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British Expat Newsletter:
30 May 2007

Hello, and welcome to those who have joined up since our last newsletter.

In this issue

  • This week: Bow Street Runners
  • Virtual Snacks
  • Bizarre Searches
  • Quotation and joke

This week

Browsing through the shelves of one of our local English-language bookshops a few weeks ago, we came across “The Last Days of Newgate” by Andrew Pepper, a ripping yarn about crime and detection in the days just before the Metropolitan Police were set up. The hero of the novel, Pyke, is a Bow Street Runner – though by all accounts he’s something of a poacher-turned-gamekeeper-turned-poacher-again. Anyway, the portrayal of the Bow Street Runners in the book intrigued us enough for us to try to find out more about them.

Apparently they were an executive branch of the Bow Street Magistrates’ Court, set up by Henry Fielding (the novelist who wrote “Tom Jones”) during his magistracy – he became a Justice of the Peace in 1748. Initially there were only eight Runners! Their duties were to serve writs and apprehend criminals on the orders of the magistrates; they didn’t carry out patrols. This wasn’t so very different from “thieftakers” elsewhere – there were plenty of people who caught criminals for the courts for a living – except that the Runners were formally attached to the Bow Street Court and paid out of central government funds, rather than by the victim of the crime or through a bounty offered by the local court. The funding was sporadic, but Fielding’s half-brother John, who succeeded him as Bow Street’s Chief Magistrate, was nevertheless able to shape the Runners into an effective policing force by the time of his retirement in 1780 (earning himself a knighthood along the way, in 1761). In 1792 an Act of Parliament added another eight similar offices, and in 1805 a mounted force was added, the Bow Street Horse Patrol.

It’s a fairly commonly-held belief that the Bow Street Runners evolved into the Metropolitan Police and thus became the world’s first police force. In fact, it did neither. The Met wasn’t even the first police force in the UK – that was the City of Glasgow Police, set up by Act of Parliament in 1800 – and in fact the concept of a police force had been taken much further in France and Germany; Louis XIV had appointed a Lieutenant General of Police in 1667 to maintain order and catch villains, and the Paris police claim to be the first uniformed force in the world. And the Met was set up separately from the Runners, in 1829, by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel (hence the nicknames “bobby” and “peeler”, and possibly “rozzer” as well). This wasn’t a universally popular move by any means, as street patrols to prevent crime were seen by many as a step towards a repressive regime similar to those established on the Continent by less democratic nations. (Habitual criminals probably weren’t ecstatic about it either.) Nevertheless, by 1839 the Runners had been absorbed into the Met, along with all the other magistrates’ constabularies in London.

Perhaps the strangest thing to modern observers about the Runners was their entitlement to receive payments direct from the victims of the thefts or assaults they were investigating. This was probably necessary when the government weren’t willing to stump up the funding for them (and John Harding certainly had to keep asking them often enough). But the consequence – perhaps not surprisingly – was that many of them ran a profitable sideline in arranging robberies themselves, then “recovering” the property (or most of it) and claiming a reward. This happened even though originally the Runners were each asked for £50 (enough to keep a person comfortably for a year!) as security for good behaviour.

Still, perhaps we shouldn’t judge them too harshly. After all, police corruption isn’t exactly a thing of the past, even in the supposedly law-abiding societies of Western Europe and North America. And there’s no doubt that law enforcement in London improved generally as a result of the Runners’ efforts.

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Or do you have some suggestions for other issues we might discuss in our weekly email? Why not comment and tell us?

Virtual Snacks

Just a few suggestions if you have a little time to spare:

The Metropolitan Police Service have a set of pages all about their own history and the history of policing in general.

Here’s an interesting article (despite a couple of factual errors) about John Fielding, the “Blind Beak of Bow Street”, on the (US) National Federation of the Blind’s website.

Bow Street Magistrates’ Court was sold off in 2006 and is to become a boutique hotel. Here’s a page about the development.

Bizarre Searches

Some strange search terms which have led people to visit British Expat recently:

  • eating malta
  • wedding tea-stained
  • frontal lobe and lifestyle
  • writing love letters to mom
  • how to treat burns in the past
  • lifestyle about me
  • jokes the bacon tree
  • kill honey suckle
  • british phnar
  • french mondegreens

Till next time…
Happy surfing!

British Expat Magazine


“I’ve never had a problem with drugs. I’ve had problems with the police.”

– Keith Richards, rock guitarist (1943- )

Extra quotation (or extra joke!)

“Police arrested two kids yesterday, one was drinking battery acid, the other was eating fireworks. They charged one and let the other one off.”

– Tommy Cooper, comedian and magician (1921-84)


Immediate Response

One night last week I was going to bed when my wife pointed out that I’d left the light on in the garden shed.

As I looked out of the window I noticed that there were two people in the shed, stealing our belongings. I immediately phoned the police, who told me that there was nobody in my vicinity and that they’d send somebody over as soon as they were available.

I said “Fine,” then hung up.

A minute later I rang back and said “Hi, I called a minute ago about a burglary taking place in my shed. Well, I thought I’d let you know that there’s no need to worry because I’ve just shot them both.”

Three minutes later a dozen police vehicles and armed response personnel were outside my house and naturally they caught the burglars red-handed.

One of the officers said, “Hey, I thought you said you’d shot them both?”

I replied, “I thought you said nobody was available?!”

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