Percy Fitzgerald is not a very good writer, which is a pity, as his material is fascinating. The two-volume Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office: With an Account of the Magistrates, ‘Runners’, and Police; and a Selection of the Most Interesting Cases should be a rattling good narrative, but it’s jerky, episodic, occasionally unclear, and the best bits are borrowings from other writers, sometimes attributed, as with George Augustus Sala on page 14; sometimes not (is it Dickens on pages 5ff.?).
However, the material IS fascinating. And it’s interesting that, writing in 1888, he refers to the recent ‘improvements’ round Covent Garden Market which levelled the old Bow Street Police Court to the ground, to be replaced by a ‘spacious and commodious building’, when more recent ‘improvements’ (in 2006) led to the courts being transferred to Horseferry Road so that the Victorian building familiar to Fitzgerald could be converted into a hotel (ongoing, since the recession…).
Fitzgerald’s account of the magistrates at Bow Street, and their unique role in regard to the policing of London (such as it was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries) is incoherent – he is easily led away from his narrative by a good anecdote, such of that of Sir John Hawkins, president of the Middlesex justices, musicologist and friend of Doctor Johnson, and never comes back to the place from which he diverted. But he does succeed in making clear the huge importance of Henry Fielding and his brother, Sir John, the ‘blind magistrate’, in creating and sustaining a new police force – the Bow Street Runners, now generally regarded as the fore-runners of the Metropolitan Police – and in using intelligence, and crucially the sharing of information, as a way of curtailing the exploits of the highway robbers, footpads, pickpockets, burglars, fences and other sinister characters which meant that respectable people were reluctant to step out of doors.
It’s a mystery why anyone thought Henry Fielding, who took to the law only when his career as a dramatist and essayist ran into the sands, and whose own legal practice was singularly ineffective, would be a good idea as chief metropolitan magistrate, but in fact he was an enormous success: intelligent, efficient, stubborn, incorruptible and hard-working – so much so that his work almost certainly hastened his death in 1754 at the relatively early age of forty-seven. His half-brother, John, who had been blinded in a ‘surgical mishap’ at the age of nineteen, took over his ‘Justice Business’ and continued it until his death in 1780. Convinced that ‘vice’ was the cause of crime, he founded or supported many charitable enterprises which it was hoped would divert young people from criminal ways; he also had rather odder ideas, such as trying to persuade David Garrick not to revive Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera in case it seduced the minds of the young into emulating Macheath. The novelty of a blind magistrate led to his court becoming one of the sights of London, along with the madmen at Bedlam: Casanova, who appeared before him on a charge which may be imagined (and was acquitted) was charmed to be addressed by him in Italian.
Fitzgerald’s patchy, anecdote-laden books are dedicated to ‘General the Hon. William Feilding’ [sic], apparently a descendant. The details are wonderful – you can learn a lot of thieves’ cant, and a lot about the ‘fencing pubs’, the brothels and the low life of London generally. It’s just a pity that the author can’t sustain a narrative.