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Significant Scots
Sir Richard Birnie


BIRNIE, SIR RICHARD. – This distinguished metropolitan police magistrate, to whom London was so much indebted in that great blessing of civilization, the "sweet security of streets," was born at Banff, in the year 1760, and was the son of respectable parents. As they occupied a humble rank in society, their son, Richard, was destined to be a tradesman, and was placed apprentice to a saddler. After having served out the usual time, he repaired to London in quest of more profitable occupation than his own country could at that time supply, and soon obtained a situation as journeyman in the establishment of Macintosh & Co., saddlers and harness-makers in the Haymarket, where he was quickly noted by his employers as an active, industrious, and intelligent workman. This, however, promised little more than a rise of wages, with a shop of his own as the ultimatum of the perspective, when one of those accidents occurred which secured his way to higher advancement, under the patronage of royalty itself. The Prince of Wales (afterwards George IV.) having on some urgent occasion required saddlery to a considerable amount, sent an order to Macintosh & Co., who were saddlers to the Royal Family, requiring some one from their warehouse to come and receive the necessary instructions. The firm was thrown into a sore dilemma by this sudden command, as not only the senior partner but the foreman were laid up with sickness. The most intelligent of their workmen must be selected as a substitute, and in this case Richard Birnie was their mark. He went, and received the behests of his Royal Highness; and his behaviour on this occasion, as well as the correctness with which the order was executed, so satisfied the heir to the throne, that in his future commissions of the same kind, he always added his desire, that the "young Scotchman" should be sent to receive them.

This distinction was the road to fortune, and Richard Birnie was not of a disposition to neglect it. Of these two facts, indeed, his employers were sufficiently aware, so that from a mere workman he became foreman, and afterwards, a partner in the establishment. During this rise, he also bettered his condition by matrimony, his wife, the daughter of a rich baker in Oxendon Street, having brought to him a considerable portion in money, besides a cottage, and some valuable land in Acton, Middlesex. After this event, he settled himself as a householder in St. Martin’s parish, which entailed upon him a portion of the civic duties of that district; and his intelligence and activity at vestry and other meetings were such, that in every work of difficulty he was certain to be selected either as agent or referee. In this way, the offices with which he came in contact were so various, that he often triumphantly stated he had filled them all successively, except those of beadle and watchman. Besides these peaceful commissions, he was ready to undertake those of a more martial and dangerous character; so that during the stormy period which closed the Pitt administration, he enrolled himself as a private in the Royal Westminster Volunteers, where he soon after held the rank of captain. Nor was he an idle or mere titular holder of office during these various gradations; on the contrary, he seems to have brought to them all the same active, pains-taking, benevolent spirit by which his more public life was afterwards distinguished. This was especially the case when he served as church-warden of the parish, to which he was appointed in 1805. In this situation he united cordially with the vicar, Dr. Anthony Hamilton, and with his brother churchwarden, Mr. Elam, a silversmith in the Strand, in alleviating the poverty of the parish, and gave effectual aid in the establishment of St. Martin’s Chapel, Pratt Street, Camden Town, and a number of comfortable well-provided alms-houses for the decayed parishioners of St. Martin’s. As two resident magistrates are necessary for that district, Mr. Birnie was placed in the commission of the peace at the request of the Duke of Northumberland.

Being thus at a sedentary period of life surrounded with all the substantial means of comfort, and invested with an office that brought him title and worship, the London magistrate might have retired with credit from the scramble of competition, and left the field open to younger men. But as yet his public career had only commenced, and he was as ready as ever for action. Being now a magistrate, he was anxious to qualify himself for the duties into which he had entered, and for this purpose became a frequent attender at the Bow Street Office, where he could study offences of every degree and statutes for every offence— the repression of the former, and the wise, just, discriminating application of the latter. Here, too, at length he was wont to give effectual aid, being frequently invited to the bench in the absence of any one of the regular magistrates. The experience he thus acquired, and the tact he displayed, suggested a more permanent application of his services; and, accordingly, after some time, he was appointed police magistrate at Union Hall, and finally at the more important office of Bow Street. This, for a considerable time, had been the chief mark of his ambition, although at the period it promised neither ease nor safety. One dangerous service on which he was called to act in February, 1820, was in the apprehension of the desperate gang of Cato Street conspirators—men who were not likely to be secured without a sanguinary resistance. On this occasion, Mr. Birnie was placed in command of the Bow Street constables, who were supported by a detachment of the Coldstream Guards; he entered the stable and hay-loft where the conspirators were in close conclave, and had his full share of the danger that followed when the lights were extinguished, and the struggle commenced. Soon after, the chief magistrate of Bow Street, Sir Nathaniel Conant, having died, Mr. Birnie justly thought that his services on the late Cato Street occasion gave him a fair claim to the vacancy; but instead of this reasonable expectation being justified, the appointment was bestowed upon Sir Robert Baker of Marlborough Street. This rejection so affected Mr. Birnie, that, with tears starting from his eyes when he heard of it, he exclaimed to the magistrate who sat beside him on the bench, "This is the reward a man gets for risking his life in the service of his country."

Whatever was wrong in this affair was soon afterwards righted, and Mr. Birnie was appointed to the coveted office in consequence of one of those political emergencies with which the season was so rife. In August, 1821, the death of Queen Caroline occurred, and the populace of London, who believed that she had died an injured broken-hearted woman, were as maddened at the sight of her remains on their way to interment as was the Roman mob at the unmantled body of the murdered Caesar; while, to heighten the confusion, the king himself; who should have been at hand to issue orders in such a crisis, was absent in Ireland. In such a case, where personal responsibility was sure to involve a great amount of risk as well as odium, the chief officials were afraid to act, and Sir Robert Baker, on being commanded to read the Riot Act, trembled and refused. But Birnie had no such timidity; he saw that a crisis had arrived at which the whole mob of London might have broke loose like a destroying tempest, and therefore he stepped forward and performed the obnoxious duty, by which bold act the rioters were daunted, and dispersed. The indecision of Sir Robert Baker on this occasion, from which such perilous consequences might have occurred, was so offensive to the ministry, that he found it necessary to resign, and Mr. Birnie was promoted in his room. On the 17th of September (the month after the funeral) he also received the honour of knighthood.

After this, the life of Sir Richard Birnie, as chief magistrate of Bow Street, went on in silent unostentatious activity to the close. In the important office which he occupied, he was distinguished as an upright, intelligent, and zealous justiciary, and his measures for the repression of crime and the preservation of order, were such as to endear him to the friends of peace and good government to the end of his career. To the last he also retained the favour of his royal master, George IV., to whose kind attention and patronage his rise had been chiefly owing; as well as the confidence of the chief officers of state, who frequently consulted him in matters connected with the general welfare of the metropolis. After such a course of usefulness, that was crowned with the success it had merited, he died on the 29th of April, 1832, in the seventy-second year of his age, leaving one son and two daughters.


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