Sunday, April 7, 2013

Sir John Fielding, "The Blind Beak of Bow Street"

by Karen V. Wasylowski

Sir John Fielding, the younger half-brother of the great English novelist Henry Fielding, was one of the first, and one of the finest, of London policemen.  Born in 1721, his vision was lost through an accident by the age of nineteen.  There were no radios, no tapes—no known way for a blind person to be able to read.

So what did John Fielding do? He opened a business which he called the Universal Register Office. This was a combination labor exchange, travel agency, information office, real estate agency, and insurance company. John ran it single-handed. In his spare time, his brother Henry taught him law.

Big brother, Henry Fielding, when not writing novels such as Tom Jones, had become a magistrate with the power to investigate crimes, question suspects, and then either release them or order them held for trial. He was so successful that he was given the title of Chief Magistrate, head of law enforcement - except that London of the 1750's had no organized police force at all.

Imagine a city of over half a million people, terrible slums, a high crime rate, and no real police force. The few parish constables were chosen by lot, much as we choose juries today, to serve for one year. Most paid substitutes to take their place, and many of the substitutes were as dishonest as the criminals they were supposed to control. Most of the rest, along with the night watchmen, were too disorganized, too feeble, or too frightened of the powerful street gangs to be of any use.

Henry Fielding tried to change all this. He drew up plans for controlling crime, turned his house in Bow Street into a kind of police station, and hired a few of the best constables to serve as more or less permanent police officers—"Bow Street Runners" was the name by which they would soon be known.

In 1754 Henry's health began to fail him enough to force him into retirement, before he was able to put his plan into action.  His position, which would become known as Chief of the Metropolitan Police, was offered to his brother John, a position John held until his death in 1780. John immediately set out to put Henry's plans to work.

The Bow Street Runners were very effective, breaking up most of the gangs of London street robbers within two years.  After than John concentrated on organizing horse patrols to combat highwaymen, printed descriptions of wanted criminals and stolen goods.  He was at his best in questioning witnesses and suspects, weeding out the truth from the lies, allegedly being able to recognize three thousand criminals by the sounds of their voices.  He was the brains and his runners did the legwork.

In 1761 John was knighted for his services, becoming Sir John Fielding.  However, he was already respectfully known by another title - "The Blind Beak of Bow Street." ("Beak" was the 18th century slang for anyone in a position of authority.)

A contemporary described Sir John as wearing a black bandage over his eyes and carrying a switch, which he flicked in front of him as he entered or left his courtroom. He was strict with hardened criminals and was responsible for sending many men (and some women) to the gallows. But he was lenient with young people, especially first-time offenders.

However there were downsides to his reforms- and they are interesting to reflect upon. For example, scandals about Press coverage of cases didn't begin in Cambridge or in the United States, they began largely (though, of course, not exclusively) with Fielding's court.

He encouraged press coverage of cases to bring new accusers forward- but that led to the exploration of evidence in public by the press and the worry that trials might be retarded or even prejudiced. The words of the Attorney General, James Wallace, in 1780 warned (the words are from a contemporary press report):

"...that the PUBLIC examination[s] at Bow-street were productive of the most mischievous consequences to society. The injury done to individuals, who might be innocent, was such for which no possible compensation would be made; the evidence for the Crown was given up; the prisoner came to his trial without the possibility of a fair enquiry; the minds of the people were influenced; the jury prejudiced; and, where any possible guilt lodged, the prisoner hardly stood the chance of a fair acquittal."

What impresses me most is his concern for children.  With no social services network to protect children, they were probably the most vulnerable, the most mistreated and the most heartbreaking segment of that society, the boys turning to crime and the girls to prostitution in order to survive.   He helped organize charities to feed and clothe abandoned children, and institutions to teach them reading, writing, and some kind of a trade. As a police official, he saw that the best way to stop criminals was to get to them before they became criminals. In this he was almost two hundred years ahead of his time.

Years after Sir John Fielding's death London finally had an organized police force, born through his early efforts and his infamous "runners".   And, many of the procedures set up by Sir John Fielding are still used in  police manuals today.


 John Dashney,

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