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
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
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
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
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
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
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.