The Crime Readers' Association

Investigating the Bow Street Runners by Karen Charlton

19th May 2014

Detective Stephen Lavender was a principal officer with the Bow Street Magistrates court at the start of the nineteenth century. He was also the man who dragged my husband’s Regency ancestor into the Newcastle Assizes and charged him with burglary.  But I’ve never held that against him. In fact, Stephen Lavender is now the main character in my latest historical mystery, ‘The Heiress of Linn Hagh.’

It was a shock to discover that we had a jail-bird, called Jamie Charlton, roosting in the branches of our family tree.  But it was also quite a surprise to discover that Britain had Detectives as early as 1809. I had heard the phrase ‘Bow Street runner’ many times before but I had always assumed that ‘detectives’ were an entity created along with the rest of the police force by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. How wrong I was.

It took us years to research Jamie Charlton’s story at the National Archives in London and the Northumberland Records office.  We waded through the court case notes and dozens of faded newspaper reports from the time.  As our understanding about the case against Jamie became clearer, so did the role played by Detective Lavender in his conviction.

The robbery at Kirkley Hall on Easter Monday 1809 was an audacious crime. Over £1,157 of newly-collected rent money was stolen from the estate office that night.  Nathanial Ogle, the wealthy owner of the estate, paid for Detective Lavender to come up from London to solve the case.

To Ogle’s delight, Lavender quickly recovered the bulk of the missing money.  Most of the paper money had been thrown back over the wall of the kitchen garden in a sack, and lay half-hidden by a currant bush for several days until the detective instigated a thorough search of the grounds.  Only £162 of coins remained outstanding. Lavender also discovered that Jamie Charlton, a disgruntled ex-employee of Kirkley Hall, had been on a generous spending spree in the weeks after the robbery and his investigation began to focus on him.  In May 1809, Lavender arrested Jamie and sent him for trial at the Assizes in Newcastle.  However, they released him after an initial hearing because there was no evidence to actually connect him to the crime.  At this point, Stephen Lavender went back to London, famous for retrieving most of the stolen rent money but unable to secure the conviction of his main suspect. Jamie was re-arrested a year later and finally convicted thanks to the dodgy testimony of a horse-thief who claimed Jamie had confessed his guilt to him while they shared a prison cell together in Morpeth gaol. The whole thing smacked of a miscarriage of justice.

The ideal plot for a historical novel had just landed in my lap and I began writing my first novel, ‘Catching the Eagle.’  Originally published by Knox Robinson Publishers of Historical Fiction in December 2011, ‘Catching the Eagle’ is a fictionalised version of Jamie’s story.  It is to be re-published by Famelton Publishing this July.

According to my research, when the principal officers like Lavender went out to work in the provinces of Britain, they usually worked alone.  As a novelist, this presented me with an interesting dilemma.  Literary convention in crime fiction usually requires that the detective has an assistant; a side-kick who helps solve the case.  In the end, I decided to veer away from historical fact and bow down to the literary convention. I gave Lavender an assistant: Constable Edward Woods.  Although they were only minor characters in this first novel, I thoroughly enjoyed creating Woods and Lavender and developing the rapport and humorous dialogue which erupted spontaneously between them. I felt that I had created a winning duo of crime fighters and I didn’t want to let them go.

I was intrigued by Stephen Lavender and curiosity drew me towards his world: Bow Street Magistrates’ court, the Old Bailey Criminal Court, Newgate & Fleet prisons and the crime-ridden streets of the capital.  I quickly realised that Bow Street and the Old Bailey were the vibrant partners in London’s justice system.  is ripe source of information for any author interested in crime, criminals and early British detectives. It documents the proceedings of the Old Bailey, between the years of 1674-1913 and contains details of 197,745 criminal trials held at London’s central criminal court.  Stephen Lavender frequently appears on the stand as a police witness in these documents.

Number 4 Bow Street was where Sir Henry Fielding, novelist and magistrate, first persuaded the British government to establish a police force in 1747. This was in response to the growing call to find an effective means to tackle the increasing crime and disorder in the capital, where every fourth shop was a ‘gin house,’  a vast sex trade sprawled across hundreds of brothels and gangs of highwaymen and cut-throats terrorised the roads on the outskirts of London.  Whole areas of the capital were no-go areas for anyone who valued their purse, their virtue or their life – especially the notorious ‘Seven Dials.’ Fielding brought together eight reliable constables, who soon gained a reputation for honesty and efficiency in their pursuit of criminals. They later became known as ‘the Bow Street Runners.’  But Fielding faced an uphill struggle against both organised crime in London, and the mistrust of the politicians who paid for his policemen.

In the late eighteenth century, the wealthy elite of Britain preferred to spend their money on personal security, rather than funding a communal police force. They employed burly servants to protect themselves and their property, and if they needed to track down a criminal there were plenty of ‘thief takers’ – an early form of bounty hunter – whom the rich could employ to drag a suspect into the dock.  There was huge resistance to the notion of a centralised police force because of the brutal excesses of the French police system across the Channel, under the revolutionary fanatic, Joseph Fouché.   Nevertheless, the crime fighting force started by Sir Henry Fielding expanded and gained national recognition.

By 1809, the year of my novels, the number of police personnel had dramatically increased and a horse patrol had been established to bring some law and order to the crime-infested outlying areas. Principal officers were restyled ‘detectives’ and had various roles.  Apart from supporting their colleagues in the capital, they were often sent out to help magistrates in the provinces with difficult cases.  Wealthy landowning citizens, like Nathanial Ogle of Kirkley Hall, could request the help of a principal officer.  Bow Street would charge them a hefty fee and the detectives could claim lucrative expenses on top of their salary. Many principal officers became very rich. According to the records I unearthed, Stephen Lavender spent a lot of his time working on difficult cases out in the provinces. The detectives also took part in undercover work in periods of insurrection, for example, during the Luddite riots in the Midlands.

The principal officers were a policing elite and were famous throughout London.  The aristocracy loved them.  They did security work for the Bank of England and acted as bodyguards for Royalty, especially the Prince Regent.  They were the only policemen allowed into Buckingham House, the forerunner of the palace.  On occasions they were even sent abroad to help with crimes and criminals who had spilled out over our borders onto the continent.

However, the Bow Street officers were still regarded with mistrust by the general population and there were many allegations of police corruption.  In 1829, the government charged Sir Robert Peel with the task of creating a new national police force; a force which was properly funded and more accountable. Following this transition, Stephen Lavender became the highly-respected Deputy Chief Constable of Manchester.

In that tense and frustrating period between the completion of my debut novel, ‘Catching the Eagle’, and securing a publisher for the book, the first seeds of a Regency whodunit began to germinate in my head. I had a good plot but needed a clever pair of crime fighters to solve the mystery. As far as I was concerned, there were only two policemen in England who could crack this case and  I made Detective Lavender and Constable Woods the main characters in my new novel, ‘The Heiress of Linn Hagh.’   In my mind, Lavender had grown from an interesting minor character in my first book into a fully-fledged and fascinating protagonist.

In ‘The Heiress of Linn Hagh’, the two policemen are called back to Northumberland to investigate the mysterious disappearance of a beautiful heiress from a locked bedchamber.  Convinced that this is a simple case of a young woman who has eloped with her lover, Lavender and Woods are alarmed to discover a sinister world of madness, violence and secrets lurking behind the heavy oak door of the ancient pele tower at Linn Hagh.

For anyone interested in reading more about the Bow Street Runners and early British Detectives, I would heartily recommend ‘A Certain Share of Low Cunning:  A history of the Bow Street Runners 1792 – 1839’ by David J. Cox.




Karen Charlton has kindly offered to give away a signed copy of ‘The Heiress of Linn Hagh.’ To win this great prize comment on this post letting us know your thoughts about policing in the Regency era and those early British crime fighters.  The winning entry will be picked at random on Saturday 31st May at 5pm and we will email you within 48 hours”

This is only open to those with a UK postal address.

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