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Bow Street and the Long Arm of the Regency Law

Bow Street Magistrate's Court

The novelist Henry Fielding was also a magistrate. He worked out of a house in Bow Street in the 1750s, and began the force of thief-takers who later became the famous Runners. His brother succeeded him in the post in 1754 and remained the Bow Street Justice until 1780 despite being blind.

The success of the Runners made them feared and they became very much in demand. They were not detectives in the modern sense, but they did act in locating criminals and bringing them to justice, as well as finding and restoring stolen property.

Runner Bishop apprehends a criminal

Other than the Bow Street Runners, the law was upheld by watchmen, who patrolled the streets at night, the forerunners of the copper on the beat. They were armed with a lantern, a staff and a rattle. Their job included calling out the time and the weather throughout the night: “It’s two of the clock and a fine night.” This practice obviously gave criminals warning and thus time to escape, so that the “charleys” as they were called had little success in keeping the peace. The practice of bosky young gentlemen “boxing the watch” for fun did little to help.

A charley or watchman

A parish constable was in charge of running the Watch House, where miscreants could be haled to sleep it off and be brought before the magistrate in the morning. Every parish in the country had its constable, answerable to the magistrates of the district, and expected to apprehend criminals and haul them off to the round house or the simple lock-up in the middle of the green.

The magistrates, the watchmen and the Bow Street Runners, and later the Bow Street Horse Patrol (nicknamed Redbreasts from their red waistcoat) who went after highwaymen, comprised the only law enforcement available in London until the 1790s. Armed foot patrols were then introduced and seven more offices on the model of Bow Street opened, each employing six constables to act as the Runners did, with paid magistrates in charge.

Criminality was rife in the late 18th century. A classification of criminals made in 1797 listed 115,000, half of whom were prostitutes, 8,000 thieves, 8,500 cheats, and the rest a raft of people engaged in petty crime and servicing or supporting criminals. No murderers though. Murder was in fact a rare occurrence, and more likely provoked by circumstance rather than premeditated.

The round house lock-up

Any unexplained death, including murder, might require the attendance of the coroner who had the duty of informing the magistrates of what he had found and determining whether an inquest should be held, and at the outcome of this, whether the accused should be committed for trial to the Assizes at a higher court. Juries were notoriously reluctant to send criminals to the gallows and often acquitted murderers. Not out of pity, but because they didn’t approve of the law requiring the body to be sent to the surgeons who needed them for training and research.

Surgeons practised dissection for the purposes of diagnosis and to understand disease better, and autopsies became more common in the 17th and 18th centuries. A suspicious death might well trigger an autopsy, assuming the cause of death was not obvious. Fortunately for my purposes, a great deal was known about anatomy by the late 18th century, although some beliefs about how the body worked have since been disproven.

A magistrate, being the first authoritarian port of call, had therefore a significant amount of power to determine the fates of those brought before him. Such policing as there was came under his jurisdiction. Your Bow Street magistrate, unlike some others of the time, was not, in the tradition of Henry Fielding, corruptible. He would not take bribes. Thus, an appearance at the Bow Street Court could strike terror into the criminal mind, knowing the Justices had over that mind the power of life or death.

Elizabeth Bailey

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