Thursday, 21 April 2011

Being a policeman

By 1900, working as a police constable meant a steady job with low income but attractive benefits. Employment was independent of the business cycle and pay was not linked to individual performance. Such work was in demand and only one-in-five applicants were accepted. In the Metropolitan Police during the nineteenth century, only about 10% of the force was born in London. This reflected the preference of senior officers for country men because they were regarded as healthier, tougher and more willing to take orders and they did not have the conflicting loyalties exhibited by some Londoners who policed their own neighbourhood. Initial recruits to the Metropolitan Police were between the ages of 18 and 35 years but as policing became more attractive recruitment was limited to those between 20 and 27. Most were still labourers though the number of recruits from non-manual backgrounds increased, a process aided by the increasing status of the job and with the provision of pensions from 1890, its job security.[1]

The early constables were usually recruited from the agricultural labour force or from the army, were paid low wages and were often quick to leave the force. Men who left on their own will tended to be from more skilled occupations, with a background of better work before joining the force. In the early twentieth century, though, economic pressures encouraged more of these men to join the force. Veterans tended to be men from unskilled or semi-skilled backgrounds, for whom the police service was an avenue of upward mobility. Although men from poorer backgrounds remained longest in the police, those from better-off backgrounds who did remain were most likely to rise through the system into the higher ranks. Others were dismissed for drunkenness. A parliamentary select committee in 1834 heard that 80% of dismissals were for drunkenness.

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Initial formal training was about three to five weeks by 1900 and about half that in 1850. Until the early-twentieth century, most training was military drill for purposes of crowd control, with only brief training dedicated to behaviour on the beat and this was largely remembering laws and instructions.What counted was the informal training learned on the beat and the habits picked up from established officers. Isolated by uniform, discipline and function from the working-class communities and upholding ‘order‘ in the face of chronic hostility and abuse from their targets, career policemen developed a distinct occupational culture with its own values and standards that strengthened bonds between fellow officers. The police generated their own, often discretionary, operational standards on the streets, passed on via ‘apprenticeship’ from officer to officer, that were often less respectable and at odds with those of the rulebooks and the letter of the law.[2]

Some degree of tension between the command structure and the ordinary station-men was endemic in British policing. It stemmed from grievances about working conditions. In 1848 a number of constables petitioned their superiors that their pay was not sufficient to support a family. In 1872, when over 3,000 constables and sergeants turned up for a meeting to discuss demands for a pay rise. Senior officers at Scotland Yard were so concerned that a pay rise was quickly granted but later 109 men involved in the action were sacked. There were abortive Metropolitan Police strikes in 1879 and 1890. In 1890, there was n attempt to form the Metropolitan Police Union, but granting of pensions removed a major source of complaint. Since the police were used against industrial unrest the fact that officers were appropriating the language of trade unionism was viewed as a potential threat to discipline and in conflict with the demands of the job. A further attempt to unionise occurred in September 1913 with the resurrection of the Metropolitan Police Union that the following year changed its name to the National Union of Police & Prison Officers. A police order was issued in December 1913 threatening the dismissal of officers associated with the union.

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Bridgnorth Borough Police Force c. 1880

In addition, there was the remoteness of commissioners and chief constables, often trained in the military or colonial services, from the lower-rank notions of ‘good policing’ that focused on detection rather than deterrence, action rather than service, physical engagement rather than administration.[3] There were sporadic campaigns against their corruption and malpractice. These surfaced during the trials of 1877 and of Inspector White in 1880 and during the public disquiet that resulted in the issuing of Judges’ Rules on interrogation and arrest procedures in 1912. The 1906-1908 Royal Commission was initiated over the alleged wrongful arrest of Mme D’Angely, a lady of dubious reputation but a lady nonetheless. In this case, the police made the mistake of doing tactless things to articulate people. [4]

A high number of complaints were brought against the Metropolitan Police in their early years. Between 1831 and 1840, the average number of complaints against the police was 411 per annum. The number of complaints was at its highest, at 511, in 1840. Of these, 273 were made against individual officers; the remainder concerned the small strength of the force and the frequency of robberies. The 1906-1908 Royal Commission upon the Duties of the Metropolitan Police found that only nineteen of the complaints it invited were worth examining and only a few proven satisfactorily. The impoverished public that did not matter but might have known better about police malpractice did not speak out; when it did, hostile questioning discredited it. What is clear from the evidence of the Royal Commission is the long-standing system of wheeling and dealing between police and underworld that had its own unwritten rules and at which command officers had no choice but to connive. Blind eyes were turned, favours exacted and reciprocated, informers employed, bribes exchanged and some brutality was standard practice. Relations between police and law-breakers were necessarily close and it would be surprising then as now, if they were not also contaminating. Witnesses before the 1878 confidential detective committee drew a thin veil over the implications of detectives ‘using’ a certain class of people among the criminal class from whom to get information by small payments or other means. Officials recurrently compromised in their efforts to police the streets.


[1] Martin, John and Gail Wilson, Gail, The Police, A Study in Manpower: Evolution of the Service in England and Wales, 1829-1965, (Heinemann), 1969 and Shpayer-Makov, H., The Making of a Policeman: A Social History of a Labour Force in Metropolitan London, 1829-1914, (Ashgate), 2002.

[2] Taylor, David, ‘The standard of living of career policemen in Victorian England: the evidence of a provincial borough force’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 12, (1991), pp. 108-131 and Lowe, W.J., ‘The Lancashire Constabulary, 1845-1870: the social and occupational function of a Victorian police force’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 4, (1983), pp. 41-62.

[3] Wall, David, The Chief Constables of England and Wales: a socio-legal history of a criminal justice elite, (Ashgate), 1998, pp. 13-86.

[4] Clapson, Mark and Emsley, Clive, ‘Street, Beat, and Respectability: The Culture and Self-Image of the Late Victorian and Edwardian Urban Policeman’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 16, (2002), pp. 107-131.

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