During Disability History Month, we have encountered a philosopher, an explorer and an educator. To conclude, we will meet an extraordinary social reformer, Sir John Fielding.
If you wished to report a crime in late-eighteenth century London, had been arrested on suspicion of one, were a witness to one or had indeed committed one, you would travel to Bow Street Magistrate’s Court in Bow Street, Covent Garden. Sitting at the Chief Magistrate’s desk would be John Fielding (‘Sir John’ if we place this scenario after 1761). The ‘Blind Beak of Bow Street’, as many referred to him. Justice may be done, though the heavens may fall, and it was justice that Sir John Fielding made his mission, even if he was completely blind.
John Fielding was born in London in 1727, the younger half-brother of Henry Fielding. Henry Fielding was twenty years older than him. He would become known as the ‘father of the English novel’ (a title also attributed to Daniel Defoe), becoming a successful playwright, satirist and novelist. But for our purposes, the spotlight is on John.
John joined the Navy at the young age, but an accident at nineteen caused him to go blind. Exactly what happened is unknown, but it must have been devastating. Along with John Milton, Fielding lost his vision in adulthood but quite like Milton, he would not let his blindness get the better of him. He left the Navy and went to pursue law with the help and support of friends. His half-brother, Henry, had not only established himself as a successful novelist, but as a successful lawyer. Despite John’s disability, Henry took him on as his assistant in 1749. Together, they would fight the crime that had infected the streets of London, which had surged at an unprecedented level. They would form Britain’s first police force, the Bow Street Runners. But first, a word about eighteenth century policing. If it can even be called that.
Before the Bow Street Runners, there were multiple – and problematic – ‘police forces’ keeping justice in England. The first were night watchmen, or simply ‘the watch’. Until the eighteenth century, they were unpaid. They would call out the time by the hour. Their business was simply to watch the night. They were not obliged to search for crime and only if they saw something happening could they act. Then there were thieftakers. Often, these individuals were corrupt. They would solve crime, but only with a fee, which discriminated against those who could not afford to see justice done. The most notorious of these was Jonathan Wild (or Wilde), whose life Henry Fielding would satirise. He ran a criminal gang on the side of this thieftaking duties and would often use his role to conveniently dispose of rival gangs. Thieftaking was an easy way to make money, which lead to corruption and biasness. Wild would be hanged for his own criminal activities in 1725. So, with watchmen only reporting crime when they saw it and thieftakers, who only the wealthy could afford, turning to corruption, the justice system in the eighteenth century had many flaws.
By the 1750s, the crime-rate in London was high. The War of the Austrian Succession had ended, leaving many soldiers and sailors unemployed and turning to crime as a way of life. This left the existing law enforcements overwhelmed. A similar situation would happen in the 1780s after Fielding’s death. The Bow Street Runners solved and fought crime free of charge, unlike their thieftaking predecessors, and unlike the watch, made it their duty to fight crime.
Henry Fielding’s health was failing by the early 1750s (a mixture of gout and liver disease). As per the medical guidance back then, he was sent to Portugal in 1754, as it was believed the warm air could cure many diseases. It did not cure Fielding. He died two months later, leaving his half-brother to succeed him and take on the responsibility of justice.
John Fielding is said to have recognised 3,000 criminals just by their voices, relying on his senses of sound and touch. He also introduced a new system in which crimes could be reported in the newspapers, which he hoped would inspire witnesses to come forward and to spread the word. He advocated for more street lighting to make London safer, and to help crime prevention. In 1763, with short-lived government funding, he founded the Bow Street Horse Patrol, designed to fight highway robbery which had seen an unprecedented surge. As the name suggests, they patrolled the London roads on horseback (bearing in mind there were still rural areas of London at this time), ready arrest any highwayman or highwaywomen. It was clearly successful, for when it was disbanded due to lack of funding, highway robbery, which had hitherto been contained, increased again, forcing the Patrol to be re-established in 1805.
Had Fielding lived beyond 1780, he would have witnessed a major change in government departments. As a response to unemployed soldiers and sailors of the American War of Independence taking to alcohol or crime, the rise in Radicals and reformers inspired by the liberated American Colonists, and riots (the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780 would prove most testing), the overwhelmed Northern Department became what is now the Home Office in 1782, dedicated to maintaining the security of Great Britain (it would not become known as the United Kingdom until 1800). The Southern Department became the Foreign Office. The Bow Street Runners became one of its many duties. They were replaced in 1829 by the Metropolitan Police Service, founded by Robert Peel who was then Home Secretary. Though not entirely related to Fielding, the term ‘bobby’ which is used to refer to policemen comes from Robert Peel’s name.
The Blind Beak was instrumental in the forming of London’s first police force, both as an assistant to his brother and as a magistrate. And yet he was blind. Fielding is yet another example that disability should not hinder one’s ability to make a difference. While assisting his brother and serving as a magistrate, he reformed the justice system and helped sew the seeds for what it would become. Disability History Month serves as a reminder of those who have made a difference. These figures deserve to be remembered for their achievements, and I hope, as Disability History Month draws to a close, they have served as an inspiration and a fascinating insight into the history of disability.
Styles, J. (1983) Sir John Fielding and the Problem of Criminal Investigation in Eighteenth Century England. Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 33, 127–149.
Wilkes, S. (2015) Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels and Revolutionaries. Pen and Sword History. South Yorkshire, UK