimes of all kinds against property: loose women. Young men, he explained, at their most susceptible time of life, fall helplessly in love with prostitutes, and have to commit an endless and escalating series of crimes to satisfy the greed, and to keep the supposed affections, of these women. And all this happens in Covent Garden, on Fielding’s very doorstep, and he must have been doing nothing about it or it wouldn’t still be happening.

Fielding’s main scheme for crime prevention was to patrol the squares of Westminster by night, in an attempt to protect the rich, at least, from robbery. By 1756 he was running foot patrols in inner London, when he could afford it, and had two mounted officers on the five major roads leading into London. At the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, with crime shooting up again, he proposed dedicated foot and horse patrols on those roads, and when the funds were not granted did what he could to use the runners themselves as patrols. For a year the government paid for horse patrols on the major highways into London, but it was attempting to pay down the debts incurred by the war and the expense seemed impossible to justify. But the idea of regular, properly funded patrols, separate from the runners, would come back, with the next crimewave, after the next war.

Fielding died in 1780, a few months after the Gordon Rioters burned down his home, his court and the record books so carefully kept by his clerks. Three years later, the American war ended, and this had the usual effect on crimes against property, in particular on street crime and highway robbery. Even the road from Westminster to the pleasure garden at Ranelagh, by the Chelsea Hospital, had to be protected by a dedicated Bow Street patrol. Felonies rose by 50 per cent, and now that felons could no longer be shipped to America, more and more of them had to be hanged. John Townsend, taken on as a runner at this time, later looked back nostalgically to this time, when ‘we never had an execution wherein we did not grace that unfortunate gibbet with ten, twelve, thirteen, sixteen and twenty’ criminals, ‘and forty I once saw.’ From now on, the argument for more patrols became unanswerable, and slowly, grudgingly, the money was found to create permanent foot and horse patrols. As the highroads were made safer, the footpads began to work in greater numbers within the metropolis, and the number of foot patrols in inner London was increased and their organisation made more efficient.

With the arrival of permanent, professional patrols, the runners’ role changed. The patrolmen increasingly developed the specialised detective skills pioneered by the runners, and took over the investigation of crimes in London. In 1792, a chain of ‘public offices’ on the Bow Street model was instituted throughout London, each with its complement of patrolmen. Only the Bow Street office had the runners, however, and as their job changed, their prestige increased, and they came to be seen, even more than before, as a unique, elite force which could be entrusted with jobs that ordinary patrols were supposedly unable to undertake. The need for the runners to engage in regular police work diminished in part owing to the changing character of crime in and around London. When Napoleon was finally defeated, the crime figures went up yet again, but the criminals were of a gentler breed than before. Mounted highwaymen had apparently disappeared from the roads; footpads were increasingly unarmed, hunting in gangs and mugging by pushing, jostling, surrounding their victims rather than by threatening to maim or kill them. The special skill of the runners in dealing with armed criminals was less in demand now, and no doubt less specialised, as the patrols themselves gained experience.

Some of the runners’ work, however, was unchanged. They still took on private detective work in London, and they seem to have done more and more work for government departments: two of them earned chunky fees, amounting to £40 a year, for acting as security guards on the quarterly dividend days at the Bank of England. They also developed their role as a national detective force, spending more and more time, and earning more and more money, in the provinces. And they developed a new specialism: when hot-headed gentlemen arranged to fight duels, they or their seconds would often notify the runners, who for a fee would come out to stop them from fighting. Both sides knew these interventions were put-up jobs, but apparently honour was satisfied.

Following the Revolution in France, the fear of popular radicalism in Britain, and the supposed need to protect the king from republican assassins, redefined the runners’ role and further increased their visibility among the general public. By 1794 the runners were working for the Home Office, employed in the surveillance of radicals. When Thomas Hardy, secretary of the London Corresponding Society, was arrested prior to his trial (and eventual acquittal) for high treason, among those who came for him, at six in the morning when he and his wife were asleep, were the two most high-profile runners in the history of the force, John Townsend and Patrick Macmanus. When, a day or so later, Hardy’s colleague John Thelwall was tapped on the shoulder and led off to prison, another well-known runner, Thomas Carpmeal, was one of the arresting party. However respectable the runners seemed to loyalists, to radicals they remained disreputable thief-takers, the supposed dignity of their office sullied by the sometimes violent and foul-mouthed behaviour of Townsend especially. Two other runners, however, John Rivett and Edward Fugion, did a thoroughly professional job in following the Irish revolutionary priest James O’Coigley and tracing his associates. In a delightfully libellous caricature by Isaac Cruikshank the runners were imagined not only as a formidable anti-radical force but as a force of nature. It shows Charles James Fox and other members of the parliamentary opposition attempting to haul to shore a landing craft crammed with an invasion force of the French Republic. In the sky is the head of Henry Dundas, the secretary of war and the allegorical embodiment of a loyalist wind, who blows towards Fox and friends the threatening names of five runners, among them Townsend, Macmanus and another star performer, Charles Jealous.

The runners also began to work as the king’s bodyguards, at least two of them accompanying him wherever he went, and this took up so much of their time that the government agreed to increase their number from six to eight. The more or less radical satirist Peter Pindar, who for years had been making the king into a figure of fun, wrote an ode on Townsend, Macmanus and Jealous – ‘the most accomplished thief-takers on earth’ – becoming ‘Guardians of the Rulers of the Nation’ and protecting them against ‘TOM PAINE’S disloyal crew’. It was the thought of these men mixing with the king’s household and courtiers that he found so hilarious, and in one of several squibs on the subject he described the royal family surrounded by their ‘valiant peers’: in order, Carpmeal, Chesterfield, Macmanus, Salisbury, Townsend and Jealous, as if all distinction between lords and thief-takers was lost. Lord Salisbury, the lord chamberlain, shared Pindar’s concern, and after ten years of putting up with the runners ordered that ‘none of the Bow-street Officers be permitted up stairs at St James’s Palace in either the Guard or Presence Chambers’.

These royal duties thrust Townsend into particular prominence, to his own obvious delight. His snobbery allowed him to put up with the company, widely regarded as thoroughly tiresome, of both George III and George IV, and they rewarded him, if that is the word, with something akin to friendship. He became a dandy, going about town in a wide-brimmed hat and white coat; he appears in numerous caricatures, in one wearing a vibrant yellow waistcoat and pink candy-striped trousers, in another a matching coat and breeches of the brightest royal blue. In 1816 he gave evidence before a parliamentary committee inquiring into policing in the metropolis, and argued that police officers should not receive rewards, only their salaries. Townsend’s basic salary as a runner was £1 per week, but when he died he is said to have left investments totalling £25,000, getting on for two million pounds in terms of what it would buy today. ‘If that be true,’ the radical Examiner demanded, ‘how could he have got it?’ Not much of it, probably, by corruption; there is some evidence of that among the runners, and there must have been more of which nothing is known, but it does not seem to have been big stuff. Townsend probably got rich from the large fees he could demand, especially for taking up investigations on behalf of his new aristocratic acquaintances. In the early decades of the 19th century all the runners seem to have been doing very well indeed.

I’ve chosen to offer an anecdotal narrative of the runners, drawing largely on Beattie’s account, an account all the more remarkable because so many of the records essential to the story have disappeared. I’m aware however of having simplified what he has to tell us about the very complex history of the runners, the magistracy and the government. As those who know his earlier works on crime, policing and criminal justice in the 18th century would expect, one of the great strengths of this book is the sense it gives of the way the changing activities of the runners intertwined with changes in other branches of the criminal justice system – the changing functions of the magistrates’ courts, for example, as awareness grew of the need to separate the investigative and judicial functions of the magistracy, and to extend the system of police courts more widely through London.

The tasks of the runners were also changing as successive governments took hesitant and reluctant steps towards the institution of a unified police authority which would cover the fast growing suburbs as well as the London the Fieldings had known. The foundation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, organised by Sir Robert Peel, led a decade later to the disbandment of the runners, not so much because there was nothing for them to do, but because, when the magistrates lost their executive powers, the runners didn’t fit into the newly reorganised system of criminal justice. But their disbandment quickly caused problems, and early in the 1840s, after some serious investigative failures on the part of the police, the Home Office found itself under pressure to create a new detective department to do the job of the old runners. This new body, Beattie points out, consisted of two superintendents and six sergeants – ‘about the same number of men that the Fieldings had thought adequate almost a century earlier’. Good news for the present home secretary, and strong support for her belief that it’s ‘ridiculous’ to suggest there are not savings to be made in policing. If eight detectives were enough for the Victorians, we must have far too many now, so there’s plenty of scope for more cuts, not just in the back office but on the front line.