Watchmen, Runners and the Bloody Code
Suitable for students 14 to 16
The Bloody Code
The Waltham Black Act in 1723 established the system which became known as the Bloody Code and imposed the death penalty for over two hundred, often petty, offences. Its aim was deterrence. Those in court faced with this system were expected to defend themselves with only the assistance of the judge. Many juries practised ‘pious perjury’, often finding people not guilty or reducing the amount stolen to avoid the crime being a capital offence. An example of this is given with the case of Mary Behn at the Old Bailey.
The professional watchman’s job was to do more than just call out the time and weather and check for loose doors. The Act of Parliament establishing the St Martin-in-the-Fields watch said they were “to prevent as well the Mischiefs which may happen from Fire, as Murders, Burglaries, Robberies, and other Outrages and Disorders”.
The Bow Street Runners
The Bow Street Runners have been called London’s first professional police force. They were founded in 1749 by the author Henry Fielding and originally numbered just eight.
Similar to the unofficial ‘thief-takers’ (men who would solve petty crime for a fee), they represented a formalisation and regularisation of existing policing methods. What made them different from the thieftakers was their formal attachment to the Bow Street magistrates’ office, and that they were paid by the magistrate with funds from central government. They worked out of Fielding’s office and court at No.4 Bow Street, and did not patrol, until later years when their numbers had grown, but served writs and arrested offenders on the authority of the magistrates, travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals.