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Story of Bow Street Runners to be told in new museum

A museum is opening in the cells of one of London’s first police stations.

Bow Street Police Museum will tell the story, inside station cells and working rooms, of London’s first crime-fighters.

It will sit inside the building previously home to Bow Street Police Station and Magistrates’ Court for over a century.

The police station and courthouse opened in Covent Garden in 1881 and the station closed in 1992, followed by the court in 2006.

The ground floor cells and offices will become galleries, telling the story of the Bow Street Runners, the country’s first organised force, and the Metropolitan Police officers who patrolled the streets of Covent Garden in their footsteps.

The Museum will operate as an independent charity supported initially by the owners of the entrirely newly-restored building, the Sydell Group, but eventually becoming self-sufficient.

It will showcase stories of investigations, arrests and justice being served, from 18th century crime fighting.

The country’s newest independent museum will tell the stories of the historic, sometimes infamous, trials heard at Bow Street Magistrates’ Court.

Due to open its doors in early 2021, pending Government guidelines and in line with Covid safety restrictions. For the first six months they will operate three days a week Friday to Sunday, 11.00 – 16.30

Among the collections to be displayed will be the original dock from Court no. 2; early equipment used by the Bow Street Runners on patrol, including an original cutlass, a specially-made replica Runners uniform (featuring blue double-breasted coat, blue trousers, black felt hat, black boots and the red waistcoat that earned early officers the nickname ‘robin red breasts’); a reproduction of a collection of sketches by court artist William Hartley; and personal effects from former officers, including beat books, truncheons and items from their time on duty at Bow Street.

Officers outside Bow Street Station in the 1960s

Former officer Simon Hibberd, Bow Street 1981-1992, said, “If you were the station officer, you ran the front office, you ran every prisoner that came in. You were just running – you just got run ragged.”

Visitors will also be invited to spend time in ‘the tank’, the large cell that was often occupied those arrested for drunken behaviour in public.

People arrested by officers at Bow Street were held overnight and tried at the Magistrates’ Court next door. The Court held a unique status that enabled it to deal with extradition proceedings, terrorist offences and cases related to the Official Secrets Act. This brought a string of notable cases to Bow Street, including IRA terrorist cases and the extradition cases against the former dictator of Chile, General Augusto Pinochet. The Museum will share the tales of many of those who found themselves up before Bow Street’s judges, including the Kray Twins, Dr Crippen, Oscar Wilde and suffragettes Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst and Mrs Drummond.

Tim Workman, last serving Chief Magistrate at Bow Street, said, “It was the enormous variety that made Bow Street Court so interesting. From drunks in Covent Garden to mass murderers wanted by their home country appearing before you in court, you never knew what to expect.”

The Museum will also trace the life and times of Covent Garden, exploring how the market, theatreland, shops, bars, restaurants intertwined with Bow Street. Officers devoted much of their time to working closely with the hundreds of traders that filled Covent Garden’s fruit, vegetable and flower market, and sharing a cup of tea if they were in luck with locals.

Jen Kavanagh, Curator, said, “We hope that when visitors walk through the doors of the Museum they will have a real sense of the history of Bow Street and the people who have passed through those doors before them. We have worked especially closely with officers who served at Bow Street and, as a result, the Museum is rich with recollections of life at a unique place in a special part of town.”

Vicki Pipe, Museum Manager, said: “We aim to create a vibrant Museum, which will be an ever-changing and welcoming place for discussions and debates about the history of policing.  We cannot wait to welcome our first visitors.”

In March this year West Midlands Police secured £1m in funding for a museum in Birmingham, due to open towards the end of 2021.

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