Sir John Fielding

By | 4 December 2012
NPG 3834; Sir John Fielding by Nathaniel Hone

Sir John Fielding
by Nathaniel Hone
oil on canvas, 1762
NPG 3834 © National Portrait Gallery, London

November 22nd to December 22nd is UK Disability History Month, and in the light of that we’d like to introduce you to an eminent figure in British legal history: Sir John Fielding, “the blind beak”.

John Fielding, born 1721, was the third son of the Hon. Edmund Fielding by his second wife (of four; his first wife gave birth to John’s better known half brother, Henry). John was meant to be a sailor; as a young man he went to sea, but sometime in 1740-41, in his own words, “an accident, which everyone but myself deemed a misfortune, forced me into retirement at the age of nineteen”. What exactly happened isn’t known, but he was blinded.

In 1749, John, along with Henry and Saunders Welch, set up the “Universal Register Office”. This was an employment agency, aimed at cleaning up and regulating what had become a disreputable industry, where unsuspecting prospective employees were tricked or forced to work abroad in Plantations.  It was also a place where anything could be advertised, bought or sold. Money was loaned, insurance sold, travel arranged, property rented… its registers were a virtual one stop shop before the internet.

The business prospered, but John always believed that employment, particularly with regard to domestic servants, should be run by the government. In his Extracts… he argued that the Regulation of Servants and Apprentices Act 1746 (20 Geo. 2, c.19), which applied to labourers, if extended to all servants, would offer fairness to honest and diligent workers and protect homeowners from employing those who were not.

18th century magistrates were considered to be mostly ignorant of the law and using their position as a means to make money. The majority in London were shopkeepers who had street walkers repeatedly arrested so that they could take bail money, and would bail people who really ought to have been kept in prison. They dispensed their form of justice in their houses, shops or public houses. Until around 1763 the Westminster Quarter Sessions were held in a pub frequented by Pepys and known locally as “Hell”.

Bow Street Office

Bow Street Office
Illustration taken from Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office by Percy Fitzgerald, 1888, in the Bodleian Law Library at Crim 590 F554

In 1729 Thomas De Veil became a justice of the peace, eventually settling in Bow Street. He was as corrupt as any; he had some 25 children to provide for, however in 1748 Henry Fielding took the post, and he just happened to be honest.

It was Henry’s half brother John who showed that in order to stamp out corruption, magistrates must not be given an incentive to arrest and take bail money; instead they should be paid a stipend. John followed Henry to the position of Principal Justice and raised Bow Street’s reputation to the point that he became what would in modern terms be the Commissioner for the Metropolitan Police.

About 1753 a group of armed robbers roaming London created such fear in the populus that the King offered £100 for the capture of each man. This led to a worse crime: tricking naive people into committing robbery so that the villains could “capture” them and claim their reward. The original criminals continued unfettered and many more received public acclaim for sending their poor stooges to the gallows. Henry Fielding came up with a plan to break the gang with financial help from the government, but his health was so poor that he passed the job to John and his men.

Saunders Welch was well respected as high constable of Holborn, accompanying convicted criminals on their last journey to Tyburn. By 1750 he commanded a small group of “thief takers”. These were brave men of good repute; should any one of them commit a disreputable act they faced immediate dismissal. These were the first people to seriously study the detection of crime. By the time Henry retired it was well known that Bow Street was the place to turn to if you wished to report a robbery. Still, John was beset by rumours that McDaniel, one of the most prolific and criminal of the fake thief takers was once a Bow Street man; the rumour may have persisted in part because Henry had caused consternation by marrying his late wife’s maid, Mary Daniel.

Fielding in court

Sir John Fielding In His Court Illustration taken from Chronicles of Bow Street Police-Office by Percy Fitzgerald, 1888, in the Bodleian Law Library at Crim 590 F554

In 1755 John wrote a Plan for preventing Robberies… advising “quick notice and sudden pursuit”. These days we have cars and helicopters with radio equipment, but then it was difficult to call for help. One man who was robbed immediately untied a horse from his carriage and pursued the robber through the town, but no-one stepped in to help him. John’s idea was to set up a network of mounted messengers. Ordinary people living within twenty miles of London paid a subscription of two guineas which was used to pay a small sum to the messengers, who would warn turnpikes and inns to be on the lookout immediately after a robbery. All robberies were posted in the Public Advertiser, which had agreed to leave space for police notices. Through its pages, pawnbrokers, innkeepers and stable hands were asked to take more notice of who they bought from or hired horses to. This organised method of reporting, detecting and preventing criminal behaviour was the forerunner of the modern police force.

John was also quick to recognize the link between poverty and crime. He saw that young people were driven to crime because of a lack of work, starvation and disease, and that young people sent to prison would likely become career criminals. He suggested rounding up boys before they became criminal, clothing them through public subscription and employing them in the army, navy or shipping industry. Girls often became child prostitutes; until The Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 (48 & 49 Vict. c.69) the age of consent was 12 and the brothels of the time were full of girls under 18. John suggested a “preservatory” for deserted girls aged 7 to 15, training them to work as domestic servants for reputable families, and a “reformatory” for older girls wishing to leave a life of prostitution. John used the fines levied through his magisterial work to support charity and the police.

in 1757 John wrote to the Duke of Newcastle, with a straightforward request for a knighthood. He explained that in the course of his work he had upset a lot of wicked people, and such an honour would make him appear more powerful. He got his wish in 1761, when he was 40. John’s public office on Bow Street led by example; however his constant recommendations were not heeded until long after his death in 1780. Judicial stipends were finally approved by the Middlesex Justices Act 1792 but they were so miserly that the problem of “trading justices” persisted until the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 (10 Geo. 4, c.44).

John’s disability does not appear to have hindered him; without it he would have become a sailor and our judicial system might be very different today. If you have a disability and are thinking about studying law, you can find out what commercial practice is really like at

This biography is based on The Life and Work of Sir John Fielding by R. Leslie-Mieville which can be found in the Bodleian Law Library at KB15.ENG.FIE 1934. Much more of Sir John Fielding’s own work is available online to members of the University of Oxford through SOLO. You can find historical Acts of Parliament in the Bodleian Law Library, or on Justis if you’re a member of the University of Oxford.

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