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 thesethings 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.