“In fiction as well as in reality the dramatic element nearly always was supplied by the Bow Street Runner, popularly supposed to be a miracle of detective skill though indeed at the beginning of the century the establishment at Bow Street for the detection of crime was of a character that would have made a modern policeman smile. The business of inquiry pursuit and arrest of criminals was conducted by a officers not more than eight in number. Each of these however had from practice and training skill and was so trained in the peculiar school or system of Jonathan Wild that he was equivalent to a host of constables.” Chronicles of Bow Street police-office: with an account of the magistrates By Percy Hetherington Fitzgerald
The Bow Street Runners were a formal derivation from the profession of “thief-takers”, similar to the modern day bounty hunter with the exception that thief takers were hired by victims of crime rather than bail bondsmen.
In medieval London, the feudal system of crime and punishment was still at play. Older men, lacking for employment, were hired to serve as nightwatchmen, and would patrol the streets at night. They were supervised by parish constables, and when an offender was caught, would be brought round to the parish “round house.” The constable would check the offender in, who typically would be held overnight and offered food and water.
Depending on the crimes or criminals, the parish Justice of the Peace could mete out punishment, or in the case of more serious offenses ship the prisoner off to the Old Bailey to be seen by a Magistrate.
In 1749 author Henry Fielding formed the Bow Street Runners, a moniker given to them based on their address at Number 4 Bow Street. Fielding was a magistrate who saw the difficulties in ensuring criminals were apprehended, giving birth to the idea of a force of men who would run to ground convicts. The runners never actually called themself thus, considering the term “runner” to be derogatory.
Initially, the Bow Street detectives numbered only six. They served writs and made arrests, travelling the countryside (like U.S. Marshalls) to hunt down criminals. Because of the nature of their work, requiring investigation and interviewing, they were one of the first formal forces of detectives.
Men were often selected from the pool of former parish constables, and were strictly working class. However, despite this (David Cox, A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A History of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839) runners would often rub elbows with the gentry and were considered (or should’ve been) elite criminalists. Cox points to the 1812 murder of Benjamin Robins in Staffordshire, for instance, pointing out that the Principal Officer involved achieved the world’s first forensic work in ballistics, comparing the bullet with the moulding case and screw fitting of the weapon. Because of the hotbed of intrigue with Napoleanic Wars and internal struggles (including the Luddites), the runners also conducted undercover work tanamount to espionage.
In London, runners also worked on “busts” and raids. In 1822, they used cunning rather than brute force to bust an illegal gaming house in Pall Mall.
Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 Metropolitan Police Act would make the Bow Street organization obsolete.
For more reading:
The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840