Monday, 18 April 2011

Extending the police force nationally 1835-1880

Suspicions that the new Metropolitan Police was a covert military force persisted across the political and social spectrum and the question of rising policing costs irritated parish authorities. Widespread complaints of inferior services delivered for higher charges were eventually met in 1833 by central government agreeing to fund a quarter of policing costs. The continuing political sensitivity of the new police led to persistent parliamentary scrutiny. Of particular importance was a Select Committee in 1834, consisting of many of the 1828 Select Committee and Peel, that concluded after looking at statistical evidence that the Metropolitan Police was achieving its objectives and that its

...influence in repressing crime, and the security it has given to person and property [makes it] one of the most valuable modern institutions. [1]

Parliament now turned its attention to policing beyond the metropolis.[2] The Metropolitan Police formed the model for the rest of England and Wales but, despite their early successes, the expansion of police forces to rural areas was gradual. Just as within London, provincial policing raised sensitive issues of local social influence and political power and the structural problems were the same. As a result of extensive local autonomy, there was an enormous variety of structures and degrees of sophistication in rural and urban policing, united principally by their common use of part-time constables and watchmen. The limitations of these diverse systems was highlighted by the agitation against the new Poor Law and the emergence of Chartism and soon the issue was not should a national reformed police system be adopted but what type of system.

As the idea of the new police spread to the provinces, they were often given very wide functions, understandable in terms of very general notions of regulation and inspection.[3] The Acts of 1839 and 1842 that enabled extension of police role and functions in the counties, included collection of rates, road surveying, weights and measures inspection and dealing with vagrants under the Poor Law legislation as legitimate police functions. Carolyn Steedman commented that by

...the 1860s and early 1870s witnessed something like an inspection fever...[with suggestions that] policemen be appointed as inspectors of taxes, of unemployed children not covered by the Factory Acts, of midwives and truants under the educational reforms of the 1870s. Carried away by the vision of a thoroughly policed and inspected society, some, including county chief constables, suggested that the homes of the poor should be inspected by the police for cleanliness and against overcrowding.[4]

Extensive growth in urban manufacturing centres had rendered local government structures generally inadequate.The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act helped older boroughs to sort out their administrative structures and allowed new towns to become incorporated. Towns that were incorporated were obliged to set up a Watch Committee responsible for appointing sufficient paid constables to keep the peace and prevent crime but few of them seemed eager to implement the law. Although, this was mandatory under the legislation, there was a complete lack of any regulations for government policing under the Act, a reflection of an absence of sufficient political support for further erosion of corporate autonomy. As a result, by 1837, only 93 of 171 boroughs had organised a police force; three years later, 108 of 171 boroughs had organised a police force but by 1848, 22 boroughs still had no police force. Municipal forces were about half the size of London, proportionate to population and remained grossly inadequate until after 1856.

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Warrington policeman c1860

Rural policing was generally regarded as ineffective and parish constables, uneducated, ignorant of their duties, lazy and corrupt. Rural disturbances in the early 1830s underscored the limitations of rural policing. The Swing Riots in rural southern England, combined with those in urban areas centring on the Reform Bill crisis at the beginning of the 1830s, led the Whig government to prepare a bill setting up a national police system but declining disorder and more pressing legislative priorities killed off this initiative.[5] However, these events, along with rising rates of local vagrancy, coupled with falling levels of social deference, encouraged local reform initiatives. Two approaches were available: private subscription forces, usually established by the local landed interests and action under the Lighting and Watching Act 1833 that gave parish councils powers to levy a special rate to employ sufficient watchmen of day and night. These aimed gently to encourage greater levels of rural policing without challenging local autonomy but the extent to which permissive powers were adopted depended on levels of local anxiety about crime and disorder and a willingness to fund reform.

Local reforms did not satisfy the concerns of central government and in May 1836 Lord John Russell announced that a Rural Police Bill was in preparation. Rather than attempt to get contentious legislation through Parliament, Russell agreed with Chadwick’s call for a Royal Commission ‘to enquire into the Best Means of Establishing an effective [rural police]’. The 1839 Report proposed establishing a force of 8,000 national police under the control of the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police Commissioners. However, the establishment of a professional force in localities would be elective not prescriptive with each county’s Quarter Sessions making the decision. To encourage adoption, the cost was to be shared with the county rate providing three-quarters and central funds the remaining quarter. There was widespread hostility to the Report and this allowed Russell to introduce responsive legislation that rapidly passed through Parliament. [6]

The 1839 Rural Constabulary Act did not meet the Report’s demands for a national police force, with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power. It permitted JPs to appoint Chief Constables for the direction of the police in their areas and allowed for one policeman per 1,000 of the population. Response was poor. By 1853, only 22 counties out 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 for several reasons. Edwin Chadwick, one of the members of the Commission, saw the new police as a means of regulating the unpopular new Poor Law. There was opposition to the idea of police, as a challenge to the liberties of localities. The expense was deemed to be too great; there was considerable local government inertia and a lack of co-operation between the boroughs and the counties. Finally, no provision was made until 1856 for government inspection, audit or regulation.

One important factor in the transformation of the provincial police force after 1835 was the growing importance of ‘surveillance’ leading to changes in the conception of public space.[7] For example, the Portsmouth Borough police was significantly improved in the period before 1856 through a series of locally initiated reforms to control public space for which there was substantial local middle-class support. This reflected the growing powers of the state at all levels and especially the growing regulatory and administrative powers that they could deploy to deny open public spaces to the working-classes. Numerous sites within and on the edges of towns were eliminated by the pressures of urban growth but attempts to control or exclude working people from using these sites led to frequent and often violent resistance. Whether this was a consequence of the perceived ‘civilising mission’ of the police or the emergence of an aggressive middle-class civic culture or a combination of the two, the traditional freedoms of working-class culture were first controlled and then gradually curtailed.

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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 such as 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.[8] Following the recommendations of the 1853 Select Committee on Police, the County and Borough Police Act 1856 made police forces mandatory in counties and boroughs, subjected them to central inspection and sanctioned Exchequer grants to forces certified as ‘efficient’.[9] 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. [10]

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. A plainclothes spy system was viewed with deepest suspicion in Peel‘s day.[11]

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.[12] Madame de Goncourt, a rich Parisian became the victim of Harry Benson and William Kurr, two confidence tricksters who persuaded her to part with £30,000. Scotland Yard was called in and Superintendent Adolphus Williamson sent Chief Inspector Nathaniel Druscovich to bring Benson back from Amsterdam where he had been arrested. Druscovich seemed to find the job surprisingly difficult. A sergeant and two others were sent to catch Kurr but he moved just as they expected to arrest him. Eventually he was arrested in Edinburgh, stood trial and was convicted. This led to questions about why the arrests had proved so difficult and Benson and Kurr began to explain. Inspector John Meiklejohn had been in Kurr’s pay since 1873 accepting large sums of money to tip him off when his crimes were about to lead to his arrest. Meiklejohn had offered Druscovich the opportunity to borrow money from Kurr to repay his brother’s debts and as a result, Druscovich was also implicated as was Chief Inspector Palmer, who appears to have been duped into going along with his colleagues. The three were sentenced to two years in prison, and the scandal nearly wrecked Williamson’s career. Although his integrity was unquestioned, his supervision of subordinates seemed wanting, and following the Committee of Inquiry, the Home Office took the opportunity to overhaul the existing system and to establish the CID under Charles Vincent in 1878.

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Blackburn borough police c1900

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. In 1869, the Home Office and Scotland Yard instituted a criminal records system. Initially it was primitive and unwieldy but improved with an increasing use of photography and, after 1901, fingerprinting. The regular circulation of simple information sheets to provincial forces brought satisfying results. In 1883, the Special Irish 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.[13]

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.[14] 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. 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. The criminal department of the Home Office was set up in 1870 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 saw important innovations. This was evident in the increase in both the number of police and the costs. In 1861, there was one policeman to every 937 people in England and Wales, by 1891, one for every 731 and by 1951, one for every 661. Costs rose from £1.5 million in 1861 to over £3.5 million in 1891 and £7.0 million in 1914. As a result, 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, the parochial principle still remained more than merely cosmetic.


[1] Report of Select Committee on Police of the Metropolis, Parliamentary Papers, Vol. 16, 1834, p. 21.

[2] Philips, David and Storch, Robert D., Policing Provincial England 1829-1856: The Politics of Reform, (Leicester University Press), 1999.

[3] One of ther most effective local studies of policy is Taylor, David, Policing the Victorian Town: The Development of the Police in Middlesborough, c.1840-1914, (Palgrave), 2002.

[4] Ibid, Steedman, C., Policing the Victorian Community: The Formation of English Provincial Police Forces 1856-1880, p. 54.

[5] Philips, D. and Storch, R.D., ‘Whigs and Coppers: the Grey Ministry’s National Police Scheme, 1832’, Historical Research, Vol. 67, (1994), pp. 75-90.

[6] Brundage, Anthony, ‘Ministers, magistrates and reformers: the genesis of the Rural Constabulary Act of 1839’, Parliamentary History, Vol. 5, (1986), pp. 55-64. See, Emsley, Clive, ‘The Bedfordshire police 1840-1856: a case study in the working of the Rural Constabulary Act’, Midland History, Vol. 7, (1982), pp. 73-92.

[7] Ogburn, Miles, ‘Ordering the city: surveillance, public space and the reform of urban policing in England 1835-56’, Political Geography, Vol. 12, (1993), pp. 505-521.

[8] Hart, Jennifer, ‘Reform of the borough Police, 1835-56’, English Historical Review, Vol. 70, (1955), pp. 411-427, Philips, David, ‘A “Weak” State? The English State, the Magistracy and the Reform of Policing in the 1830s’, English Historical Review, Vol. 119, (2004), pp. 873-891 and Philips, David and Storch, Robert D., Policing provincial England, 1829-1856: the politics of reform, (Leicester University Press), 1999.

[9] Hart, Jennifer, ‘The County and Borough Police Act, 1856’, Public Administration, Vol. 34, (1956), pp. 405-417.

[10] Morgan, Jane, Conflict and Order: The Police and Labour Disputes in England and Wales, 1900-1939, (Oxford University Press, 1987); Weinberger, Barbara, Keeping the Peace?: Policing Strikes in Britain, 1906-1926, (Berg), 1991.

[11] One of the main reasons for this was the role played by spies and agents provocateur during the radical disturbances of the 1810s. See, Pike, Alan R., ‘A brief history of the Criminal Investigation Department of the London Metropolitan Police’, Police Studies, Vol. 1, (1978), pp. 22-30. See also, Petrow, S., ‘The rise of the Detective in London 1869-1914’, Criminal Justice History, Vol. 14, (1993), pp. 91-108.

[12] Stewart R.F., The Great Detective Case of 1877: A study in Victorian Police Corruption, (George A. Vanderburgh), 2000.

[13] Porter, Bernard, The origins of the vigilant state: the London Metropolitan Police Special Branch before the First World War, (Weidenfeld and Nicolson), 1987. See also, Allason, R. The Branch: A History of the Metropolitan Police Special Branch, 1883-1983, (David & Charles), 1983.

[14] See, for example, Croll, Andy, ‘Street disorder, surveillance and shame: Regulating behaviour in the public spaces of the late Victorian British town’, Social History, Vol. 24, (3), (1999), pp. 250-268, Stevenson. S.J., ‘The Habitual Criminal in 19th century England: some observations on the figures’, Urban History Yearbook, 1986, pp. 44-53.

1 comment:

Chris Payne said...

I was interested to read your 18 April 2011 blog on the police. Very informative. I have only one comment; I believe that the presence of the Metropolitan Police detective force was well known for many years earlier than the 1870s. I have just published a book 'The Chieftain', based on the Scotland Yard career of Detective Chief Inspector George Clarke. You may find it of interest. It's available from Amazon etc. and more information is available at my website: www.chrispaynebooks.com