Much like religion, taxes and the macarena, the police feel like a perennial concept in human society, dating back into the shadows of prehistory. In reality however police forces as we understand them only started in the furnace of the Industrial Revolution. The Bow Street Police Museum is an interesting (if rather small) museum split between the hidden history behind one of London’s most famous police stations, and the bizarre story of the Metropolitan Police’s ancestors, the so-called Bow Street Runners.
The Met was formed as relatively recently as 1829, in rather dubious circumstances that had more to do with protecting industrialists’ wealth than serving the citizenry. Before the Met, policing in London was ad hoc and community led, generally consisting of unpaid old men (‘Charlies’) ferreting their way through crooked alleys, equipped only with a rattle, a lantern and a cutlass to defend themselves with. Unless they ran across any master thieves with a Freudian terror of rattles, they were not much of a challenge to a hungry young criminal. There was clearly room for improvement and in 1740, nearly a century before the establishment of the Met, a former army captain named Sir Thomas de Veil did just that. Opening a court in his house on Bow Street (near the beating heart of Covent Garden), de Veil took it upon himself to investigate local crime despite having no formal training in the law. Developing a reputation as a great detective, De Veil operated as a kind of proto-Judge Dredd; acting as investigator, police officer and judge and jury all at the same time (whilst reportedly also running a sideline in collecting bribes). This renaissance man blazed a trail that saw the little house in Bow Street explode into a government funded, yet oddly independent police force known as the Bow Street Runners.
The colourful history of these forerunner cops takes up half the museum (read: one largeish room) and is probably the central attraction to anyone not unusually well versed in esoteric cop history. The fact that the Runners were at one point led by Sir John Fielding, the so-called “Blind Beak of Bow Street”, who covered his sightless eyes with a black bandage like a statue of justice and investigated crime scenes with the help of a fellow Runner who would describe the scene, is the kind of thing that off-beat museums salivate over. All good things come to an end however, and eventually the Bow Street Runners were folded into the Met (many of the rules and guidelines laid down by the Blind Beak are still used in police training manuals today, a fact that may alarm as much as impress).
In the other half of the museum are several preserved cells from its 20th century incarnation as the Bow Street Police Station. Whilst there are pictures and information about the storied history of the station and court (which held and tried such varied luminaries as the Kray Twins, Oscar Wilde and Pinochet) the cells are perhaps unsurprisingly cramped, which leaves a rather interesting film about the modern history of the station hard to watch unless you jam yourself against the bed. For a small special interest museum in the centre of town, the Bow Street Museum is winning enough to justify the price of admission (though it should be noted that despite its address the museum entrance is actually on Marlett Court). Anyone looking for a breezy forty minutes of off-beat learning should find the museum suitably arresting.
28 Bow Street, London, WC2E 7AW
Admission: £6, Concessions: £4.50, Under 12s go free. Tickets must be booked online.