Bow Street Police & Magisterial Reform

It was not until the middle of the century that any intelligence was brought to bear on the problem of police, or that any promise appeared of a better state of things in that department of government. For an awakened interest and the resulting improvement we are mainly indebted to the famous novelist, Henry Fielding, who spent the closing years of his short life in a vigorous campaign against the growing domination of society by the criminal classes. Appointed to the Westminster bench at the age of forty-three, he exhibited in his new capacity an acquaintance with law and a knowledge of human nature, that were but rarely found in the ranks of the magistracy of the day : his charge to the Grand Jury, delivered in 1749, reads more like the deliberate composition of a justice of assize of large experience than the work of a junior magistrate just appointed to the office. In the hope of rousing the civil power from its somnolent state, Fielding published a treatise called “An Enquiry into the Cause of the late Increase of Robbers,” in which he gave an interesting account of the habits and customs of the people, with observations on the poor law, and on the apprehension, trial, and execution of felons. He attributed the prevalence of crime principally to the luxurious habits indulged in by the populace, especially gambling and drunkenness. With gin at a penny the quartern, and high play the absorbing passion of all classes, it was small wonder that crime was on the increase. In his attempts to improve the police, Fielding was ably seconded by his half- brother Sir John Fielding, who succeeded him as magistrate at Bow Street, and there inaugurated some valuable and far-reaching reforms. 

By the employment of regularly-paid detectives he did more to render the streets of London safe than the whole body of watchmen, beadles and constables, to the number of about two thousand, had previously been able to effect, and soon afterwards obtained permission to establish, by way of experiment, a small police force called the Bow Street Foot Patrol, The remuneration of the patrol was high in comparison with the wages then customary, no patrolman receiving less than two shillings and sixpence a night. The system proved a great success, and a few years later its sphere of usefulness was enlarged by the formation of a horse patrol, which was posted for the protection of travellers on one or other of the main roads leading into the country. Though consisting only of eight men, who, however, were well mounted and well armed, it afforded a better state of security to the suburbs than they had previously enjoyed. The success that attended Sir John Fielding’s innovations was prompt and abiding. Bow Street quickly became pre-eminent as the only court where justice was dispensed in a business-like manner, and its officers, under the name of Bow Street Runners, became famous for their skill and sagacity. 

Sir John Fielding was blind, but his infirmity did not prevent him from constantly attending to his magisterial work. When seated in court he used to wear a white silk bandage over his eyes, and the striking figure of the tall blindfolded knight was a dramatic picture long remembered at Bow Street. His knowledge of everything that concerned the criminal classes was remarkable. It was said of him that he never failed to recognise an old offender, though the only indication he had to go by was the sound of the prisoner’s voice. He was the author of several pamphlets on police questions, the most important being that published in  1755 under the title of  “A plan for preventing robberies within twenty miles of London “: the details of which may be briefly stated as follows : He suggested that the landowners and occupiers of high-class residential property near London should combine to form societies for the apprehension of burglars and other depredators. Each society was to select a treasurer to collect an annual subscription of two guineas a-piece from the members. When a robbery was committed, the injured party was to immediately dispatch a mounted messenger to the magistrate at Bow Street, warning on his way all the turnpike keepers, advising them as to the property stolen, and of any other particulars of importance. The magistrate was then to be empowered to draw on the funds of the society in the hands of the treasurer, for any expenses that might be incurred in the course of the pursuit and subsequent prosecution of the criminal. 

This pamphlet was followed by a second called “An account of the origin and effects of a Police”, set on foot in 1753 by the Duke of Newcastle, on a plan suggested by the late Henry Fielding.” The publications of the brothers Fielding were to some extent instrumental in directing the public conscience towards a consideration of the state of the criminal law, which, year by year, had tended to increase in severity, without thereby affecting any diminution in the tale of offenders. “Extreme justice is an extreme injury,” wrote Sir Thomas More, but abstract ideas of justice were little entertained in the days of the Georges ; Tyburn and transportation were the only recognised remedies for the more serious breaches of the law, and men were slow to realise that it is better to make the commission of crime difficult than to punish it with indiscriminate severity. But from this time onwards arose a genuine wish for some change, a desire to repress crime as humanely as possible ; a half-formed idea found partial expression that perhaps, after all, the pain suffered by the culprit ought not to exceed the benefit conferred on the community by the punishment exacted; henceforward the Statute Book was not disgraced by fresh barbarities, and in course of years the old ones were gradually eliminated.

In 1783 the procession to Tyburn was discontinued, and the use of the drop to accelerate death by hanging, introduced ; the pillory was abolished in 18I6 for all offences except perjury ; whipping in public was done away with the following year, and transportation finally ceased in 1867. Instead of legislating on the lines suggested by Fielding, whose scheme of police was proving practical and successful, the government preferred to revert to the methods of Queen Elizabeth 1 and in 1755 was responsible for an Act that was nothing but an attempt to revivify the Westminster Statute of 1584, the only new feature being the appointment of a committee called “The Jury of Annoyances,” a body designed to see that the pavements were kept in repair, and to prevent obstructions and encroachments thereon ; this addition, it was supposed, brought the Act up to modern requirements. 

The number of constables to be yearly appointed for the City and Liberty of Westminster was fixed at eighty, furnished proportionally by the different parishes ; any man who had already served, personally or by deputy, was not to be again chosen until seven years had elapsed since he last held office. Two years later another Act, to explain and amend the foregoing, followed, by which a regular chain of responsibility was created ; the petty constable had to obey the High Constable ; and he, again, had to observe the lawful commands of the Dean or High Steward, who still remained the paramount police authority in the district. In 1772, the House of Commons appointed a Committee to inquire into the burglaries that had recently become so frequent in London and Westminster, one hundred and four houses having been broken into between Michaelmas 1769 and March 1770. This committee was the first of a long series authorised by Parliament with the idea of improving the police ; every few years a new committee was appointed, and each in turn recorded a wearisome tale of resolutions without finding a remedy or indeed arriving at any satisfactory solution. 

One and all reported that the existing watch was deficient, a fact long patent to everybody without the assistance of select committee-men ; they deplored the want of uniformity and co-operation in wards and parishes, and recorded the shortcomings of beadles, constables, and watchmen ; but whilst suggesting various minor reforms, they failed to see that no real progress was possible until a clean sweep had been made of the old system and its abuses. The principal witnesses examined before this first committee were Sir John Fielding of Bow Street and Mr F. Rainsforth, the High Constable of Westminster ; the former spoke as to the position of the magistracy and the state of the liquor traffic ; the latter confined his remarks to the inefficiency of the peace-officers. 

After hearing much evidence, the committee passed thirteen resolutions, none of which, however, were of a very vigorous character. They recommended an increase in the number of watchmen, higher pay and a better method of appointing them ; they suggested that the name beadle should no longer be used, that ballad singers should be suppressed, and that steps should be taken to put a stop to the custom of granting wine and spirit licences indiscriminately to all who applied for them, adding by way of a conclusion to the whole matter, that the Roundhouses, as the constables’ lockups were called, should not be used for the sale of intoxicants, and should be large enough to accommodate the prisoners arrested by the watch ; it having frequently been found necessary to release disturbers of the peace and other minor offenders to make room for more serious cases! In consequence of the report of the Parliamentary Committee, a bill was introduced into the House of Commons to provide an improved watch system for the “City of Westminster and parts adjacent uniformly ordered and regulated throughout the whole district.” This Act, passed in 1773, directs that trustees shall meet annually to appoint whatever  number of watchmen they shall judge necessary to be kept and employed for the ensuing year, specifying how many are to be apportioned to “beats” and “stands ” respectively, and how many are to be told off for patrols. 

The local authorities are not, however, given a free hand in the administration of the interior economy of their trust : the minimum establishment that must be kept up by each parish is fixed by law, and varies from sixty watchmen on the beats and stands, and eight on patrol for St George’s Hanover Square, down to the single watchman required for the “purlieus of the Savoy.” Watch-houses must be substantially built, and watchmen are to be armed with staff and rattle, provided at parish expense, as well as with lanterns paid for out of their own pockets ; the minimum wage must not fall below one shilling and three-pence per night unless a man is employed by the year, in which case his nightly remuneration need not exceed one shilling : the hours are from 10 P.M. until 5, 6, or 7 A.M. according to the season of the year.

The duties of the watch comprise the apprehending of disorderly and suspected persons and handing them over to the constable; testing the fastenings of houses, shops and warehouses, and warning the occupier when necessary ; twice every hour the watchmen must patrol his beat, and “as loudly and audibly as he can, proclaim the time of the night or morning.” On coming off duty, the watchman has to submit his staff, rattle and lantern for the in-spection of the constable ; neglect of duty entails a fine of ten shillings, and any person who assaults a watchman in the execution of his office renders himself liable to a £5 penalty ; watchmen are forbidden to frequent alehouses during their tour of duty, and provision is made for the punishment of those publicans who harbour them. There is much that is good in this Act, but it applied only to Westminster, and half of its provisions were never carried out. Instead of the uniform order that was to be established, the old confusion continued, the fine of five pounds was insufficient to protect the watchmen from assault, and the peace officers still tippled in alehouses, whilst thieves were comfortably carrying home the booty they had so easily secured. 

The utter inadequacy of the whole system of defence against civil tumults, and the complete helplessness of London to protect itself against mob violence, was brought home to its inhabitants in a startlingly convincing manner in the course of those six terrible days during which their city was within an ace of being destroyed at the hands of the rabble let loose upon her streets by Lord George Gordon. The events that took place in the first week of June 1780, and which are to some extent familiar to us through the pages of  “Barnaby Rudge,” would never have happened if, in the earlier stages of the outbreak, the rioters had had opposed to them even a couple of hundred resolute constables, accustomed to deal with mobs, and working under the direction of officers experienced in the tactics of street-fighting.

At no time is an efficient civil force of such inestimable value as it is at the first appearance of great popular ferment; for in accordance with the strength or weakness of the police at that moment, is the course of after events decided. A crowd is like a great volume of water, harmless as long as its embankments are kept in repair and, if necessary, strengthened, but capable of an infinite amount of mischief if once allowed to break its barriers. Anything like a full description of the Gordon riots lies outside the scope of this book ; but a brief account of the principal features of the outbreak will very properly find a place here, in order to illustrate the degree of violence that an English mob is capable of, when allowed to get out of hand, and for the purpose of comparing these riots with others that took place on subsequent occasions after our modern police had been established. 

The disturbances in question arose out of an agitation directed against the Roman Catholics, whose position had been much improved by a recent Act of Parliament, the agitation culminating in a demand for the repeal of the unpopular concessions. A monster petition was prepared, and it was decided to present it to Parliament, with such a display of force that a refusal would be unlikely. Accordingly, at 10  o’clock on the morning of the 2nd of June, as many as 60,000 people assembled in St George’s Fields to accompany Lord George Gordon in his attempt to intimidate the legislature. Marching to Westminster by different routes, the crowd closed all the avenues to both Houses, stopped peers and commoners on their way thither, and treated those who fell into their hands with insult and personal violence, smashing their carriages, tearing their clothes and in some cases removing their wigs ; many members of Parliament were forced to put blue cockades in their hats and shout “No Popery” before they were released, others only regained their freedom on promising to vote for the repeal of the act. Whilst these proceedings were taking place, a squadron of horse arrived ; but on being hooted and threatened, the troopers declared that their sympathies were altogether with the people, and then trotted off amidst the cheers of the crowd, who soon afterwards began to disperse, to riot in other parts of the town. 

That evening the Roman Catholic chapels attached to the Sardinian and Bavarian embassies were looted and burned. Rioting continued during the three days that followed, the paralysed executive submitting in helpless impotence, and it was not until the fifth day that the climax was reached. The mob now suddenly broke out into an almost inconceivable state of fury, and overran the whole of London, pillaging and burning as they went, and spreading terror in every direction : all business was suspended and most of the houses were barricaded ; many persons, hoping to pacify the destroying furies, hung blue flags out of their windows and chalked the words “No Popery” on their shutters. An organised attack was made on Newgate, and when the old prison walls successfully withstood all the efforts of the mob to injure them, the furniture from the governor’s house was thrown out of the windows and piled up for a bonfire, with the idea of consuming the great wooden gates ; when these at length gave way, the rabble poured into the gaol through the smoking gateway, shortly to return bringing with them three hundred liberated prisoners, many of whom were under sentence of death already, and over-ripe for any atrocity. Matters now grew worse than ever, distilleries were broken open, and the raw spirits poured down the gutters to be lapped up by a crowd that was already mad. An attempt to break into the Bank of England was prevented by the guard stationed there, but many houses, including Lord Mansfield’s and Sir John Fielding’s, were burnt to the ground, and all books and documents destroyed.

When thirty six incendiary fires were raging simultaneously, and when the King’s Bench and Fleet prisons had shared the fate of Newgate, the troops and militia, who were employed with vigour only at the eleventh hour, began to get the upper hand into the mass. of the rioters, and then only by dint of firing volleys Gradually through the next two days some semblance of order was restored, and by the third morning the riots were at an end. The official return handed in to the Secretary of State showed that 210 people had been killed by the troops and 248 wounded, several of whom subsequently died ; but the bill was not complete : the public hangman claimed 21 more victims, and a much larger number were transported for life. The Lord Mayor of London was tried for his faulty arrangements and for his alleged supineness, but was let off with a fine of a thousand pounds. Lord George Gordon’s insanity saved him from the consequences of his misdeeds. These fatal riots should have taught the lesson that soldiers are ill-suited to the task of putting down civil tumult, and that their use entails an unnecessary amount of bloodshed. especially when their action is so long delayed that an increased severity becomes necessary. Unfortunately the. lesson, if learnt, was not taken to heart : at any rate no adequate remedy was proposed at the time. On one point only was any light immediately thrown. Hitherto some doubt had existed as to the legality of employing the military to put down riots, but on this occasion the King sought the advice of the Attorney-General,’ who gave it as his opinion, that, as soldiers were also citizens, they could constitutionally be used to prevent felony, even without the Riot Act being read. It was well that this point was cleared up, because circumstances will occasionally arise when troops must be sent for as a last resource ; but it is remarkable that, after the failure of the soldier to keep the peace had just been demonstrated in so signal a manner, no one should have supplied the obvious rider, and suggested the substitution of a more satisfactory agent. 

Half a century slipped by before the necessary change began in England ; but on the principle of applying the remedy to any limb except the diseased one, Dublin was quickly provided with what London lacked, and in 1786 was passed the “Dublin Police Act,” under which three Commissioners were appointed, and given the command of a paid and well-organised constabulary. In the course of the following year the whole of Ireland came under the protection of the new guardians of the peace, who, developing as time went on, eventually reached that state of efficiency that is now invariably associated with the name of the Royal Irish Constabulary. The magistrates of the period set the worst possible example to their subordinate officers, and there were but few of them who did not deserve the name of “Trading Justices,” that was so commonly applied. Those who did not actually accept bribes were usually ready to make a little extra money by the improper and wholesale bailing, not only of offenders who ought to have been kept in confinement, but of innocent persons also, who ought to have been immediately and unconditionally set at liberty. The system was to issue warrants against helpless people for imaginary crimes, and then to let them out on bail, the magistrate netting the sum of two shillings and fourpence every time he repeated the trick. 

James Townsend, a Bow Street runner, who gave evidence on this subject before a parliamentary commission in 1816, explained how lucrative this practice used to be, “and taking up a hundred girls, that would make at two shillings and fourpence each, They sent none to gaol, for the bailing them was so much better.” There is much to be said for the plan of employing country gentlemen to administer justice, without stipend, in the neighbourhood of their own estates ; but in London, where all the criminal talent of the three kingdoms was collected, and where the duties of magistrates became both difficult and onerous in consequence, only inferior men could be induced to undertake the office, and then only for the sake of the patronage they could control, and for the perquisites they were able to pick up. They were distinguished neither for social position, nor for legal knowledge, and readily succumbed to every temptation.  As long as the magistracy was corrupt, Acts of Parliament were powerless to purify the police : the duty of the Government was plain if not easy ; the Commission of the Peace for Middlesex had to be immediately purged of the Trading Justices, and a scheme had to be introduced under which capable and upright men would be secured to take their place: the hands of the new magistrates, when appointed, had to be strengthened and sufficiently enlarged to enable them to grapple with the problem of keeping order in London, a city which besides being the most populous in Europe, had the reputation of being the most difficult to manage, its inhabitants quickly resenting any action of the executive that threatened to interfere, in the smallest particular, with their liberties or their customs. 

At the same time it was necessary to devise a check upon the magistrates, powerful enough to prevent a recurrence of the old abuses. The Middlesex Justices Bill, which was laid before the House of Commons in March 1792, was an attempt to satisfy the above-mentioned conditions, and was framed on the model of the stipendiary establishment already existing at Bow Street, where satisfactory results had been obtained. It was proposed to create five new police offices (shortly afterwards increased to seven), and to appoint three Justices to each. The courts were to be open daily for the transaction of business, one magistrate always to be in attendance, empowered to dispose summarily of the cases brought before him without the assistance of a jury. Provision was also made for the appointment of six constables to each office, at a wage not exceeding twelve shillings a week, invested with authority to apprehend any person suspected of malpractices who was unable to give a satisfactory account of himself. Finally, the constables were to be under the control of the magistrates, and the magistrates were to be answerable to the Secretary of State, in whom was to be vested the power of dismissal, as well as that of appointment. When introduced, the Bill was severely criticised, Fox and Sheridan, who were two of its strongest opponents, both declaring that the principle of a magistrate punishing without the intervention of a jury was barbarous and unconstitutional, and that the proposal to set up constables with increased powers was an unwarrantable attempt to oppress the poor, already ground down under the heels of the rich. It was advanced that the influence exerted by the Ministry of the day over the magistracy was already excessive, and that the real object of the bill was to still further increase this influence, by adding the power of conferring salaries to that of making appointments. The framers of the Bill, whilst denying the truth of these statements, and confident of the ultimate triumph of the principles they advocated, were willing that the measure should at first become law for a limited period only, and were content that Parliament should have the opportunity of amending, or even annulling its provisions, if on trial they should prove unsatisfactory. 

The Middlesex Justices Act first came into operation, therefore, as an experiment. The seven public offices were established in different parts of the Metropolis at convenient distances from each other, the twenty-one Justices were appointed, and the forty-two constables were sworn in, an insignificant force indeed with which to contend against the whole criminal array of London, but of great historical interest as a development of the Bow Street system, the two together forming the first regularly organised and paid force ever established in England. The reform of the magistracy that was taken in hand in 1792 was not so thorough as it might have been, and the opportunity that then offered of removing once and for all every unworthy taint from the administration of justice in the metropolis was only partly taken advantage of. The Middlesex Justices Bill was conceived in too parsimonious a spirit, and the right sort of men did not come forward to fill the important posts of police justices, many of the new magistrates, in fact, being recruited from the ranks of the old discredited class, which it was one of the principal objects of the Bill to displace. Neither the justices nor the constables received a salary large enough to make them independent of improper sources of income, the latter being openly permitted to engage in various lucrative transactions that had nothing to do with their office. 

It is said that constables attached to the public offices would not infrequently fill the role of counsel for the prisoner, as well as holding a brief for the prosecution. The small force called into being by the Act of 1792, and which, including the Bow Street officers, amounted to about fifty men, was designed only against individual criminals ; the idea of preventing or repressing riots by means of a civil police force was hardly considered to fall within the range of practical politics. At the moment when the success of the revolutionary leaders had achieved the overthrow of the French Monarchy, and had culminated in the execution of Louis the Sixteenth, established authority all the world over was in danger of subversion. The violent utterances of certain Radical Societies shewed that there were many in England who violently sympathised with the Revolution, and the riots that took place in many of our towns proved that the excesses which had turned the streets of Paris into shambles, were finding an echo amongst the discontented and disorderly on this side of the Channel. Considering the urgency of the matter, the attitude assumed by the Government then in office seems altogether incomprehensible. The political horizon was assuredly dark enough to warn the most heedless ; and the signal manner in which the military had failed to keep order during the Gordon Riots conclusively demonstrated how unreliable was that arm for the purposes of peace maintenance. Yet the only steps taken by the responsible authori-ties were to embody the Militia, and to pass an ill-considered measure called “The Alien Act,” which required that all foreigners resident in England (unless duly naturalised), should provide themselves with passports, or forthwith leave the country. That we survived the crisis without having to face a similar conflagration was hardly due to the foresight of our rulers, who, though well aware that our preventive appliances were rusty and out- of-date, neglected to replace them by others, or even to modernise them.

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