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.

You are not logged in