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The Bow Street Runners

The Bow Street Runners

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The 18th and 19th century saw the beginning of a concentrated effort to create a proactive police force to replace unreliable and corrupt thief-takers. The newly professionalised police forces were paid by the local magistrate to fight crime - this was the first instance of somewhat formalised policing, directly funded by the central government. One such group was the Bow Street Runners.


A private person hired to catch criminals

Bow Street Runners Definition

So, who were the Bow Street Runners, and how did they differ from the thief-takers that came before them?

The “runners” were founded in 1748 by magistrates (and brothers) Henry and Sir John Fielding, who saw thief-takers as unreliable, with them often making mistaken or malicious arrests. Considering this, the magistrates wanted officers who were professional, formalised, and acted within the scope of the law.

The name 'The Bow Street Runners' is the result of their operation centring out of Bow Streets’ magistrate's office. The name itself was informal, with many officers seeing it as undermining.

The differences between Bow Street Runners and existing thief-takers are outlined below.

Bow Street RunnersThief-Takers

The Bow Street Runners wore standardised uniforms - this would make them recognisable and trusted.

Thief-takers didn't wear any specific uniform, nothing to distinguish them from other members of the public.

They were formally attached to the Bow Street Magistrates and were paid directly by them.

Thief-takers had no formal attachment to anyone and were paid by whichever client gave the best price - essentially unregulated.

It was difficult to promote corruption with a formal attachment to the magistrate.

The thief-takers could work for who they liked and weren't formally attached to anyone.

Regular payments were designed to discourage corruption.

Thief-takers were paid irregularly due to working for different clients on bounties.

Henry Fielding, Magistrate and Founder of the Bow Street Runners, Studysmarter.Henry Fielding

How Did the Bow Street Runners Function?

Now we know who the Bow Street Runners were and why they were needed; let's find out how they operated!

Five Facts about the Bow Street Runners' Operating Area

  1. Although operating out of Bow Street in Central London, the runners were not restricted to operating in one particular area as they were an unofficial police force.
  2. Officers could work on their initiative to solve crimes and, as a result, often expanded their work area to Kent, Essex, Surrey, Hertfordshire and even Bristol.
  3. Even though they were not directly working for magistrates in these areas, this was permitted as their work wasn’t impeding any other investigations.
  4. The Bow Street Runners utilised patrols, much like modern police forces, as a visual crime deterrent and to respond fast to crime.
  5. The use of patrols was in direct response to an increase in the number of highway robberies and petty thefts in London, with officers patrolling both on foot and on horseback.

Cigarette Card Depicting Highwaymen 1920s, Studysmarter.Cigarette Card Depicting Highwaymen, 1920s, Wikimedia Commons.

Communication and Investigative Policing

A key aspect of the operation of the Bow Street Runners was its crime-fighting network. To detect and prevent crime, they heavily relied on accurate descriptions of criminals and crimes through efficient communication. This was done through both the media and based on the Bow Street Runners’ strong public presence.

Did you know? A newspaper known as the Hue and Cry and later the Police Gazette provided information about criminals, crimes, and stolen items. This helped communicate key details to groups such as the Bow Street Runners.

They also relied on a network of informants. To contact them, the runners used the media with pamphlets and advertisements detailing how the general public could provide details of crimes. This was appealing to members of the public who were negatively affected by crime or seeking reward and also allowed the runners to swiftly and efficiently apprehend criminals.

Public Opinion of the Bow Street Runners

Initially, the public reaction to the professionalisation of law enforcement varied from suspicion to fear to annoyance. People in impoverished areas that were often tormented by crime were reluctant to trust new law enforcement offices, which is perhaps unsurprising based on the reputation of the thief-takers.

There was also the fact that some people resorted to crime simply to survive and saw those fighting crime as a nuisance.

The Bow Street Runners Compared to Modern Police

The Bow Street Runners bridge the gap between the modern police forces we know today and the previous non-interventionist approach. The police became seen as a force to maintain order and actively pursue criminals, whereas previously, the forces provided by the state (the parish constables and watchmen) only served to arrest criminals once they were apprehended. As a result, these officials were part-time and unprofessional, and anyone could apprehend criminals.

The Bow Street Runners were certainly an advancement in policing, and this change coincided with the way in which crime was becoming a political issue.

The spike in highway robberies, in particular, saw large rewards from the government for the capture of known criminals. This led to a large number of thief-takers, who saw the opportunity of reward and were even known to stage crimes themselves, such as robberies, to gain large rewards from the return of stolen goods. This was unsatisfactory to the original purpose of the rewards: to decrease criminal activity.

Whilst the runners were more advanced than their predecessors, the modern police force is more advanced than the runners - let's look at some comparisons

Area of ComparisonExplanation
Link to the state
  • Although receiving official state funding, the Bow Street Runners had no official connection to the state.
  • This is in direct comparison to modern police forces, such as the Metropolitan Police Force formed in 1829.
Scope of operations
  • The runners had limited resources and only operated in a small area of central London in terms of street presence.
  • Even though sometimes funded by the government, this was usually in the form of grants and didn’t constitute permanent or long-term funding, meaning they did not have access to sufficient resources for a larger scope.

Bow Street Magistrates London Late 19th Century, Studysmarter.Bow Street Magistrates and Police Station in the late 19th Century, Wikimedia Commons.

Crime and Punishment and the Bow Street Runners

The Bow Street Runners were significant in the transition to modern, professional policing. However, they were only one step in the journey to the police force we know today and were absorbed into the Metropolitan Police in 1839.

The Metropolitan Police Force was set up in 1829 by Robert Peel.

As crime rates diminished and the Metropolitan Police came to the forefront of crime prevention, the Bow Street Runners were financially unsustainable. They were already in decline by the time they were absorbed into the Metropolitan Police, largely because these new police officers made their role redundant. Additionally, crime rates had reduced due to the actions of both the runners and the Metropolitan Police.

This perhaps demonstrates the ultimate success of the Bow Street Runners. The previous system was not only ineffective but, at times, even promoted crime. The Bow Street Runners’ role was to prevent crime, which it had succeeded in and provided a basis for the modern police forces that would rapidly be established across Britain.

The Bow Street Runners - Key takeaways

  • The Bow Street Runners were established in 1748 to prevent crime.
  • They were formally attached to Bow Street Magistrates.
  • They wore uniforms and conducted patrols, unlike previous parish constables.
  • They received some funding from the central government.
  • They aimed to remove corruption and make policing more professional - the officers were monitored by magistrates to ensure professionalism.
  • The Runners eventually merged with the Metropolitan Police in 1839, having provided the first steps to a modern, professionalised police force.

Frequently Asked Questions about The Bow Street Runners

The Bow Street Runners were founded by magistrates Henry and Sir John Fielding

The Bow Street Runners worked for Bow Street magistrates to catch criminals, detect crime, investigate crimes and prevent future crimes through street presence and effect criminal investigation.

The Bow Street Runners group was created in 1748.

As a predecessor to modern professional police forces, the Bow Street Runners were extremely important as they proved to lawmakers and the general public that a professional police force could be trusted to reduce crime.

Yes, unlike the thief-takers that preceded them the Bow Street Runners allowed uniforms to allow them to be easily identified and accountable to the public.

Final The Bow Street Runners Quiz

The Bow Street Runners Quiz - Teste dein Wissen


Why did the Bow Street Runners wear uniforms?

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To appear professional

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What year were the Bow Street Runners established?

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Who were the Bow Street Runners formally associated with and receive payment from?

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Bow Street Magistrates

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In what year did the Bow Street Runners merge with the Metropolitan Police?

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Who established the Bow Street Runners?

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Henry and John Fielding

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Why did the Bow Street Runners patrol the streets?

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To prevent crime

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How did the Bow Street Runners gain information?

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Through newspapers and informants

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How did the Bow Street Runners aim to remove corruption?

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By working under close supervision from the magistrates

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What was an issue with the thief-takers?

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They were unreliable making mistaken or malicious arrests

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What is one way that the Bow Street Runners prevented crime?

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Patrolling the streets

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