London has gained a new museum, and it tells the story of the Bow Street Police — probably the most famous police station in the city.

Although the famous Bow Street Runners operated from 1749-1839 as part of the local magistrate’s court, it was in 1881 that a rebuilt courthouse also added a professional police station. The police station closed in 1992, and the court in 2006, and the whole building has recently been converted into a hotel, plus a public museum for the police station.

The museum tells the story not just of the police station, but of the many very famous people who either ended up here, or in the courthouse next door – such as the Kray Twins, Dr Crippen, Oscar Wilde and suffragettes Sylvia and Christabel Pankhurst, to name a few.

And you get to go into the prison cells.

But first, do pose in the court dock where the accused were held for their trials, then around the main entrance room are panels telling the history of policing in this part of London.

Museum curator Jen Kavanagh

There aren’t many historic objects on display here, although one is certainly interesting – a “beat wheel” that was used to measure the length of a policeman’s walking route – their beat.

The main attraction though is likely to be the old prison cells, each now converted into a display room telling the stories of the police and prisoners who resided here. Being a police station, these are holding cells rather than for long term occupants, so they are small and spartan. A toilet and a hard bed being the only comforts.

You won’t notice it unless pointed out – the thing that originally wouldn’t have been here – lighting in the cells. Light came in through the windows in the daytime, and if you look up in the corners, spot a small window that let light in from the corridor when it was dark.

You will also also be able to spend time in “the tank”, the large cell at the far end that was the destination for men arrested for drunken behaviour in public. The thing that’s missing from “the tank” is the smell. All those drunk men, and not entirely in control of bowels meant for a smelly affair. Whether that should be recreated as part of the experience I leave to your own sensibilities.

A couple of the cells have a few more cases of objects from the time when it was a working police station. What the museum lacks in artefacts though, it makes up for by being in an actual police station with actual police cells.

As it happens, it’s not the first time there’s been a museum here, as there used to be a Bow Street Police Museum in the past, but that probably closed when the police station closed in 1992.

But the new museum includes the prison cells, which the old one could never have done, as they were in use at the time.

It’s a relatively small museum and is more notable for the location than the historic items on display, but I can see it being very popular with children thanks to the prison cells, and yes, the heavy steel lined doors can be closed, although if parents are hoping to leave the kids behind, the doors can’t be locked. Yes, I tried.

As a museum, there’s plenty of display boards to read and you’ll learn a lot about the history of policing, although if you want to see more actual policing objects, then the City of London Police Museum is better for that. There is also a Met Police Heritage centre opening soon in Woolwich.

But for this museum, it’s very atmospheric in the holding cells, and being right next to Covent Garden is bound to help the museum in pulling in visitors when the tourists return.

The Bow Street Police Museum is currently open Fri-Sun 11am-4:30am, and tickets need to be booked in advance from here.

Person’s of a certain age may smile if they learn the houses around the back of the old courthouse are called Fletcher Buildings.


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