Sunday, 24 April 2011

Police, public spaces and the surveillance state

The strength and cost of the policing developed continuously throughout the nineteenth century. The extension of the function of the police to encompass broad areas of human activity and the growing surveillance of the working-classes in particular led to the pervasive presence of the ‘bobby’ across society and a growing belief that Britain had become a regulatory and policeman state. The police became a central element of state power and, for some historians, ‘domestic missionaries’ charged with bringing order and discipline to the disorderly and robust nature of working-class attitudes and culture. Different sections of the community were united in their initial opposition to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police. Some Whigs and aristocratic Tories saw the centralised police as an attack on the liberties of Englishmen. Radicals commonly regarded the police as a ruling-class instrument that could be used to combat calls by disenfranchised middle- and working-class groups for wider participation in the political system. Parish vestries and magistrates objected to the reduction of their power and influence and some ratepayers opposed the cost of the new force. Yet as the nineteenth century progressed, the work of the police was viewed more favourably by many sections of society.

The poor expected little sympathy from the police and had always been the targets of the law.[1] Several statutory weapons put poor people centre-stage on law enforcement. The Vagrancy Act 1824, the Metropolitan Police Act 1839, police acts and bye-laws, the Habitual Criminals legislation of 1869-1871 combined to give police immense discretionary powers of arrest on suspicion of intent to commit a felony. The police had equal discretionary powers of defining obstruction, breach of the peace, and drunkenness. They could decide whether or not to arrest, whether to bring charges and what charges. Against these powers the poorer people had little defence. Early police orders told constables not to interfere with ‘respectable’ working people. Stop-and-search powers resulted in the arrest of vagrants, suspicious people and, with luck, some actual criminals. This resulted in vulnerable and accessible people being driven into courts. Magistrates convicted or committed them for trial on very little evidence often, little more than police testimony as to character.

In the nineteenth century, many more people had a direct experience of the disciplinary and coercive effects of policing and the law than is widely believed. When arrests or summonses in any one-year are considered as well as convictions, the results are even more startling. In 1861, 1 in 29 of men and 1 in 120 of women were either arrested or summonsed. By 1901, the figures respectively were 1 in 24 and 1 in 123. Summary prosecutions rose by 73% between 1861 and 1901. The immediate threat that the police offered to the social life of the poor had greatly increased in those decades when the policeman state was making its major bureaucratic advances.[2] The Edwardian working-classes were in this sense more closely regulated and supervised than their parents and grandparents. There was inevitable resentment. Robert Roberts wrote of Salford in the first quarter of the twentieth century in these terms

Nobody in our Northern slums every spoke in fond regard of the policeman as ‘social worker’ and ‘handyman of the streets’. The poor in general looked upon him with fear and dislike...The ‘public’ (meaning the middle and upper classes)....held their ‘bobby’ in patronising affection and esteem, that he repaid with due respectfulness; but these sentiments were never shared by the undermass, nor in fact by the working class generally. [3]

In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, anti-police riots had expressed this frame of mind forcefully. These confrontations declined after 1850 but the significance of this can be misconstrued. It indicated less the growing acquiescence of an incorporated working-class than the isolation, marginalisation and defeat of its poorest and most turbulent sectors. The decline of their collective opposition to police reflected growing effectiveness of crowd control by the police and the obligation imposed on an increasingly marginalised residuum to come to terms with the permanence of the social order, even when they benefited little from it.

Many working-class communities were becoming more settled and the regularly employed working-class assimilated to bourgeois standards of order and indeed conceptions of criminality. Those in stable employment were distanced from the street economy of social crime and consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage and from savings assimilated the working-classes to attitudes to crime shared with the middle-classes. During the second half of the nineteenth century, the modern ‘moral panic’ about crime and violence becomes a feature of urban life, especially in London during the garrotting panic of 1862 and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888. The earlier middle-class panic about the lower orders in general was displaced by a fear, shared across the social classes, of the marginal criminal stranger and the middle-class fear of the ‘underclass’.

By 1914, the police had established their authority and presence in the working-class communities not just to deal with crime but for wider task of surveillance and disciplining of working-class daily life. They were part of what Robert Storch called ‘the bureaucracy of official morality’ keeping an eye on the streets, pubs, music halls, etc.

The imposition of the police brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods, touching off a running battle with local custom and popular culture which lasted at least until the end of the century...the monitoring and control of the streets, pubs, racecourses, wakes, and popular fetes was a daily function of the ‘new police’...[and must be viewed as]...a direct complement to the attempts of urban middle class elites...to mould a labouring class amenable to new disciplines of both work and leisure.[4]

The police were resented by the poorer sections of the working-classes precisely because of their moralisation strategy.

The streets provided the largest and most accessible forum for the communal life of the poor. It was in the streets that members of the community came together to talk and play, to work and shop, and to observe (and sometimes resist) the incursions of intruders such as school board visitors, rent collectors and police officers... for most of the nineteenth century the poor were intensely hostile to the police, and...this hostility resulted in large measure from resentment at what was regarded as unwarranted, extraneous interference in the life of the community.[5]

Working class life had become regularised and disciplined. The police were an agent of the Victorian middle-classes and their fear of working class exuberance as examples of the behaviour of the ‘dangerous classes’ who needed to be habituated to an ordered and disciplined working life. They were part of mechanisms of social control and by 1914 this task was largely completed, at least for the better-off sections of the working classes.


[1] Storch, R.D., ‘The policeman as domestic missionary: urban discipline and popular culture in northern England, 1850-80’, Journal of Social History, Vol. 9, (1976), pp. 481-509 and ‘The plague of the blue locusts: police reform and popular resistance in northern England, 1840-57’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 20, (1975), pp. 61-91 and Swift, R., ‘Urban policing in early Victorian England, 1835-86: a reappraisal’, History, Vol. 73, (1988), pp. 211-237.

[2] See, for example, Bramham, Peter, ‘Policing and the police in an industrial town: Keighley 1856-1870’, Local Historian, Vol. 36, (2006), pp. 175-184, and Sheldon, Nicola, ‘Policing Truancy: Town versus Countryside: Oxfordshire 1871-1903’, History of Education Researcher, Vol. 77, (2006), pp. 15-24.

[3] Roberts, R., The Classic Slum: Salford Life in the First Quarter of the Century, (Manchester University Press), 1971, p. 77.

[4] Ibid, Storch, R., ‘The Policeman as Domestic Missionary; Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England 1850-1880’, p. 481.

[5] Benson, J., The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939, (Longmans), 1989, p. 132

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