Human Interest

Hidden London: Bow Street Police Station & Law Court

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When stepping from the train at Covent Garden subway station you’re reminded that traces of London’s vast history are everywhere. In addition to the familiar London Underground roundel announcing the station’s name there’s a distinctly vintage-looking ‘Covent Garden’ on the platform’s back wall. Walk further along and you’ll encounter similar signs directing travelers to the WAY OUT and TO THE TRAINS. Choosing the former option leads you to two more; the stairs or elevators.

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If you’re someone with a high fitness level you may want to attempt the 196 steps of the spiral staircase. A sign informing travellers to only use the stairs in an emergency, however, was enough to convince me to take the elevator. The elevators are almost constantly moving so I had very little time to wait. A female voice also read-out the orange-on-black text, appearing above each elevator, announcing which was expected to arrive next.  When one did arrive, the passengers who’d descended in it alighted through doors on its opposite side while those on my side remained closed. This simple mechanism ensured a steady flow of traffic from the platform to the street without running the risk of congestion.  The elevator ride itself took under a minute to complete and I emerged at the station’s exit.

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Turning right outside the station takes you along the pedestrianized street toward famous Covent Garden where street performers, quaint shops & stalls, and delightful afternoon tea may be found. My chosen destination was in the opposite direction, however. After turning left outside the station I turned right at the bollards and walked along Long Acre until the sign for Bow Street could be seen, high on a building, on the right. I therefore turned onto Bow Street and finally arrived at my destination; the former Bow Street Magistrates Court and Police Station.

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Though no longer used as such, traces of the building’s past are evident in the sign above the corner door and in the stone-carved plaque crowning another set of doors further down. The duel image shows the building both today and in 1896 when its likeness was captured by Cassell & Company Limited for a photographic collection compiled to celebrate the fifty-ninth year of Queen Victoria’s reign. In the latter you can clearly see the same globed lamps mounted in pyramid-like, iron stands which feature in the former. Even the original architectural features of 1896, such as the high windows the off-duty Constables are leaning from to watch the photographer & the arched doorway that served as an entrance for the custody carriages (otherwise known as “Black Marias”), are still in existence today.

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The reason why Bow Street had white lamps in place of the traditional blue POLICE lanterns was because, when the blue ones were introduced in 1861 to differentiate police stations from their neighbors, Queen Victoria found the one at Bow Street distressing. The color matched the room in which her beloved Prince Albert had passed away. She was therefore reminded of this terrible event whenever she visited the nearby Opera House. After the white lamps were installed at Bow Street that police station became famous for this obvious distinction against its fellow London counterparts.

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The construction of the existing building was started in 1878 and completed in 1881. It was purpose built for the Bow Street Police Court and Station and even included a Secton House for 106 Police Constables. Prior to the existing building’s completion, the business of the Magistrates was conducted across the street in numbers 3 & 4. A long tradition of Magistrates being based on Bow Street started back in the 1700s and included the famous Bow Street Runners.

The term of ‘Bow Street Runners’ most accurately describes the eight-strong team of plain-clothed men who were originally created in 1753 by Tom Jones author & then Magistrate, Henry Fielding. This team consisted of respectable members of the community who’d all, bar one, completed a year as parish constable. Henry Fielding was assisted in his endeavor by his blind half-brother, John, and the High Constable of Holborn, Saunders Welch. Though this original team were disbanded soon after their creation, due to lack of funding, John Fielding revived it when he succeeded Henry as Magistrate following his half-brother’s death. Known as the Blind Beak of Bow Street (Beak being another term for a Magistrate), John Fielding was said to be able to identify a criminal by the sound of his voice alone. The Bow Street Runners are often times referred to as the forebears of the Metropolitan Police which was established on 29th September 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. I’d highly recommend the televised drama adaption of the Bow Street Runners, City of Vice (2008), for anyone interested in this period of British history.

The vast majority of police presence at the Bow Street station was removed in the second half of the twentieth century with the station closing completely in 1992. The Magistrates Court, whose past defendants included Oscar Wilde, Casanova, Doctor Crippen, and the Kray Twins, closed in 2006. Its cases were moved to the new City of Westminster Magistrates Court in Horseferry Road, London. Planning permission has been granted for the old building to be turned into a 100 bedroom hotel with some of these rooms being in the old cells. Fortunately, in October 2016, an article on the Telegraph’s website revealed that there are plans to include a museum of police-related artefacts as part of the redevelopment. The new owners are also said to be working closely with the Metropolitan Police, English Heritage, and Westminster City Council to preserve the building’s unique heritage. There’s currently free access to Bow Street, however, so I’d recommend a visit to this hidden gem of British legal history should you ever be in London.


Telegraph article
Bow Street Magistrates Court snapped up by Qatari investor for luxury hotel By Rhiannon Bury 31 OCTOBER 2016 • 12:49PM

The Guardian article
Bow Street bows out
James Sturcke Friday 14 July 2006 17.14 BST

Bow Street Police Court: The Queen’s London A Pictorial And Descriptive Record Of The Streets, Buildings, Parks And Scenery Of The Great Metropolis In The Fifty-Ninth Year Of The Reign Of Her Majesty Queen Victoria, Cassell & Company Limited, (London, Paris & Melbourne, 1896)

Fido, Martin and Skinner, Keith The Official Encyclopedia of Scotland Yard, Virgin Books, (London, 1999)

Aside from the 1896 photograph, all images taken by T.G. Campbell on location at Bow Street Police Court and Station.

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