Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Establishing a police force

Before 1829 the maintenance of Law and Order was haphazard.

  1. Authorities had few resources to cope with riot, crime and disorder. Magistrates could read the Riot Act calling for rioters to go home.
  2. Country parishes and smaller market towns had constables and the local watch and ward. This was the old Tudor system.
  3. In London, the Bow Street Runners were set up in 1742.
  4. Troops were used to keep order. They were used across England to keep order in the 1790s and 1810s.
  5. Local militias were used for local problems. These troops were often inexperienced and drawn largely from the middle classes. The Peterloo Massacre of August 1819 shows just how inexperienced they could be.
  6. Spies were used to track down those who were suspected of plotting revolution. These were particularly used in the 1815-1820 period. Spies were paid for their information and had a vested interest in making things seem worse than they in fact were – they were paid more.

Setting up the Metropolitan Police

Debate about the creation of a standing police force in England raged during the early part of the 19th century. Confronted with political objections and fears of potential abuses Sir Robert Peel sponsored the first successful bill creating a bureaucratic police force in England. The establishment of Peel's Metropolitan Police in 1829 embodied a new conception of policing at odds with the discretionary and parochial procedures of eighteenth century law enforcement. Full-time, professional, hierarchically organised, they were intended to be the impersonal agents of central policy[1]. The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act applied only to London. The jurisdiction of the legislation was limited to the Metropolitan London area, excluding the City of London and provinces.

  • All London's police were the responsibility of one authority, under the direction of the Home Secretary, with headquarters at Scotland Yard.
  • 1,000 men were recruited to supplement the existing 400 police.
  • Being a policeman became a full-time occupation with weekly pay of 16/- and a uniform.
  • Recruits were carefully selected and trained by the Commissioners.
  • Funds came from a special Parish Rate levied by the overseers of the poor.
  • Police were responsible only for the detection and prevention of crime.

Crime and disorder were to be controlled by preventive patrols and no reward was allowed for successful solutions of crimes or the recovery of stolen property. Crime prevention was not the only business of the new police force. They inherited many functions of the watchmen such as

  • lighting lamplights
  • calling out the time
  • watching for fires
  • providing other public services

The Bobbies in action

"Bobbies" or "Peelers" were not immediately popular. Most citizens viewed constables as an infringement on English social and political life, and people often jeered the police. The preventive tactics of the early Metropolitan police were successful, and crime and disorder declined. Their pitched battles with (and ultimate street victory over) the Chartists in Birmingham and London in 1839 and 1848 proved the ability of the police to deal with major disorders and street riots. Despite the early successes of the Metropolitan police, the expansion of police forces to rural areas was gradual. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 ordered all incorporated boroughs to set up police forces under the control of a watch committee, but it was not until 1856 that Parliament mandated that provinces establish police forces.

The Metropolitan Police Act established the principles that shaped modern English policing.

  1. First, the primary means of policing was conspicuous patrolling by uniformed police officers.
  2. Second, command and control were to be maintained through a centralised, pseudo-military organisational structure. The first Commissioners were Charles Rowan (an ex-Colonel) and Richard Mayne (a lawyer). They insisted that the prevention of crime was the first object of the police force.
  3. Third, police were to be patient, impersonal, and professional.
  4. Finally, the authority of the English constable derived from three official sources-the crown, the law, and the consent and co-operation of the citizenry.

It has been suggested that as London's crime-rate fell, that of nearby areas increased. The number of offences did seem to increase in areas of London where the police were not allowed to go: Wandsworth became known as "black" Wandsworth because of the number of criminals who lived there. As the 1839 Royal Commission pointed out: ... criminals migrate from town to town, and from the towns where they harbour, and where there are distinct houses maintained for their accommodation, they issue forth and commit depredations upon the surrounding rural districts; the metropolis being the chief centre from which they migrate


[1] Most critical studies of policing stop around 1870-80: W.R. Miller Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London 1830-1870, Chicago, 1977, Clive Emsley Policing and its Context 1750-1870, Macmillan, 1983 and C. Steedman Policing the Victorian Community: The Formation of English Provincial Police Forces 1856-1880, Routledge, 1984. Later themes can be teased out of the uncritical narratives of T.A. Critchley A History of Police in England and Wales 900-1966, Constable, 1967, C. Emsley The English Police, Longman, 2nd ed., 1996 and D. Ascoli The Queen's Peace: The Metropolitan Police 1829-1979, 1979.

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