Thursday, 19 June 2008

Extending the police into town and country

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act helped older boroughs to sort out their administrative structure and allowed new towns to become incorporated. Towns that were incorporated were obliged to set up their own police force but few of them seemed eager to implement the law:

  • 1837: 93 of 171 boroughs had organised a police force.
  • 1840: 108 of 171 boroughs had organised a police force.
  • 1848: 22 boroughs still had no police force.

Municipal forces were about half the size of London, proportionate to population. Most boroughs were slow to take advantage of the 1835 Act and remained grossly inadequate until after 1856.

The 1839 Rural Constabulary Act, which came as a direct result of the Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces of the same year, caused some boroughs to panic and to reorganise their own police forces to avoid the high expense of being involved with county forces. The Act did not meet the Report's demands for a national police force, with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power. The Act permitted JPs to appoint Chief Constables for the direction of the police in their areas and allowed for one policeman per 1,000 population. Response was poor. By 1853 only 22 counties of 52 had police forces. Yorkshire was the poorest served. One division of the East Riding had only 9 policemen. By about 1855 there were only 12,000 policemen in England and Wales. The provinces were slow to implement the 1839 Act because

  • Edwin Chadwick, one of the members of the Commission, saw the new police as a means of executing the new Poor Law which was unpopular
  • there was opposition to the idea of police, as a challenge to the liberties of England.
  • the expense was deemed to be too great
  • local government inertia
  • difficulty in getting advice from London
  • the lack of co-operation between the boroughs and the counties
  • no provision was made until 1856 for government inspection, audit or regulation

Extending the police

The Municipal Corporation Act 1835 and the Rural Constabulary Act 1839, in theory, spread the new police into the provincial boroughs and enabled counties or parts of counties to establish police forces. Ostensibly these forces remained under local watch committee control. However, even in the nineteenth century the parochial principle was being rapidly eroded in the interests of systematisation, collaboration and greater neutrality. In some boroughs like Liverpool, chief constables achieved a significant degree of autonomy from their watch committees as early as the 1850s and elsewhere they gained their de facto independence during the 1870s as central government increasingly dictated their duties. The County and Borough Police Act 1856 made police forces mandatory in counties and boroughs alike subjected them to central inspection and sanctioned Exchequer grants to forces certified as 'efficient'. From the 1870s onwards Home Office rules helped to regulate pay, discipline and criteria for employment. The Police Act 1890 allowed mutual-aid agreement between forces to facilitate the borrowing of constables in times of severe -- usually industrial -- unrest.

Scotland Yard came to play an important role in the centralising process. The Home Office's direct control of metropolitan policing from 1829 onwards was turned to powerful effect. Most new police policies and practices were first developed in London and in this way Scotland Yard set the pace for an increasing specialisation and centralisation of police functions that Peel could never have foreseen. All provincial police forces were gradually affected by it. This can be seen in three respects:

  1. A plainclothes spy system was viewed with deepest suspicion in Peel's day[1]. The Home Office, however, established a small detective force in 1842 and it remained secret until the 1870s when it went public following a major corruption scandal within the detective branch: the conviction of Chief Inspectors Druscovitch and Palmer and Inspector Meiklejohn for obstructing investigations into a major turf fraud. The Home Office took the opportunity to overhaul the existing system and to establish the CID in 1878. The number of arrests by metropolitan detectives rose from 13,000 to 18,000 in five years and this success ensured the continuance of the CID. The legitimacy of secret detection was seldom again to be challenged.
  2. In 1869 the Home Office and Scotland Yard instituted a criminal records system, the precursor of the computerised system we have today. It was primitive and unwieldy to begin with but improved with an increasing use of photography and, after 1902, fingerprinting. The regular circulation of simple information sheets to provincial forces brought satisfying results.
  3. In 1884 the Special Branch was established in response to Fenian bomb outrages.

In these ways the state was learning to keep closer tabs on its unrespectable citizens and political dissidents.

Peel's police had been concerned largely with enforcing the common law. Their late Victorian successors were able to act under statute or delegated legislation as Parliament and the Home Office extended police control over a wide array of social groups, from habitual criminals to abused children, from pornographer to drunks. This can be seen in the following areas:

  1. The state assumed an increasing direction of the penal system, notably in the Prison Act 1877, and of the ancient judicial discretion in sentencing with the establishment of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.
  2. The police themselves after 1850 very gradually became the main agents of prosecution while Whitehall's assumption of a central position in the process was symbolised by the creation of the office of Director of Public Prosecutions in 1879.
  3. The criminal department of the Home Office was set up in 1870 by Cross and Lowe and by the 1880s it exceeded the home department in importance and by 1906 was dealing with a third of all Home Office business.

In respect of central control of the criminal justice system, as in other spheres of government activity, the forty years after 1870 present themselves as a major period of innovation. By these means, by 1914, what policemen, magistrates and even judges could do even in remote areas of the country was effectively being dictated from Westminster and Whitehall. However, as regards policing, the parochial principle still remained more than merely cosmetic. Standards of pay, service and manpower still varied widely. Major centralising change only occurred after 1918.


[1] One of the main reasons for this was the role played by spies and agents provocateur during the radical disturbances of the 1810s.

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