THE BLIND BEAK OF BOW STREET

by John Dashney

Can a blind man be a policeman? This one was--and he lived

more than 200 years ago. Here is his story as it appeared in

Lifeprints.

One of England's first and greatest policemen was blind.

Sir John Fielding, the younger half-brother of the great

English novelist Henry Fielding, was born in 1721. He joined the

navy as a youth, but an accident cost him his sight at the age of

nineteen. This was in 1740, nearly 70 years before Louis Braille

would be born. There were no radios, no tapes--no known way for a

blind person to be able to read. So what did John Fielding do?

He opened a business which he called the Universal Register

Office. This was a combination labor exchange, travel agency,

information office, real estate agency, and insurance company.

John ran it single-handed. In his spare time, his brother Henry

taught him law.

Henry Fielding, when not writing novels such as Tom Jones,

had become a magistrate. This was an office something like that

of a justice of the peace.

Henry had the power to investigate crimes, question

suspects, and then either release them or order them held for

trial. He was successful enough to be given the title of Chief

Magistrate. He was, in fact, what we today would call a chief of

police--except that London of the 1750's had no organized police

at all!

Imagine a city of over half a million people, terrible

slums, a high crime rate, and no real police. The few parish

constables were chosen by lot, much as we choose juries today, to

serve for one year. Most paid substitutes to take their place,

and many of the substitutes were as dishonest as the criminals

they were supposed to control. Most of the rest, along with the

night watchmen, were too disorganized, too feeble, or too

frightened of the powerful street gangs to be of any use.

Henry Fielding tried to change all this. He drew up plans

for controlling crime, turned his house in Bow Street into a kind

of police station, and hired a few of the best constables to

serve as more or less permanent police officers--"Bow Street

Runners" was the name by which they would soon be known.

But Henry's health was failing, and in 1754 he had to

retire. The position, which would become known as Chief of the

Metropolitan Police, was offered to his blind half-brother. John

Fielding accepted it and held it until his death in 1780.

John immediately set out to put Henry's plans to work.

Within two years his runners had broken up most of the gangs of

street robbers. John then organized a horse patrol to combat the

mounted highwaymen who prowled the roads leading to and from

London. He set up systems of rapid communication and published

descriptions of wanted criminals and stolen goods. We take these

things for granted now, but the Fieldings were the first to think

of them.

John's main skills were in questioning witnesses and

suspects. Usually he left the legwork to his runners. But

sometimes he investigated cases personally. When, in 1763, Lord

Harrington's house was robbed of more than three thousand pounds

worth of silver, gold, and jewels (nearly one hundred thousand

dollars in today's money!), John investigated the theft

personally.

Using one of his helpers for his eyes, he spent the whole

day and most of the night examining and questioning. He

determined that what was made to look like a burglary was really

an inside job. His suspicions fell on a servant, who later

confessed.

Elementary? Perhaps. But this was more than one hundred

years before the first Sherlock Holmes story was written.

About this time John was knighted for his services and

became Sir John Fielding. The common people, though, gave him

another title--"The Blind Beak of Bow Street." ("Beak" was the

18th century slang for anyone in a position of authority.)

A contemporary described Sir John as wearing a black bandage

over his eyes and carrying a switch, which he flicked in front of

him as he entered or left his courtroom. He was strict with

hardened criminals and was responsible for sending many men (and

some women) to the gallows. But he was lenient with young people,

especially first-time offenders.

There was no welfare or aid for dependent children in the

1700's. Most of London's slum children died before they grew up.

Most of the boys who survived became thieves, and most of the

girls who survived became prostitutes.

Sir John tried to save as many as he could. He helped

organize charities to feed and clothe abandoned children, and

institutions to teach them reading, writing, and some kind of a

trade. As a police official, he saw that the best way to stop

criminals was to get to them before they became criminals. In

this he was almost two hundred years ahead of his time.

In his role of keeper of the peace, Sir John Fielding often

had to intervene in labor disputes and sometimes even control

rioting, angry mobs. As a negotiator, he became known for his

fairness toward the workers and apprentices, the poor and

underprivileged.

Curiously enough, the one group that Sir John Fielding did

not make any special efforts to help was the blind. This was

because he considered his own blindness as no great handicap, and

assumed that other blind people felt the same way.

London would not have a regular police force until nearly

fifty years after Sir John Fielding's death, but many of the

rules and guidelines he set down for his Bow Street Runners are

still used in police training manuals today.

People often feel that law enforcement is no field for a

blind person even to consider. They don't realize that one of the

first and greatest police officials ran the London Metropolitan

Police for twenty-six years without the aid of any sight.