A magistrates’ office was first established in London’s Bow Street in the 1740s when Westminster Justice of the Peace Thomas De Veil began hearing cases from a room there in his own home. In 1748 De Veil was succeeded by magistrate and playwright Henry Fielding, who quickly established himself as a chief proponent of law reform. Fielding published several pamphlets about the state of public order and crime in the capital, while dispensing summary justice with an even hand after years of corruption in the judiciary. When Fielding died in 1754 he was replaced by his half-brother John, the celebrated ‘blind beak of Bow Street’ famed for his legal thoroughness despite being blind since a teenager. It was at this time that London’s first professional detective force was also implemented, the famous ‘Bow Street Runners’ who travelled the country in pursuit of criminals. 

This image depicts the magistrates’ office in the early 19th century. The work of the magistrates’ offices by this time was crucial to the administration of justice in the capital. The magistrates who sat in regular rotation there dealt with London’s minor crimes (such as drunkenness, fighting and prostitution) in a brisk manner, dealing with offenders by way of fines and short periods of imprisonment. Thus the magistrates were able to leave the higher courts, such as the Old Bailey, to deal with only more serious cases of felony.

Background to the Microcosm of London collection of prints

The Microcosm of London was published in three volumes between 1808 and 1810 as a result of an ongoing collaboration between publisher Rudolph Ackermann, cartoonist and illustrator Thomas Rowlandson, architectural draughtsman Auguste Charles Pugin, engravers John Bluck, Joseph Constantine Stadler, Thomas Sunderland, John Hill and Richard Bankes Harraden, anonymous hand-colourists and authors William Henry Pyne and William Combe.

The Microcosm of London tapped into the demand for highly-coloured prints of real-life subjects that proved something of a publishing sensation during the Regency period. As such, the prints stand as a fascinating historical record of London life in the early years of the 19th century. While Pugin’s fine architectural drawings capture the size and shape of the capital’s principal buildings (both externally and from within) Thomas Rowlandson’s keenly observed figures depict the sheer colour and vitality of late Georgian society, rich and poor alike.