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The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 [Paperback]

J. M. Beattie

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Book Description

1 April 2014
This is the first comprehensive study of the Bow Street Runners, a group of men established in the middle of the eighteenth century by Henry Fielding, with the financial support of the government, to confront violent offenders on the streets and highways around London. They were developed over the following decades by his half-brother, John Fielding, into what became a well-known and stable group of officers who acquired skill and expertise in investigating crime, tracking and arresting offenders, and in presenting evidence at the Old Bailey, the main criminal court in London. They were, Beattie argues, detectives in all but name. Fielding also created a magistrates' court that was open to the public, at stated times every day.

A second, intimately-related theme in the book concerns attitudes and ideas about the policing of London more broadly, particularly from the 1780s, when the detective and prosecutorial work of the runners came to be challenged by arguments in favour of the prevention of crime by surveillance and other means. The last three chapters of the book continue to follow the runners' work, but at the same time are concerned with discussions of the larger structure of policing in London - in parliament, in the Home Office, and in the press. These discussions were to intensify after 1815, in the face of a sharp increase in criminal prosecutions. They led - in a far from straightforward way - to a fundamental reconstitution of the basis of policing in the capital by Robert Peel's Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. The runners were not immediately affected by the creation of the New Police, but indirectly it led to their disbandment a decade later.

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The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 + Crime and Society in England: 1750 - 1900 (Themes In British Social History)
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Review

... the foremost historian of crime, the law and policing in Hanoverian London, brings his formidable knowledge and astute perception to tracing the history of the Bow Street police ... a short review cannot do justice to the research and shrewd judgements that underlie this lively volume ... anyone interested in the history of crime and policing in England cannot afford to ignore it. (Clive Emsley, History Today)

[a] superb book ... As those who know his earlier works on crime, policing and criminal justice in the 18th century would expect, one of the great strengths of this book is the sense it gives of the way the changing activities of the runners intertwined with changes in other brances of the criminal justice system - the changing functions of the magistrates' courts, for example, as awareness grew of the need to separate the investigative and judicial functions of the magistracy, and to extend the system of police courts more widely through London. (John Barrell, London Review of Books)

Beattie's lively history of the Bow Street Runners is a first-rate account of the evolution of 'thief-takers' into a professional crime-solving force after the group's creation by Henry Fielding. (The Canadian Journal of History)

The publication of a new book by John Beattie is inevitably a major event in criminal justice history. As a pioneering historian of eighteenth-century crime, law and punishment, his previous works instantly became foundational studies in the field. In this latest offering, Beattie turns his formidable historical acumen to research on the most famous body of police officers prior to the new police the Bow Street runners. The result is an extremely thorough and insightful account of crime and policing, yet one which nonetheless signals the persistent complexities which surround the interpretation of nineteenth-century police reforms. (David Churchill, Crime, History & Societies)

Beattie has brought great clarity to a fiendishly difficult subject, and his book will surely remain authoritative for many years to come. (Boyd Hilton, English Historical Review)

About the Author

J. M. Beattie was born in England in 1932 and emigrated to the US in 1949. He studied at the University of San Francisco (BA, 1954), the University of California, Berkeley (MA, 1956), and Cambridge (Ph.D, 1963). He taught in the History Department and the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto from 1961 to his retirement in 1997. He has published The English Court in the Reign of George I (1967 and 2008), Crime and the Courts in England, 1660-1800 (1986), and Policing and Punishment in London, 1660-1750: Urban Crime and the Limits of Terror (2001).

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