The Bow Street Runners was the contemporary (and slightly disparaging) name given to the officers attached to the Bow Street Police Office. These proto-policemen had been established in the late eighteenth century by the Fielding brothers, Henry and John, and by the early 1800s they were regularly bringing criminals before the magistrate in Covent Garden and helping prosecute cases at the Old Bailey. The Runners were also being sent outside of the capital to help with provincial crime fighting.
They were not professional police has we understand them however, they were more akin to the thief-takers of the early to mid-eighteenth century if less corrupt. Runners were paid a basic stipend for their service but relied mostly on rewards from government and from those victims whose cases they pursued. I think it’s fair to say that if we are to see them (as Professor Beattie does) as England’s ‘first detectives’ then we should recognise that they were just as flawed and open to accusations of heavy handiness and corrupt practice as many of those that have come after them.
The Metropolitan Police were founded in 1829 and there was much discussion of the need (or otherwise) of professionals in London in the years leading up to Peel’s initiative. The Runners were part of that conversation and incidents like today’s news story from 1824, reflect concerns about the way the Bow Street officers operated on occasion and perhaps the need to replace them with a more accountable group of men.
The landlord of the Star & Garter public house in St. Martin’s Lane, Mr. Sbrinzi, had recently been the victim of a robbery. As a consequence two Bow Street Runners had been in and out of his house on a regular basis, presumably making enquiries.
They were there late on Sunday night. At about midnight one of his lodgers knocked him up to let them in and as Sbrinzi opened the door two Runners forced their way in demanding to know who was in the house. Despite the landlord answering their queries in full the men dragged him out of his property by the collar and marched hi to the watch house. There they tried to have him locked up overnight but the constable of the night refused them.
On the way he complained that ‘they had used him so roughly that he was obliged, in his own defence’, to seize on them (by the name of Donald) by the hand and tried to shake him off. At this the officer shouted to his colleague: ‘Hollick, give your knife, and I’ll cut his __________ hand off’. Not surprisingly then the publican pressed a charge of assault at the Bow Street office.
The two Runners arrived in the building as Sbrinzi was giving his evidence and immediately countered with their own version of events. They accused him of assayult but when an independent witness verified the landlord’s story the magistrate, Mr. Birnie, dismissed their accusations out of hand. He ‘strongly censured the conduct of the patrole’ (meaning Hollick and Donald) and recommend that Mr. Sbrinzi prosecute them at the Sessions of the Peace, which he said he would do.
[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, September 14, 1824]