Public Offices

Fig 1: Bow St Tipstaff

Fig 1: Bow St Tipstaff

One of the most important periods in the development of policing occurred in 1748 when the playwright and novelist, Henry Fielding was appointed as the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street. His desire to encourage victims to report instances of crime required a base, and for this he used his home and office at number 4 Bow Street. This ‘public office’ was to start a gradual process of change, which would eventually lead to the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829.

When Fielding took up his duties the office of constable was rotated annually, however, he put forward a case to retain a small band of dedicated officers on a more permanent basis. This group of six or seven men were recruited from the parish constables of Westminster and undertook to continue in office after their year had ended. They wore no uniform, but carried a distinctive staff similar to that of the parish constable. Eventually these men evolved into the famous Bow Street Runners. In 1754 Henry’s half brother John (later Sir John) took over as Chief Magistrate and continued his reforms.

One of the next significant developments occurred in 1792 when the Middlesex Justices Act was passed. While primarily an attempt to reform London magistrates this act created seven new offices in addition to Bow Street and refers to them as ‘Publick Offices’. In general most official references use the term ‘Public’ and it was newspapers and the like that start to use the title ‘Police Office’.

These seven offices were strategically located at the following key locations:

  • Great Marlborough Street, Westminster
  • Hatton Garden, Holborn
  • Lambeth Street, Whitechapel
  • Queen’s Square, St Margaret’s, Westminster
  • Shadwell, High Street
  • Union Hall, Union Street, Southwark
  • Worship Street, Shoreditch


Each office had an establishment of three stipendiary magistrates and six full time constables. However, it should be noted that despite these changes the main burden of policing was still being borne by the watchmen and parish constables. In 1798 a group of marine police was formed to deal with thefts, which took place around London’s docks. This group was regularised in 1800 with the introduction of the Thames River Police Act and saw the Thames Police Office at Wapping added to the previous seven.

Fig 2: Bow St Horse Patrol Truncheons

Fig 2: Bow St Horse Patrol Truncheons

In 1805 Sir Richard Ford was Chief Magistrate at Bow Street and created a Horse Patrol. This was an idea trailed by Sir John Fielding, but had ceased due to a lack of funding. This enabled 60 men to be stationed on the principal roads up to 20 miles from London. In 1821 a 100 strong group with the curious name of the Dismounted Horse Patrol (also known as Unmounted) was introduced with the intention that these officers would train for promotion to the mounted patrol.

The Horse Patrol was the first uniformed police force in the country. Their uniform consisted of blue coats with yellow metal buttons, a scarlet waistcoat, blue trousers, leather wellington boots and a black hat. The distinctive colour of the waistcoat gave them the nickname Robin Red Breasts. Like the Horse Patrol the Dismounted Patrol was gradually strengthened and consisted of a plain clothed Night Patrol of 100 officers armed with a truncheon, cutlass and occasionally a pistol.

In 1821 the office at Shadwell, which had existed since 1792 was closed and a new one was opened at Marylebone. This left the Thames Office responsible for a considerable area including Poplar. A year later in 1822 a special Daytime Foot Patrol was introduced as a uniformed preventative force. The result of all this meant that by 1828, on the eve of the introduction of the Metropolitan Police, the constables from the various offices, patrols and the river police meant that London was policed by 450 officers under the direct control of the Home Secretary and 4,500 watchmen covering both the city and metropolitan districts.

Following the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 the various constables and patrols did not disappear immediately. The Bow Street Runners continued for several years managing to earn a private income by undertaking missions for wealthy or influential clients. A second Metropolitan Police Act dated 1839 saw the Thames River Police become the Thames Division. It also meant the end of constables being employed by the various offices and the absorption of the Bow Street Foot Patrol. The Bow Street Horse Patrol had already been amalgamated in 1836 to help form the Metropolitan Police Mounted Branch, which continues to this day.

Items relating to the Public Offices are rare and of great interest because of the important place they hold in the history of policing. The tipstaff shown in figure 1 is unusual in that it is attributable to a specific officer. It is brass with a turned wood handle and is engraved on the barrel ‘J. Birchall / P.O / Bow Street’. It probably belonged to a John Birchall who appears regularly in the records at the Old Bailey. All of his cases occurred during the reign of George IV between 1823 and 1828. In each he is referred to as either an ‘officer’ or ‘constable’. The type of cases he was involved with included embezzlement, theft, pickpocketing, bigamy and grand larceny. These records serve as a reminder of the harsh punishments imposed at the time. For the above crimes the sanctions ranged from confinement of six months to death, with transportation from seven years to life falling somewhere in between. In one particular case where a juvenile aged 14 years was found guilty of larceny he was whipped before being discharged.

Figure 2 shows three examples of Bow Street Horse Patrol truncheons. The first is decorated with a lion surmounting a crown over the royal arms for 1816-1837 within a Garter. It has a script ‘GR’ cipher and underneath the inscription ‘BOW ST T / H.P.’ The second is decorated in a similar manner but is distinguished by the handle, the shape of which is a characteristic of this particular truncheon. The third example is decorated with ‘G IIII R’ over a crown surmounting the royal arms for 1816-1837 within a Garter. Below are the arms for the City of Westminster, which is composed of the arms of two monarchs.  Edward the Confessor is represented by the cross and doves, and Henry VII by the rose and portcullis. The reverse has the inscription ‘Bow St. H.P. No. 35’ running lengthwise along the truncheon.