Bow Street Runners and the Marine Police: London’s First Police Force
Bow Street Runners
The Bow Street Runners have been called London’s first professional police force. They were founded in 1749 by the author Henry Fielding and originally numbered just eight.
Similar to the unofficial ‘thief-takers’ (men who would solve petty crime for a fee), they represented a formalisation and regularisation of existing policing methods. What made them different from the thieftakers was their formal attachment to the Bow Street magistrates’ office, and that they were paid by the magistrate with funds from central government. They worked out of Fielding’s office and court at No.4 Bow Street, and did not patrol but served writs and arrested offenders on the authority of the magistrates, travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals. Contrary to several popular sources, the Bow Street Runners were not nicknamed “Robin Redbreasts” this being reserved for the Bow Street Horse Patrol. The Horse Patrol, organised in 1805 by Sir John Fielding’s successor at Bow Street, Richard Ford, wore a distinctive scarlet waistcoat under their blue greatcoats.
When Henry Fielding retired as ‘court’ or Chief Magistrate in 1754 he was succeeded by his brother John Fielding, who had previously been his assistant for four years. Known as the “Blind Beak of Bow Street” (Sir John had been blind since birth but despite this, was reputed to have known over 3,000 criminals by the sound of their voices.), John Fielding refined the patrol into the first truly effective police force for the capital, later adding officers mounted on horseback.
Although the force was only funded intermittently in the years that followed, it did serve as the guiding principle for the way policing was to develop over the next eighty years: Bow Street was a manifestation of the move towards increasing professionalisation and state control of street life, beginning in London.
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