Detection in England from Bow Street to the Met

Detectives have had a special niche in popular culture for many years. Beginning in the nineteenth century with the works of Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins and followed later in the century by Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, detectives captured the nineteenth-century imagination. Today, crime novels, although still popular, have been supplanted by serialized crime dramas like the CSI and Law & Order franchises, and more recently by the revived Sherlock series and Luther. But where does this fascination with detection come from? Some have argued that the Victorians (and it certainly didn’t stop with them) had a keen enthusiasm for the macabre, whether it be executions, murders or other salacious tales of malice.[1] But it was not only the crimes that made headlines, it was the men who investigated them: professional detectives.

Bow Street police court

Bow Street police court

Formal detection in England began in mid-eighteenth century London with the Bow Street Runners. Begun by Bow Street magistrate Henry Fielding and continued under his blind half-brother John, the Runners were part of Fielding’s innovative approach to combatting crime. Since there were no centralized or professional police in England, the Runners were the first to systematize criminal investigation through information gathering. They investigated crimes for the government, helped private individuals, and even protected the royal family. Bow Street also had a series of mounted and foot patrols to police the city on regular beats. By the 1820s, however, the Runners’ reputation was in decline. Their legacy was tarnished by their association with thief-takers and they were known to collude with criminals to ensure the return of stolen property. Although effective, their methods were not as wholesome as the government would have wished and they were disbanded in 1839.[2]

The Bow Street Runners were an important forerunner to Scotland Yard’s detective force. Formed in 1842, shortly after the disbandment of the Runners and a horrific murder, the Detective Department was the first streamlined detective force in England. Given that the London Metropolitan Police (founded in 1829) was England’s first centralized police force, it made sense that the first police detectives operated in England’s, and Europe’s, largest city.

Old Scotland Yard (behind original location of the Metropolitan Police on Whitehall)

Old Scotland Yard (behind original location of the Metropolitan Police on Whitehall)

Scotland Yard’s detectives typically investigated serious felonies, especially murders. This is most likely because by the 1840s, the death penalty was only routinely applied for convicted murderers, and the government wanted seasoned officers to help investigate and prosecute those cases.[3] Such cases required flexibility in terms of time and location that regular police constables were unable to perform because they were restricted to their ‘beats’. To gain information, detectives made a habit of getting to know the criminal element in London, through frequenting pubs and races, employing informers and even using the newspapers to find information and discover possible frauds.

The Met’s detectives undertook inquiries assigned to them by the Commissioners of Police as well as undertaking investigative work for the Home Office, private individuals and institutions, and local magistrates. There were several sub-divisions within the detective department, with some men specializing in loan-office swindles, fraudulent betting, foreign inquiries, naturalization, and extradition cases. They also investigated political crime, guarded important figures of state, and kept an eye on foreign revolutionaries who fled their countries for safe haven in England. Detectives frequently undertook cases on behalf of foreign governments or institutions. In other cases, police detectives were asked to extradite foreigners back to their own countries, or to bring back English citizens from abroad on extradition warrants. Investigating forgery and coining offenses was also a routine detective activity.

Some of the men became quite famous. Charles Dickens took a shine to the first wave of detectives. He published interviews with them in his journal Household Words. He praised their talent for catching criminals, writing, “If thieving be an art…thief-taking is a Science.”[4] In his novel Bleak House, Dickens based the character Inspector Bucket on real life Detective Inspector Charles Frederick Field. Wilkie Collins also included a Met detective in one of his novels. Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone was based upon Detective Inspector Jonathan Whicher. Both detectives are portrayed as intelligent, thoughtful and judicious men, albeit with a touch of mystery about them. The positive portrayal of police detectives by Dickens and Collins was a sea change in the way educated Britons perceived centralized policing. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, centralized police were considered symbols of continental despotism. By the 1850s the police and detectives had proved their worth by maintaining public order during turbulent periods (it is notable that unlike most continental states, England did not have a revolution during the nineteenth century) and combatting and investigating crime.

The ‘Bobby’ remains one of the more beloved figures in English culture – an accolade the English police worked hard to earn. The perseverance of nineteenth-century English policemen and detectives in the face of public skepticism and, at times, outright hostility paved the way for future police organizations. The creation of Special Branch in the 1880s, MI5 in the early twentieth century and the explosion of domestic and foreign espionage organizations during the First and Second World Wars owe their pedigree to the first waves of English detectives at Bow Street and the Met.

Rachael Griffin

Rachael Griffin is a PhD candidate at The University of Western Ontario in Canada. Her thesis is entitled: “Detective Policing and the State in Nineteenth-Century England: The Detective Department of the London Metropolitan Police, 1842-1878.”

For further interesting blog posts and resources, please see Rachael’s blog at http://victoriandetectives.wordpress.com.


[1] The best recent work on the subject is Rosalind Crone’s Violent Victorians: Popular Entertainment in nineteenth-century London (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2012). Although less academic, Judith Flanders’ The Invention of Murder: How the Victorians Revelled in Death and Detection and Created Modern Crime (London: Harper Press, 2011) identifies the Victorian fascination with murder.

[2] J.M. Beattie, The First English Detectives: The Bow Street Runners and the Policing of London, 1750-1840 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012); David J. Cox, A Certain Share of Low Cunning: A History of the Bow Street Runners, 1792-1839 (Portland: Willan Publishing, 2010).

[3] Philip Thurmond Smith, Policing Victorian London: political policing, public order and the London Metropolitan Police (Westport: Greenwood Press, 1985), 18.

[4] Household Words, July 13, 1850.

** This post is the result of independent academic work and is intended for future publication by the author. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author (reblogs excepted). Any questions or concerns can be directed to Rachael Griffin via the Feedback page

4 Comments

Filed under English Legal History

Arson in Medieval Ireland

Photograph by Riona Doolan.

Photograph by Riona Doolan.

The medieval Irish law tracts, popularly known as the Brehon Laws, were in use from the early medieval period to the start of the seventeenth century in Ireland. The canonical text of most of these laws were first written down between AD 650-750, and the laws with associated gloss and commentary survive in manuscripts from the twelfth to the sixteenth centuries. Though many of these laws have been rendered into English, a large number have yet to be critically edited and translated.

Punitive imprisonment was not regularly used in medieval Ireland for a crime; instead, compensation was paid to a victim according to his or her status in society. This compensation could involve a specific crime-related payment plus a payment of honour-price (wergild) depending on the seriousness of the crime. There were two main units of value in medieval Ireland: cumals (1 cumal = 3 milch cows) and séts (1 sét, generally = ½ ounce of silver, depending on the law text), with a man’s worth regularly measured in livestock.

Some of the original canonical texts are no longer extant; this unfortunately limits the amount of information we have regarding how certain crimes were treated in the early medieval period. In Britain, a large amount of medieval case law survives which show us not only the extant laws but how justice was applied in individual situations. In Ireland however, hardly any case law remains which means we must interpret the laws primarily as they are presented in the manuscripts. One such canonical tract that is no longer extant is Bretha Forloisctheo ‘Judgments on Arson’. Even though we no longer have the primary text, five legal commentaries on the law tract do survive to inform us regarding this crime. These commentaries were written in the late medieval period in legal schools based in various locations around Ireland.

Arson was treated as a serious crime in the medieval period. Buildings were mostly made of wood, and fires could spread easily. It was a crime that had the potential to impact not just the victim but also the entire community, with disastrous consequences if the fire got out of control. I have recently completed a translation of the oldest of the five commentaries on arson dating to the fourteenth century. It is divided into three separate sections. The first section deals with deliberate burning of a house. A fine of six cows and full compensation had to be paid; compensation was awarded if a house alongside or opposite burned down as well. There was no exemption from payment for negligent burning of a house, but leniency could be granted to the guilty party if the fire spread to adjacent buildings, and if other people in the area failed to help bring the fire under control.

The second section is concerned with industrial buildings such as mills and kilns. A penalty of three cows and full compensation had to be paid if these structures or the adjacent buildings were deliberately burned. If these were being used without the permission of the owner, then negligent burning was considered to be equivalent to deliberate arson. However, if they were being used with the permission of the owner and a fire accidentally broke out, the penalty was halved. If it occurred within the first three uses of either building, then no penalty had to be paid. Three séts had to be paid for burning a barn containing animals such as calves, sheep or pigs.

Finally, the third section focuses on the payments that had to be paid by the arsonist according to the victim’s status. The higher a person’s status, then the higher the compensation. In the commentary on arson, four different status levels are mentioned:

  • urrad – a man native to the territory;
  • deorad – a man from Ireland but not native to the territory;
  • murchuirthe – a man from overseas;
  • daer – an unfree member of society.

If an urrad was the victim of an arson attack, he was entitled to the full amount of the fine plus restitution; a deorad was entitled to half the fine plus restitution; a murchuirthe could expect one quarter of the fine and restitution; while a daer received restitution only.

Finally, if a person was killed in an arson attack, it was considered the equivalent of murder and a penalty of seven cumals (21 milch cows) had to be paid to the victim’s family; this was a standard penalty for murder.

Though the original law text on arson is no longer extant, we can still get a clear picture of how this crime was treated in the medieval period in Ireland. The effects of arson could have repercussions, not just for the victim, but for all members of a community, and as a result the fines were high. At the same time, the law acknowledged that accidents could happen and reduced the fines where appropriate showing fairness in its application of justice.

Riona Doolan

Suggested Reading:

Fergus Kelly, A Guide To Early Irish Law (Dublin, 1988), DIAS.

Fergus Kelly, Early Irish Farming: A Study Based Mainly On The Law-texts Of The 7th And 8th Centuries AD (Dublin, 2000), DIAS.

A. T. Lucas, ‘The Plundering And Burning Of Churches In Ireland, 7th to 16th Century’, North Munster Studies: Essays In Commemoration Of Monsignor Michael Moloney (ed.) Etienne Rynne (Limerick, 1967), pp. 172-229.

Biography:

Riona Doolan is a PhD candidate in the Department of Early and Medieval Irish, University College Cork, Ireland. Her doctoral thesis entitled, ‘Arson in Medieval Ireland’ is being funded by a Government of Ireland Postgraduate Scholarship from the Irish Research Council.

1 Comment

Filed under English Legal History

History of Treason

A traitor being hung, drawn and quartered.

Treason is perhaps the most infamous crime in English Legal History, due in part to the horrendous punishment that came with it but also due to its often strong political importance. The punishment that was often inflicted was the drawing of the traitor across rough ground by horse, he would then be hanged to within an inch of death, followed by being disembowelled, burnt, and beheaded. Your remaining carcass was cut into four pieces. The punishment of being hung, drawn and quartered has morbidly captured the public’s imagination for many centuries.

The core aspect of Treason was, and still is, betrayal. If you follow history back to the earliest Germanic tribes, a man who betrayed his kin to the enemy tribe was killed, often in a highly sacrificial manner. There are also significant Roman influences through Christianity, Judas was the ultimate betrayer, he betrayed his Lord Jesus Christ. The betrayal of your Lord, be that your King or your immediate Landlord was thus characterised as the worst of crimes.

Pre-13th Century Treason encompassed a wide range of activities. For example, these included fleeing from battle, plotting the death of your King or Lord, forging your Lord’s seal and committing adultery with the Lord’s wife. A particularly severe case is Peter of Wakefield being hanged for predicting John would no longer be King by next year.

Treason garnered significant political and economic importance due to the fact that a traitor’s land would be forfeited to the King, rather than to his Lord. If the criminal had just committed a normal felony, his lands would be forfeited to his immediate Landlord. The King and his justices thus wanted to expand the coverage of Treason, whereas the normal Lords wanted to keep it limited.

In the 13th Century and onward, a distinction began to emerge between High Treason and Petty Treason. Broadly, High Treason was an act of betrayal against your King, whereas Petty Treason was an act of betrayal against your immediate Lord. The latter crime came to encompass the murder by a wife of her husband or the murder of a Bishop. Indeed, the crime of Petty Treason disappeared in 1828 as it was downgraded to murder. It is interesting note that the benefit of clergy, which originally protected religious officials from prosecution outside of the non-religious courts, was held not to apply to High Treason.

The development of Treason was going off in several directions and was becoming unclear. Parliament thus enacted the Treason Act 1351 which laid out a definition of High Treason, which until then had been contained in case law. This statute’s main definition is still in force today, although thankfully the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 instituted a maximum punishment of life imprisonment, rather than death. For the history of capital punishment in the UK, please see my blog post here.

The Treason Act included such activities as planning the death of the King or Queen, or their eldest son. Moreover, it included committing adultery with the Queen or her eldest daughter. Among other things, it also included the killing of the Chancellor, Treasurer or Judges in the exercise of their duties.

William Joyce, in 1946, was the last person to be tried for and convicted of High Treason in the UK. He was said to have committed Treason due to his Nazi activities in the war and owed allegiance to the UK by having a UK passport, although he was not actually entitled to such a passport. His punishment was execution through hanging.

3 Comments

Filed under English Legal History

History of Trial by Jury

A typical modern day 12 person Jury.

Trial by Jury has traditionally been seen as the cornerstone of democracy and the rule of law in this country. This led Lord Devlin to dramatically comment in 1956 that trial by jury is “the lamp which shows that freedom lives”. However, this cornerstone has only been cemented for a few centuries. The origins of Trial by Jury, and more generally the swearing of 12 men to account for facts, goes back much further and even pre-dates the Norman conquest of 1066.

A jury is a body of people that are sworn to account for facts and to furnish courts of law with true and honest information. This idea was not unique to England and was used across ancient empires and within England and Normandy long before the Norman conquest.

At this early time, these bodies were called inquests. Its long history is attributable to the fact that without it, there was no efficient way to collect information about the number of livestock in an area or who owned which piece of land and where the boundary of that land was.

An inquest could also be held where 12 knights were summoned to provide information as to suspected criminals in their area. This process became known as the Grand Jury, as it was more general. The Petty Jury was a jury within a specific trial and will be discussed below.

The Petty Jury made its first proper appearance within 12th Century criminal cases. It became more prominent due to the fact that the Church disallowed the practice in 1215 of the Water and Fire ordeals as methods of proving guilt or innocence. Trial by Battle remained at this point but was already out of favour and the Jury was primed and ready to take over. My blog post on the ordeals can be found here.

Following on from this in the later 1200s and 1300s, Trial by Jury became significantly more common in all trials of wrongdoing in the courts. Furthermore, there was also discussion as to the nature of the Jury. Were the jurors to be treated like witnesses and individually examined or treated as a collective body? Case law in the 14th and 15th Century cemented the idea of the Jury as a collective institution.

To prevent improper influences and to preserve the honesty of their information, it quickly became very serious to communicate with a juror once they were sworn. The Jury was sequestered away from the influence of outside items or information. It was taken to the extreme and in a case of the late 1500s, 4 jurors were fined for possessing raisins and plums while sworn. It makes the modern day s.8 of the Contempt of Court Act 1981, which protects the confidentiality of Juries, seem mild.

In early Trial by Jury cases, if the jurors were not unanimous the judge could step in to decide one way or another. By 1367, case law strongly affirmed that unanimous verdicts were a necessity. This has eventually over the centuries gone back to majority verdicts being officially allowed, with the most recent law being contained in s.17 of the Juries Act 1974.

The state of affairs outlined above lasted for several centuries. There were a string of Juries Acts, prominent among them: 1825, 1850, 1949, and 1974, the latter being the most recent and currently in force edition. The general thrust of this string of legislation was to codify and make amendments to the law surrounding Juries which until that point was mainly contained within case law.

14 Comments

Filed under English Legal History

History of Capital Punishment

Hanging. The most popular method for the death penalty throughout English Legal History.

The legal history of capital punishment in the United Kingdom is an interesting one and ranges across many centuries from the extreme of having no crimes strictly punishable by death to a multitude and back to none. In early Norman times, the principles of the common law in relation to the punishment of crimes were very simple. If the crime was a misdemeanor (minor or petty offences) then the punishment was at the discretion of the justices of the court.

For felonies (serious offences) the criminal was put on the king’s mercy which usually involved the ordering of mutilation in the form of castration or blinding. This was seen as a mercy rather than imposing the ultimate punishment of death.

By the early 13th Century, a fixed penalty of death was imposed for almost all felonies. For treason, this was death by being hung, drawn and quartered and for other felonies, simply death by hanging. This fixed penalty was grossly inflexible and various methods were used to mitigate the sentence of death, until later reforms abolished it. These methods included Sanctuary (my post on which can be found here), Benefit of Clergy, Pardons and Jury Mitigation. Later blog posts will deal with the latter three topics.

This state of affairs continued for some time. The expertise of the legal profession was directed towards thinking of incredible ways to avoid the death penalty, rather than reform it. Still by 1688 there were 50 offences within statute law that carried a death sentence, this rose to 220 by the the late 18th Century. These offences were wide-ranging and even included ‘being in the company of gypsies for one month’. It is a testament to the above mentioned methods of avoidance that, between 1770 and 1830, 35,000 death sentences were given but only 7,000 people were executed.

The legal reformer Sir Samuel Romilly KC, also responsible for calling for the abolition of slavery, succeeded in having the death penalty abolished from a mere two offences, namely pick-pocketing and stealing from bleaching grounds.

A year after Sir Romilly’s death in 1818, a Parliamentary select committee looking at the issue of the death penalty led to several statutes that slowly, and in a piecemeal fashion, abolished the death penalty from many offences.

By the 1860s, there were only several offences that still attracted the death penalty. These were murder, treason, piracy, and arson in naval dockyards. This remained the same until 1957 when difficult cases arose as regards capital punishment for murder. It led to the introduction of the Homicide Act 1957 which suspended the practice and the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 which abolished it entirely. Death as a punishment for Arson in naval dockyards was repealed by the Criminal Damage Act 1971.

Although beheading was removed as a potential punishment for treason in 1973, hanging remained until 1998 when the Crime and Disorder Act 1998 abolished some of the last remnants of capital punishment in the UK, with the abolition of the punishment for treason and piracy.

The last remnant of the death penalty in the UK (the punishment existed within military jurisdiction during wartime) was abolished by the coming into force of the Human Rights Act 1998. Since 2004, the UK has been signed up to the 13th Protocol of the European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the death penalty in any circumstances. It would be impossible for the UK to bring in laws to reinstate the death penalty unless they were to formally withdraw from the Convention.

6 Comments

Filed under English Legal History