The Bow Street Runners
by Donna Hatch
Aside from Robin Hood’s Merry Men, few other groups inspire the mystery and tragedy of Bow Street Runners. Bow Street Runners were a unique and unprecedented fighting force that paved the way for the modern police. They are also no longer in existence, and we know very little about them. Hence the mystery. And the tragedy.
Before their existence, there was no organized police in London. During riots and other emergencies, British soldiers helped restore peace. The rest of the time, untrained constables were charged with keeping law and order in London. However, they failed to effectively protect the innocent or bring justice to the guilty. Men in each district were supposed to make up The Night Watch on a rotating basis, but most working class men wouldn’t or couldn’t be up all night keeping watch. Besides, it was dangerous. So they hired 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 be much of a threat to a thief.
Therefore, the average citizen performed the majority of the arrests. 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 the criminal. That person was basically the investigator, policeman and lawyer all in one. A daunting task, to be sure. Since the accused were considered guilty unless proven innocent, a guilty verdict usually resulted.
Into this ineffective chaos stepped the Fielding brothers. Henry Fielding was a magistrate whose office was on Bow Street. In 1750, he and his brother organized an elite fighting force of highly trained and disciplined young men known as the Bow Street Runners. Later nicknamed the “Robins Redbreasts” for their distinctive red waistcoats, they knew how to conduct investigations, including a rudimentary forensics, and questioning witnesses and victims. They even carried handcuffs.
In the early years, there were only six Bow Street Runners in London, and for some reason, that number was kept constant for a time. But later, those numbers grew. There was even a Bow Street mounted patrol that protected the highways from the dreaded and dangerous highwaymen. The patrol changed the 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 that 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 bribes taken, suggesting that they were men of honor and that they had a strong loyalty to their magistrate.
Eventually, other magistrates followed the Fielding’s example, but none achieved the acclaim of the Runners.
In 1830, when the new Metropolitan Police was organized, the Bow Street Runners became obsolete. Later, the police came to be known as Scotland Yard. They adopted most of their procedures from those developed by the Runners, and I can only assume that many Runners became investigators for their replacement organization.
In my Regency Romance, The Suspect’s Daughter, book 4 of the Rogue Hearts Series, my hero Grant often helps the Bow Street Runners with some of their cases. Even though he is the son of an earl, he does this partly as a favor to his friend who is the Magistrate of Bow Street, and partly because it feeds his thirst for danger.
The blurb for The Suspect’s Daughter:
Determined to help her father with his political career, Jocelyn sets aside dreams of love. When she meets the handsome and mysterious Grant Amesbury, her dreams of true love reawaken. But his secrets put her family in peril.
Grant goes undercover to capture conspirators avowed to murder the prime minister, but his only suspect is the father of a courageous lady who is growing increasingly hard to ignore. He can’t allow Jocelyn to distract him from the case, nor will he taint her with his war-darkened soul. She seems to see past the barriers surrounding his heart, which makes her all the more dangerous to his vow of remaining forever alone.
Jocelyn will do anything to clear her father’s name, even if that means working with Grant. Time is running out. The future of England hangs in the balance...and so does their love.
The Suspect’s Daughter is available now for pre-order on Amazon. But to one lucky commenter on this post, Donna will give away a copy of her Regency Christmas novella, Mistletoe Magic.