The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner (1827)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner was written by “Richmond,” a pseudonym, although the true authorship of Richmond is unknown. Richmond has long been attributed to either Thomas Surr (1770-1847), a banker and popular novelist, or Thomas Gaspey (1788-1871), a newspaperman and author of novels with crime elements.
Tom Richmond began as a mischievous lad given to pranks on those he didn't like. He comes from a respectable middle-class family, but he ran away from home rather than follow his father’s wishes and take a proper job. After an extended sojourn among the Romany Richmond signs up with the Bow Street Runners, a career which proves to be a successful one for him as well as a remunerative one. Richmond does well at his job and gains recognition as well as rewards; like many other detectives, both fictional and real, of the pre-Sherlock Holmes (See: The Sherlock Holmes Mysteries) years, Richmond accepts rewards from private individuals who hire him. However, his work is done through the court at Bow Street, rather than as a private investigator. The crimes and criminals he investigates are standard for the 1820s: the desecration of graves and the selling of cadavers to medical experimenters, the murder of children, pranks played on an unlikable Rector, smuggling, a crazy husband, and a counterfeiting noblewoman. As a detective Richmond is effective, if basic. He uses basic logic and follows the available trail of clues, which he often finds by questioning friends (including highwaymen who he knew before he joined the Runners), witnesses, and the acquaintances of suspects. At one point Richmond tries the trick that Holmes later made famous and tries to predict the profession of a client based on the client's looks. Richmond’s prediction is wrong.
Richmond: Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner is a literary oddity. It is a Proto-Mystery which predates not only Poe (see: The C. Auguste Dupin Mysteries) but also the Memoirs of Vidocq (see: The Great Detective). Richmond is also the first collection of stories about the cases of a policeman, and it began the tradition in English fiction of the policeman being the protagonist of mystery fiction.
The Bow Street Runners seen in Richmond were the predecessors to the London Metropolitan Police. Traditionally public order was maintained in England by parish constables, but by the mid-eighteenth century crime was widespread, especially in London. In 1748 the novelist Henry Fielding (1707-1754) was appointed magistrate to the court on Bow Street in London. The following year he gathered together fifteen of the best parish constables and made them into a plainclothes unit, the Bow Street Police, known as the “Bow Street Runners” because they were mobile and could be sent anywhere in London. Their original brief was to investigate crimes which had been reported to the court and to identify and apprehend the criminals. Eventually the Runners had daytime and nighttime patrols as well as a group on horseback who would pursue mounted highwaymen. The image of the Runners was often mixed. They were both glamorized and regarded as crooked and working with the criminals, and their reputation was not improved when it was revealed that the Runners were arranging crimes so as to gain the rewards. In 1829 Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) established the “New Police,” the beginning of the modern London police force, and by 1840 the Bow Street Runners were defunct.
Richmond is not a collection of detective stories. It is closer to police procedural territory and the casebook genre than to what is currently thought of as detective fiction. The basic tropes of modern mysteries are missing. In its place are investigations of crimes, including kidnapping and counterfeiting, and Tom’s successful apprehension of the criminals. The author keeps to a realistic tone throughout the collection. He does not romanticize the live of a criminal, and the fictional criminals in Richmond are more tawdry than anything else, and are correspondingly true-to-life. Nor does the author revel in the scenes of the London underworld, as the Newgate novelists (see: Proto-Mysteries) later would.
Had it been imitated, Richmond would have created the casebook genre decades early and would be seen in the same light as Poe’s “The Murders in the Rue Morgue,” as one of the foundations of the mystery genre. But Richmond was not imitated, was not influential, and was quickly forgotten. It appeared in isolation and then disappeared the same way, and the genre of novels about crime closest to it, the Newgate novels, were not influenced by it at all.
Richmond is not particularly compelling as fiction. It begins as a picaresque, following Tom's early life, before swerving into crime fiction territory. Although the mysteries are straightforward and the style of narration old-fashioned, there are a few features of the book which make for interesting reading. It has the expected anti-Irish and antisemitic biases but is unexpectedly pro-Romany. And it has a wealth of minor detail about life in the 1820s, including real-seeming examples of Thieves Cant. Still, those interested in very early police-procedurals should search out Richmond.
Print: Richmond, Scenes in the Life of a Bow Street Runner. New York: Dover, 1976.