Located in a side street opposite the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, it would be easy to miss the modest entrance (pictured above) to the Bow Street Police Museum (recently re-opened after pandemic closure). A magistrates’ court and the world-famous Bow Street police station stood on this site until 1992. This small but fascinating museum, containing the old police cells, is incorporated into the NoMad London Hotel, although visitors book entry separately. Oscar Wilde, Doctor Crippen, the Kray twins, the Pankhurst suffragettes are some of the notable names who stayed the night, in less luxurious circumstances. Telling the story of policing in London from its’ origins, some of the most significant events in criminal justice took place here. It is well worth an hour of your time.
The main part of the museum consists of a large central gallery, featuring text, timelines, illustrations and items such as uniforms, on display. Adjacent is a small selection of branded items and related books for sale, plus highly knowledgeable staff on hand to answer any questions. Here you can learn the story of the legendary ‘Bow Street Runners,’ the men who patrolled Covent Garden as London’s first official law-enforcers in the mid-18th Century, and precursors to the modern Metropolitan Police.
In the 1700’s policing in London consisted of local Watchmen colloquially known as ‘Charleys’, men patrolling on foot and equipped with only a lantern, staff, rattle, or bell to raise the alarm. In 1740 Thomas De Veil established a courthouse at his home, number 4 Bow Street, following his investigations into local crimes. Here he acted as judge and jury, although the process was prone to bribery and corruption, as politician Horace Walpole commented: “Officers of justice are the greatest criminals in town.” Following De Veil’s death, in 1748 operations were overseen by novelist, dramatist and chief magistrate Henry Fielding (author of ‘The History of Tom Jones’ and ‘Joseph Andrews’). He employed a team of eighty men to patrol the area around Covent Garden, who became known as the ‘Bow Street Runners.’ They were the first full-time police force in London. The local population included gamblers, drinkers, prostitutes, pickpockets, and informers, which meant that crime was rife. Henry’s blind half-brother John continued this work and helped to develop their law enforcement operations after Henry’s death and became known as ‘the blind beak of Bow Street’ (he was familiar with local villains from their voices alone).
By 1805 uniforms began to be worn by the officers on patrol, their red waistcoats earning them the new nickname of ‘Robin red-breasts’. On display is an example of a ‘beat wheel’ used by officers to mark out the territory of their individual patrols (which led to the expression ‘on the beat’).
One of the most notable Bow Street Runners was John Townsend, who served the court for 46 years and alongside apprehending criminals, provided protection for King George III and the Prince Regent. When he died in 1832 his estate was valued at £25,000, a huge wealth for the time.
In 1822 the Home Secretary Robert Peel proposed a new system of policing for London as a single, unified force, and by 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act marked the birth of the modern organisation. Many of the old Runners joined up to become ‘Peelers,’ as the new constables quickly became known.In 1832 the first Bow Street Police Station was built adjacent to the courthouse, and the rest of the displays tell the story of the events that took place, and of the people who worked (as well as those detained) here.
The highlight of the collection for me was seeing and standing on the original dock from Number Two court. Here the accused, having spent the night in the cells, would stand before the magistrate to hear the charges read against them - whether they would be fined, given bail, or sent to a prison awaiting trial. Oscar Wilde would have stood in this dock after his arrest at the Cadogan Hotel in April 1895 (on charges of committing indecent acts). He had been refused bail and spent the night in the cells here. The Chief Magistrate stated that “there is no worse crime than that with which the prisoner is accused.”
The rest of the museum is housed in the former police cells, each containing displays of photographs, objects, and audio-visual recordings. The sparseness of the small space (with a basic bed, mattress, and WC) would have been a sobering experience. Stories of the (in)famous temporary occupants make for interesting reading. In 1905 a second floor of cells were in operation for female prisoners. Sylvia Pankhurst and her sister Christabel were arrested several times during their campaign for women’s suffrage. In 1908 (along with a fellow suffragette, Mrs. Drummond), they were held overnight and charged with breaching the peace. They had well-to-do-supporters however, who arranged for dinner to be sent from the Savoy Hotel. All three women refused to keep the peace in front of the Magistrate, and they were sent to Holloway Prison (where they served between 10 weeks and 3 months respectively).
In 1919 Doctor Crippen appeared at the court to be charged with murdering his wife. He had been arrested on board a ship bound for Canada by Bow Street Detective Inspector Walter Dew. He was sent for trial at the Old Bailey in the most infamous murder case of the day.
In May 1968 the notorious Kray twins, Ronnie and Reggie, were arrested on suspicion of murder. They were brought to Bow Street cells and their appearance for the hearings in Courtroom One drew such large crowds that the public area had to be extended. That same year, James Earl Ray, the man wanted for the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr, fled to Canada, and later arrived in London, where he was arrested by officers at Heathrow Airport whilst using a fake passport. The magistrate at Bow Street possessed the unique power to extradite Ray to the USA, where he was found guilty of the murder and sentenced to 99 years in jail (he died there in 1986).
Bow Street Magistrates’ Court had special jurisdiction to act in extradition proceedings and terrorism offences. Britain’s first Nazi war crimes trial was held here, as well as IRA terrorism cases. In 1999 Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet had his extradition hearings (which were never realised) heard at Bow Street court, with both protestors and supporters demonstrating angrily outside. Disgraced former MP and author Jeffrey Archer and musician Pete Doherty are among other famous figures whose cases drew huge crowds of reporters to the courtrooms.
Visitors can hear the first-hand experiences of the former Bow Street team (including the small number of female officers) as well as Norwell Roberts (the first black Met Police officer) and gain an insight into what it was like to work here. The police station (by now outdated and no longer fit for purpose) finally closed the doors in 1992, after 111 years.
In 2006 the courthouse at Bow Street was closed after 266 years on the site. The mystery as to why Bow Street was the only police station in London to display a white light (and not the usual blue lamp) also remains. It was rumoured that Queen Victoria disliked seeing blue when visiting the Royal Opera House nearby (her late husband, Prince Albert, had died in a blue bedroom at Windsor Castle), but there is no evidence for this. This unique space still holds its own secrets. Although small, the museum is worth a visit if you are in Covent Garden, and is rich in atmosphere.
The museum has a varied programme of events such as author talks and guided tours around Covent Garden, focussing on the history of this part of London and its relationship between the law and the pleasure trade.
28 Bow Street, London, WC2E 7AW
Opening times Friday, Saturday, Sunday 11am – 4.30
Tickets must be pre-booked online. Entry charge.
Twitter: @bowstreetmuseum Instagram: @bowstreetpolicemuseum
‘No. 28 Bow Street’ podcast series talks to academics, experts, and those with first hand experiences of the day-to-day goings on inside one of London’s most historically significant buildings - the home of policing and justice being served for over one hundred years.
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I’m Lea Stone, and work as part of the dedicated library team for a Higher Education college in Greater London. When not surrounded by books I can be found lurking in cathedrals, galleries and museums around the UK, but my home city will always be my first love. I am endlessly fascinated by the evolving story of London: its history, architecture, landscapes, the most atmospheric pubs (London Gin and tonic for me if you’re buying!) and smaller museums. The medieval and Eighteenth-century periods are of particular interest, also Art Deco buildings.
Instagram / X: @LeaAStone