The Bow Street Runners

Henry Fielding, the judge based on Bow Street that oversaw the creation of the Runners.
Doug Coldwell, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
The Brown Bear, a pub across the road from the Bow Street Office, acted as the hub of informers for the Runners. The alehouse was vital to them as drink played an important role in oiling the wheels of intelligence gathering from an army of assets like George Edwards. (Circa 1870)
Westminster Archives
An illustrated interpretation of the opening moments of the raid on the conspiracists, drawn at the moment Smithers was stabbed.
George Cruikshank, 9 March 1820 Ashbridge Collection A03A0241 Westminster Archives
Richard Smithers, the Bow Street officer killed on 21 February 1820 by Arthur Thistlewood.
Richard Smithers British Museum 1978,U.951
George Ruthven, the principal Bow Street officer and the leader of the 21 February raid. In this illustration he can be seen with his signature yellow waistcoat.
Westminster Archives

The Bow Street Runners played an important part in apprehending the Cato Street Conspirators. In fact, the only man (not involved in the plot) to die as a result of the plot was a Bow Street Runner, Richard Smithers, who died in the initial raid on the building the Conspiracists used as a base of operations. The Bow Street Runners are a fascinating aspect of the history of this era, and any mention of the Cato Street Conspiracy by necessity should also discuss them. In this article, information will be presented about the formation of the Bow Street Runners, their role in the arrest of the Conspiracists, and information on a few key members that pertain to the story of the Cato Street Conspiracy.

The Formation of a Modern Police Force

Having a policing force is a given in any modern state. However, this was not the case throughout history. The long development of policing forces in nation-states had to begin somewhere, and for Britain it began with the Bow Street Runners. Widely considered to be the first British police force, the Bow Street Runners were implemented thanks to a judge named Henry Fielding. Fielding noticed that without a centralized and state-mandated policing force, enforcement of the law in metropolitan areas was left to private individuals. As such a system is inefficient and does not answer to the authority of the state, Fielding decided he ought to legalize and regulate the actions of these individuals. This was also reportedly because of rampant corruption in the ranks of these private individuals, as well as a high number of mistaken and malicious arrests, making these men more gangsters than law enforcement. Fielding formed the Bow Street Runners in 1749, attached to his magistrate’s office at No. 4 Bow Street, where they took the name. It should be noted that the Bow Street patrol officers thought of the term Runner as derogatory, and never used it themselves. Nevertheless, for the sake of clarity the Bow Street Runners will be referred to as such throughout the rest of the paper. These men were paid by the magistrate using funds that the federal government set aside as a reward for the individuals they captured; think of it like a bounty system. It was similar then to the previous system, only that now the “thief-takers,” as they were known back then, were supported explicitly by magistrates. This method of payment very nearly ended the Bow Street Runners in the years after their creation, as a lull in thief-taking would mean a loss in income for the Runners. Other forms of crime were ignored in favor of thief-catching as a result. In 1753, the Duke of Newcastle met with Fielding and approved a proposal that his men be funded by the federal government, as such funding would allow them to pursue a wider breadth of crimes. Fielding also wished for advertisements to be taken out in newspapers, urging citizens to report crimes and to provide information about the perpetrators of a crime; this was also funded by the government. Such a development was paramount to the work the Bow Street Runners wished to do; in order to catch those who committed crimes, there needed to be actional intelligence given through the proper channels. A pub across the street from the Bow Street magistrates office served as the unofficial hub of informers for the Runners. In addition to these two provisions, the Bow Street magistrate office would be provided clerks who would keep detailed records of the operations undertaken by the Runners. This agreement can be considered the birth of the modern police force in London, and gradually throughout the rest of the century the Bow Street Runners expanded their operations, including raising a horse patrol in 1763.

The Runners Present at Cato Street

George Thomas Joseph Ruthven was born in London, circa 1793 (exact dates are unavailable) to Archibald and Catherine Ruthven. He was described later in life as powerfully built, with sand colored hair, a red face, and small but expressive eyes. Ruthven joined the Bow Street Runners in 1811, following the career path of his father and his elder brother, who was also a Bow Street Runner. He split a reward of £333 with 12 other Runners, and was the sole recipient of £408 from public subscriptions thanks to his role in the capture of the Spencean Philanthropists. Ruthven was just one of a handful to have their likeness captured by several caricaturists, most famously by George Cruikshank, the one of the premier British illustrators of the time. Such illustrations focused on pivotal moments form the raid, most commonly the moment when Thistlewood had ran Smithers through with his sword. Because of this publicity, Ruthven was catapulted to the public consciousness. He was widely known for his trademark yellow silk waistcoat, which he wore with a blue coat and a black cravat. So famous was Ruthven that he appeared in the 1833 detective novel Delaware, or, The Ruined Family written by G. P. R. James. Ruthven was involved in numerous other high-profile cases after the Cato Street Conspiracy, such as the 1823 Radlett Murder. Ruthven married twice, once in 1816, and another time in 1826 to Mary Ann Harrison. He remained with the Bow Street Runners up until 1839, when it was disbanded in favor of the recently founded Metropolitan Police. Ruthven received a generous pension from the British government at £220 per year, plus similar pensions from the Prussian and Russian governments, as thanks for uncovering forgery conspiracies linked with their respective countries. Following retirement from the Runners, Ruthven assumed the responsibilities of a landlord, owning the One Tun tavern on Chandos Street, Covent Garden. On March 26, 1844 George Thomas Joseph Ruthven passed away at the age of 51, leaving his estate to his wife Mary Ann Harrison. He was survived by eight children, and buried in Convent Garden at the graveyard of St. Paul’s Church.

Richard Smithers lost his life on 23rd February 1820 during the raid on the Cato Street Conspiracists. During the opening moments of the raid, he was stabbed through the chest by Arthur Thistlewood, the leader of the Spencean Philanthropists and one of the main planners of the Cato Street Conspiracy. Smithers was a Palmerian, as was fellow Runner John Ellis, also present during the raid. Palmers village was once a unique village at the heart of Westminster, close wo there St James Park Tube station is today. According to Ellis, within the opening moments Smithers had rushed to enter the room where the conspiracists had been planning their operation, and as he had done so a tall man, later identified as Thistlewood, had stabbed Smithers in the chest, near enough to the heart for it to be an absolutely fatal wound. Reportedly, Smithers exclaimed something along the lines of “Oh my God!” before falling dead. Such a scene would be immortalized in the works of caricaturists and illustrators working after the apprehension of the Spencean Philanthropists.

Approximately 12 men from the Bow Street Runners participated in the raid on 23rd February 1820. These included the leader George Ruthven, along with Richard Smithers, John Ellis, William Westcoat, Luke Nixon, William Gibbs Roberts, John Wright, William Charles Brooks, Joseph Champion, and William Lee (at least, there are possibly one more unnamed constable that took part in the raid). Information of the Conspiracy was provided to the Bow Street Runners, likely thanks to the efforts of agent provocateur George Edwards. The Runners, armed with short cutlasses and William Lacey pistols (both markedly inferior to the arms wielded by the conspirators) entered the building at approximately 8:30 PM. They entered through the first floor and found Ings standing guard in the stable with a blunderbuss and a sword, and William Davidson armed with a short rifle and a sword. After moving to secure the men, Ruthven, Ellis, Smithers, Gibbs and Nixon ascended the ladder up to the loft, which at this point was functioning as the base of operations for the Spencean Philanthropists. The rest of the Runners remained with the two men in custody on the first floor. Ruthven estimated that there were 24-25 men in the loft, Ellis guessed that there were between 20-25 men in the room. The loft was divided into two rooms, with most in the room where the ladder led up to. Davidson shouted a warning to their compatriots above; warning them of the presence of the Runners within the stable before Smithers, the third Runner on the ladder, could fully ascend. What followed was a very brief standoff between the three Runners and the men in the loft; Ruthven said something along the lines of “We are Peace Officers, lay down your arms!” thought the exact phrasing is muddled. Thistlewood drew his sabre and retreated to the doorway of the 2nd room, away from the ladder. Smithers, having finally climbed up the ladder, rushed forward in an effort to join the fray. Thistlewood met him with a sword thrust near the heart, killing him almost instantly. Both Ruthven and Ellis report that Smithers cried out “Oh my God!” before falling on Ellis, who fired at Thistlewood but missed. Smithers died immediately following this fatal wound. The rest of the loft erupted with violence, and the candles lighting the stable were put out by the conspiracists in an effort to aid in their escape. One of the conspiracists was reported to have yelled “Kill the buggers; throw them downstairs!” There were numerous gunshots, which helped illuminate the now dark stables, but the situation was intensely confusing for all sides involved. Those in the loft struggled to descend the contested space of the ladder, and many fell through the opening and suffered injuries while doing so. William Westcoat re-apprehended Ings as he attempted to flee from the stable, while Davidson was able to escape for a time, but was captured, not without difficulty, by Gill, Champion and Ellis. Thistlewood tumbled down the ladder, and Westcoat attempted to apprehend him as well; his reward was a shot through his greatcoat, grazing his arm. Ings used this opportunity to escape again, but was caught later by Wright. Thistlewood was able to escape, along with Brunt, Adams and Harrison, using a prepared escape route through a side window, and using a rope ladder to descend the frozen rooftops. At this point, nearby Coldstream guards had closed in around the perimeter, and helped apprehend those conspirators who had given the slip to the Runners. All in all, the Runners and the Coldstream Guards captured Davidson, Gilchrist, Tidd, Monument, Bradburn, Wilson, Cooper, and Shaw Strange; the Runners were responsible for the majority of those captured. In addition to the capture of the conspiracists, several Bow Street officers played important roles in the subsequent trials. Of the 11 named men that took part in the raid, all with the exception of Gibbs (and of course Smithers) were present and gave testimony that helped the jury come to their conclusions regarding the culpability of the conspirators.

Comments about this page

  • I would love to know more about Smithers for example whom he was survived by if at all. There was another Smithers whom was also a constable in the Bow Street Runners in 1820, and I wonder if they were related.

    By Peter Cass (09/06/2021)

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