One of London’s newest museums, the Bow Street Police Museum is a small institution that tells the story of the city’s earliest official law enforcement services. Located within a historic building that once functioned as the Bow Street Police Station, the museum’s galleries contain artifacts and displays that provide detailed insights into some of the famous cases, investigations, and prisoners that once passed through this site.
History of Bow Street Police Museum
Bow Street, which runs straight through the heart of London’s Convent Garden district, has played a prominent role in the development of England’s criminal justice system. In 1740, local magistrate Thomas de Veil established a court dedicated to investigating local crimes in his family home on Bow Street; in 1749, the novelist and magistrate Henry Fielding would take over this operation from de Veil and hire several officers to assist him in his efforts. These half-dozen men would become known as the Bow Street Runners, and are often considered London’s first formal law enforcement service.
In the 1830s, the first official police station would be constructed on Bow Street; by 1839, the Bow Street Runners had been folded into the recently established Metropolitan Police. In 1881, a joint police-station-and-court was constructed at 28 Bow Street, and it is this historic structure that houses the Bow Street Police Museum today. The police station closed in 1992, while the court portion of the site shut down in 2006. The Bow Street Police Museum itself opened on the premises in 2021.
Bow Street Police Museum Highlights
Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of a trip to the Bow Street Police Museum is the manner in which many of the police station’s prisoner cells have been transformed into informative displays. These unconventional museum galleries feature photographs, educational panels, and more, each one devoted to a different aspect of the site’s long history as a headquarters for law enforcement officials.
Some of the most notable individuals to be detained in these historic cells include the legendary writer Oscar Wilde, who was arrested and held here briefly in 1895 when charged with being a homosexual (which was outlawed in England at the time) by the British government; and Emmeline Pankhurst, Christabel Pankhurst, and a number of other leading British suffragettes arrested during demonstrations in favor of granting women the right to vote in England.
Infamous prisoners who either spent time locked up on the grounds of what is today the Bow Street Police Museum or appeared for hearings before judges here include Ronald and Reginald Kray, the identical twins who loomed large in London’s criminal underworld of the 1960s; James Earl Ray, held at Bow Street as he awaited extradition to the United States for the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.; and the murderous Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
More to See and Do at Bow Street Police Museum
Continue reading for a few more things to see, do, and keep in mind as you plan your upcoming Bow Street Police Museum outing.
*The Bow Street Police Museum contains a small gift shop where visitors can purchase a selection of souvenirs and attraction-themed merchandise.
*Because the Bow Street Police Museum occupies a rather small space, its admissions are operated under a timed-entry ticket system. While you can purchase walk-up tickets, to ensure you don’t have to wait upon arriving at the attraction it’s a good idea to book your time slot in advance. This task is best accomplished online, via the Bow Street Police Museum’s official website.
*The Bow Street Police Museum frequently hosts guided tours, evening talks, and family activities pertaining to a range of themes and topics. Visitors with a particular interest in London policing practices, the city’s criminal history, or some of the area’s most famous legal cases will want to consider attending one of these special events. For more information, see the attraction’s calendar of events.
Why the Bow Street Police Museum Should Be on Your Must-See List
If your London tour doesn’t start for another 90 minutes and you’re not sure what to do—or you just want to get some more bang for your buck by going to another London tourist attraction while using your London tourist pass—the Bow Street Police Museum makes for a nice way to fill a bit of downtime in your itinerary. When in doubt, consider pairing it with a stop at the London Transport Museum, which is a mere three-minute walk around the corner.