Birnie, Richard (DNB00)

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BIRNIE, Sir RICHARD (1760?–1832), police magistrate of Bow Street, London, was a native of Banff, Scotland, and was born about 1760. After serving his apprenticeship to a saddler he came to London, where he obtained a situation in the house of Macintosh & Co., in the Haymarket, saddlers and harness-makers to the royal family. Having on one occasion been accidentally called upon to attend on the Prince of Wales, he did his work so satisfactorily that the prince on similar occasions was accustomed to ask that the ‘young Scotchman’ might be sent to him. The patronage of the prince secured his advancement with the firm, and he was made foreman and eventually a partner in the establishment. Through his marriage with the daughter of a wealthy baker he also obtained a considerable fortune, including a cottage with adjoining land at Acton, Middlesex. After his marriage he rented a house in St. Martin's parish, and immediately began to distinguish himself by his activity in parochial affairs, serving successively, as he himself said, ‘every parochial office except that of watchman and beadle.’ In 1805 he was appointed churchwarden, and, along with his colleague and the vicar, he established a number of almshouses for decayed parishioners in Pratt Street, Camden Town. He also gave proof of his public spirit by enrolling himself in the Royal Westminster Volunteers, in which he became a captain. At the special request of the Duke of Northumberland he was placed in the commission of the peace, and from this time he began to frequent the Bow Street police court, in order to obtain a practical acquaintance with magisterial duties. In the absence of the stipendiary magistrates he sometimes presided on the bench, and with such efficiency that he was at length appointed police magistrate at Union Hall, from which he was a few years afterwards promoted to the Bow Street office. In February 1820 he headed the police officers in the apprehension of the Cato-street conspirators. He took the responsibility, in the absence of the soldiers, who failed, as they had been ordered, to turn out at a moment's notice, of proceeding at once to attempt the capture of the band, before they were fully prepared and armed. In this dangerous enterprise he, according to a contemporary account, ‘exposed himself everywhere, encouraging oflioers to do their duty, while the balls were whizzing about his head.’ At the funeral of Queen Caroline in August 1821 he displayed similar decision and presence of mind in a like critical emergency, and when Sir Robert Baker, the chief magistrate, refused to read the riot act, took upon himself the responsibility of reading it. Shortly afterwards Baker resigned, and; he was appointed to succeed him, the honour of knighthood being also conferred on him in September following. During his term of office he was held in high respect by the ministers in power, who were accustomed to consult him on all matters of importance relating to the metropolis. He also retained throughout life the special favour of George IV. He died on 29 April 1832.

[Gent. Mag. cii. pt. i. pp. 470-1; Ann. Reg. lxxiv. 198-9.]

T. F. H.