Crime historians reading David Cox's new work of police history will blush and perhaps even feel a little guilty at having largely dismissed the famed Bow Street Runners. This is because much of the previous historiography of the beginnings of our professional police has undervalued their endeavours and achievements. I have no doubt that this is true, because Cox's approach is so methodical and finely referenced that the reader is persuaded by his argument that the Runners have not, until now, had their due.
We know them through the myth and popular narrative that painted a picture of bumbling amateurs ripe for replacement by Sir Robert Peel's establishment of the "real" constabulary with the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act. They have been seen as an anachronism, created by the Georgian magistracy at the time of the nefarious thief-takers, when the government was frantically ratcheting up the statutes on murder in the face of potential anarchy.
The truth is far from that image; the reality is, instead, extremely interesting. Cox works carefully, asking fundamental questions and explaining the successes of the Runners' elite, the Principal Officers. These men were at the centre of the force: brave, tough and determined characters who could handle any kind of detective work and who faced violent criminals both in London and in the provinces. They usually got their man, even crossing the Channel to work with European authorities. These officers, notably John Townsend, John Vickery and Stephen Lavender, rubbed shoulders with aristocracy and moved in the highest circles. Townsend acted as bodyguard to George III, and he and his peers were respected and highly valued by the overworked magistrates and constables across the land.
Previous thinking about the Runners has ignored the fact that the Principal Officers were also involved in the more high-profile contexts of spying. In the horrendous years around 1811, during the time of Luddite activities and wars with America and Napoleon, they were agents provocateurs among the working classes. They were still there after 1839 when their expertise was crucially important, and the first professional detective department was eventually formed in 1842. Several of the top men in the force moved on to run other constabularies, and in today's vocabulary, their role as "consultants" was valuable.
Looking at an age in which provincial detection of crime and the pursuit of felons was much criticised, Cox also makes a convincing case for the reasonable competence of the rural constables; occasionally magistrates would take part in some kind of detective work, but when the Runners sent their men out of the metropolis, their achievements were immensely impressive. Cox writes very well about the murder of Benjamin Robins in Staffordshire in 1812, 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.
The best officers were well paid, and their expenses were high, so they were engaged mainly by wealthy landowners or high-status professionals, but they were not averse to accepting the challenge of a murder case when a gentleman farmer was the victim. They travelled the length and breadth of the land well before the arrival of the railways (except for the last few years) and instilled fear and loathing in the criminal classes. On one occasion, Vickery dragged a murderous poacher along the street in full view of the locals on the first stage of his journey to the scaffold.
This book is long overdue, especially as the Runners have appeared in a number of recent works of fiction as Georgian quasi-James Bond characters. This revisionist account ensures that they will be better understood and may cease to be defined as hopeless failures in the crime-infested world we know through the art of contemporary caricaturists Thomas Rowlandson and James Gillray. They were, as Cox admirably shows, heroes of their time.
A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A History of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839
By David J. Cox
Willan Publishing, 208pp, £45.00
Published 19 February 2010