Have you ever been to a museum in a smart hotel? Across from the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden there is a fashionable hotel, the NOMad London, with a small museum inside known as the Bow Street Police Museum. The hotel used to be the site of courts, a police station and police cells. In its early days this was where the Bow Street Runners, a well organised local policing force, were based.
It was not until 1829 that the government authorised the establishment of local police forces throughout England and Wales. Until then neighbourhood policing and the punishment of offenders for small crimes was very much in the hands of local people. The government required policing to be established throughout England and Wales in 1856.
In the time of the Bow Street Runners, magistrates, since the 12th century, had been the ‘keepers of the peace’: worthy people, usually property owners, appointed by the king or a lord to pursue, arrest and punish people for petty crimes such as theft and disorderly behaviour. At the museum, we learn about how one such magistrate, the novelist of Tom Jones fame, dramatist, and a successful barrister, Henry Fielding (1707-1754), organised the Bow Street Runners. We also learn about the police, as we know them today, who patrolled Covent Garden in the last century.
Henry Fielding founded the force in 1749 in what was his home at no 4 Bow Street, and home was also the court. He let the public in to see the cases being tried. The Bow Street Runners were paid with funds from the government and given a uniform to wear. There were clerks employed to keep the records. Advertisements in a local paper encouraged people to report crimes to the police.
Sir John Fielding (1721-1780), Henry’s half-brother, took over the force after Henry left London to live in Lisbon in 1754. Henry was hoping that medical care and a change of circumstance might help him recover from cirrhosis of the liver. John Fielding was blind; and it was believed that he could recognise 3000 criminals by their voices. Eventually, the Bow Street Runners joined the Metropolitan Police Force. No 28 Bow Street, now the hotel, was purchased to provide more space, indeed four floors, for the courts, officers and cells. The police station closed in 1992; the courts closed in 2006.
At the museum, we follow explanatory panels and see exhibits, such as uniforms, whistles, truncheons or batons, cutlass (a sword), and an original dock, which is a place in a criminal law court where the accused person sits or stands during the trial. We also visit several police cells with fascinating videos featuring policemen and women who used to work at the police station talking about their working lives at Bow Street. We meet the first black officer, Norwell Roberts, who was appointed to Bow Street nearly sixty years ago. Lee-Jane Yates, probably the first Chinese policewoman to be appointed to the police force, recalls the room at the end of the police cell corridor called the ‘tank’, where many men who were drunk and badly behaved would be held there overnight. It did not smell very pleasant, she tells listeners. Now, it is clean and fresh. There would not have been any lighting in the cells. In the daytime, light came in through the windows. A small window let in light from the corridor.
A night in the cells would certainly not have been like spending a night in the hotel, though when doing so one might have revelled in the knowledge that he was sleeping in the environs of a site where a brilliant author, the ‘founder of the novel’ and an early police force, had once worked. Indeed, perhaps equally commendable was the author’s brother, a revered police official who for 26 years carried out his duties without the aid of his sight. The hotel certainly has a unique and illustrious heritage.
For more information, please visit https://bowstreetpolicemuseum.org.uk/.