I was first introduced to the Bow Street Runners through Georgette Heyer’s iconic regency stories. I always enjoy the entry of these unpolished but smart and resourceful characters. In The Toll Gate, we have a delightfully ill-disguised Runner looking for stolen coins. In The Corinthian, it’s a diamond necklace.
So, who were these men? Why did Georgette Heyer have them using thieves cant? Were they gentlemen or not?
Well, the answer is mostly that they were not gentlemen, they were working men from London and the first professional police force in Britain. They were part of the growing professional middle-class.
Prior to the mid-1700s, the best you could hope for was a part time, unpaid constable to catch your thief, or a “thief-catcher” who might recover your property and bargain with you for the return. Sometimes the thief-catchers were even guilty of instigating a crime in order to profit off the return! Either way, they would definitely want a hefty reward for their efforts. In 1751, Sir Henry Fielding, the magistrate at the Bow Street Court, published a report called, “An Enquiry into the Late Increase of Robbers, etc.” in which he correctly identified many problems with the current state of things.
So he started a new thing: paid police. He only had six men to start with, but they were full-time, paid, and well-trained. Fielding’s motto was, “Quick observation and sudden pursuit.” It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue–maybe he should’ve workshopped it a little longer!–but the idea was sound. It was probably for this they gained the Runner nickname, which they never appreciated.
Fielding wanted his officers not just to catch criminals but to deter crime. To be a preventative presence in London. In this he succeeded, and the program eventually got further money from the government to expand. Sir Henry died and his blind brother John took over after him. After John died, even more expansion would occur under other JP’s. By 1800, there were 68 Runners patrolling London.
Side note: Despite my research, I don’t quite understand the reason that Bow Street magistrate had authority to send men across the country in pursuit of criminals! Other courts had regional jurisdiction, but the Runners could cross the country? If anybody understands this, please let me know.
Anyway, highway robbery was another scourge on polite society. Under Patrick Colquhoun, the Horse Patrol was created 1805. These 50+ officers were armed “with swords, truncheons and pistols” and they patrolled the post roads and major roads around London. The Runner in The Toll Gate was a patrol, and since the thieves had gone through several toll gates with stolen goods, he was on the case. The Horse Patrol was so successful, in fact, that they worked themselves out of a job. Highway robbery decreased so much that their funding was cut, however, crime rose again, proving their value.
Eventually these would give way to the creation of the Metropolitan Police and the rise of Scotland Yard, but during our beloved Regency, No. 4 Bow Street was the place to be.
Sir Henry Fielding’s experiment showed that a professional police force paid by the government did deter criminals and it did lower crime. There are many more fascinating stories about them, like the newspapers they spawned, and the capture of the Cato Street Conspirators, but I’ll have to cover those later!
As a reward for reading this far, here is a brief excerpt of Colonel Fitzwilliam and the Bow Street Runner who partners with him in Propriety and Piquet. They were a joy to write, quite the buddy-cop, odd couple partnership.
Chapter 8, Page 62
Richard’s partner fell into step beside him. Bertie Cooksen was his name, and the name Bertie gave a far more jovial impression of the man’s nature than seemed warranted.
He was in his late forties, narrow chested and long-flanked, and he favored a tweed flat cap and a worn woolen scarf.
Together, they strolled around to Mr. Wickham’s rather dilapidated lodging on the edge of Bath. The glass panes looked as if they could use a good scrubbing, and there was definite wood rot on the trim around the windows and doors.
The mews behind smelled a bit ripe as well, as if the horse stalls were not being well mucked out. The clouds were thick and oppressive today, a regular gray blanket. The cold December wind had blown a pile of leaves, circulars, and other trash into a heap near the door of the building.
There were stairs from the street level that led up to landings from which the various sets, or apartments, could be reached. The landing for Wickham’s rooms was none too clean.
“What if he’s here?” Richard asked.
Bertie knocked on the door. After a moment of silence, he shrugged. “He ain’t here.”
“What were we going to say if he was here?”
Bertie gave a rare, wry grin. “You seem to have a lot of words to spare, Colonel, I figured you’d come up with something.”
Bertie made quick work of getting the door open with a wire and a pin. “These cheap rooms have cheap locks. I’d have a harder time at Camden Place or therelike.”
Wickham’s rooms were exactly what Richard expected of him. Several extravagances that he couldn’t afford—like an extra evening coat and an ivory cane—and everything else spoke of poverty. His shaving kit was worn and threadbare, and the razor looked rough. The bed held the plainest lumpy mattress that a cheap building provided, but a luxurious down pillow graced the headboard. Wickham had no notion of staying within his income or prioritizing needs over wants. Although, to be fair, he had no income at present, so it wouldn’t be hard to outrun it.
Bertie did know how to search a room. Richard would have thought of many of the places, like the lining of Wickham’s two valises, the pockets of his coats and breeches, and under the mattress. But Bertie also efficiently cleared the small table and flipped it over to check the underside. He checked floorboards for gaps. He lay under the washstand and checked the base of it as well. “A little gum and you could stick a document on the underside,” he explained.
There was a pile of bills on the mantlepiece, held down by a heavy candlestick with a half-burnt taper candle. Richard rifled through these while Bertie tried every ingenious hiding place. Richard rated Bertie’s intelligence far higher than Wickham’s, but he didn’t have much hope for it.
Among the receipts and bills, which were even worse than Richard had expected, was a handwritten list. It was in a good, clean hand—not Wickham’s writing. Richard’s heart sped as he read it.
Coldstream Guards, 28th North Gloucestershire, Regiment of Foot, 52nd Oxfordshire, 69th South Lincolnshire…
It was a list of regiments. It was not exactly the same list on the document he was searching for—but it was remarkably similar. What was Wickham doing with it?
Richard waved Bertie over. “What do you make of this? I admit, I thought Wickham was a long shot and I didn’t expect to find anything. But this…!”
Bertie folded it and put it in his Occurrence Book, frowning heavily. “Most strange. Why would he copy it? Perhaps to prove to someone that he’d seen the original?”
“We’ll need to keep a close eye on him.”
“We haven’t searched his person yet. If I was him, I’d keep it on me all the time. Too dangerous to leave lying around. We should check that cousin o’theirs, too. Initials don’t lie.”
Richard put the other papers back under the candlestick. “It’d be hard to search either of them without letting on what we’re doing.”
Richard eyed him in fascination.
“I’ll do Wickham,” Bertie said, “for you have too much history with him and it will be suspicious. You’ll do young Mr. Elliot.”
“How should I do it? I’m no good at slight-of-hand.”
Bertie began to methodically restore the room to how it had been. Returning tables, replacing bills and soap and shaver. “Nothing that delicate. You’ve merely to find some stratagem to get him to remove his coat and boots. Most men can’t hide a large wad of paper in their inexpressible without it being obvious.”
“I’m sure you’re right; I’ve never thought about it.”
“I’d suggest getting him wet somehow. If you get his boots full of water, you’ll be in the dandy even if others are around.”
“Get him wet? I suppose I could shove him off Pulteney Bridge, but I feel our relationship would be damaged.”
Bertie pulled the bedclothes back up, straightening them. “Full of frisk today, are we? Think smaller. Puddle, creek, canal…”
“Sydney Gardens is not far from my hotel. There is that walking path along the Kennet and Avon Canal.”
Half of Bertie’s mouth twitched up. “Maybe you’re not so useless after all.”
“Useless? Let me tell you, my good man, that you are mangling the bed. That is not at all how a gentlemen’s gentleman manages the sheets.”
Bertie’s thin eyebrows rose. “Do tell.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam efficiently made the bed, as he had learned to do at various billet on the continent when his batman had been delayed. “It was like this. Wickham must have someone come into clean, for I’ll wager he never made such a neat bed.”
They heard steps coming up the stairs and both stiffened. The footsteps, however, continued to the third floor, to the rooms above Wickham’s.
In silent agreement, they left the flat.
“We have our assignments then.”
Colonel Fitzwilliam nodded. “Yes, simple as anything. ‘How are you, Mr. Elliot? Have you seen the canal? Allow me to give you a closer look.’”
Bertie huffed. “It ain’t that hard. Trip and bang into him. Go into the canal as well if it’ll make you more comfortable.”
“Our definitions of comfortable are not the same.”
“Doubt our definitions of anything are the same,” he muttered.
Richard laughed. He liked his taciturn Runner. “Fair enough. I will gird my loins and duck Mr. Elliot in the canal.”
Thanks for reading! Have a wonderful October.