Monday, 24 June 2013

Policing in Australia: exporting British traditions

There was a fundamental tension at the heart of the colony in NSW in the first decades of the nineteenth century. It was to be a penal colony, governed through executive military rule but in which the principles of the rule of law applied. Although the British intended to transport English law and legal proceedings along with the convicts, in practice there were significant departures from English law in the new and distant colony. Notably, the first civil case heard in Australia, in July 1788, was brought by a convict couple. They successfully sued the captain of the ship in which they had been transported, for the loss of a parcel during the voyage. In Britain, as convicts, they would have had no rights to bring such a case. The question of how to police a society that was both penal and free posed major problems after the creation of civilian colonial government in 1824. This was exacerbated by the sub-division of NSW after 1824 with the separation of VDL and Victoria and the establishment of South Australia, by the growing numbers of free settlers arriving in the colonies especially after the discovery of gold in 1851 and the gradual ending of transportation from the 1840s.

Colonists, initially in NSW but later in the newer colonies, were influenced by established English traditions in determining their policing arrangements. The English were suspicious of any notion of a powerful police, which they equated with the Catholic absolutism of France. This led to the development of decentralised model of policing in the eighteenth century where the administration of justice and the policing of towns and villages were placed under local control. The gentry acted as unpaid magistrates dispensing justice through the local Bench and property owners devoted some time to the duties of the unpaid parish constabulary. In the late eighteenth century, however, this informal, amateur system began to break down before the increasing incidence of urban unrest and property crime, especially in London.[1] Police reformers, such as John Fielding and Patrick Colquhoun and the commercial and propertied middle-classes increasingly advocated rigorous control and surveillance of the lower classes by a more systematically organised and coordinated police force. Such proposals were vehemently opposed by the gentry and the emerging industrial working class, who feared that the government would form a powerful, centralised police force to ride roughshod over their liberties. With the crucial support of Tory backbenchers, they resisted efforts to establish French-style police methods in England. The most important development was the Middlesex Justices Act of 1792 that appointed stipendiary or paid magistrates in charge of small police forces. But the predominantly local system of policing was still in place in the 1820s.

There was less resistance to stern measures against agrarian protest and violence in Ireland. The Peace Preservation Act of 1814 and the Irish Constabulary Act of 1822 established police forces in county areas and created a more militarised and centralised form of policing.[2] The author of these statutes, Robert Peel, when home secretary, used arguments based on the efficiency of the Irish police and the threat to liberty from disorder and crime to achieve police reform in England. Peel pushed the Metropolitan Police Act through Parliament in 1829 creating a paid, uniformed, preventive police for London headed by commissioners without magisterial duties and under central direction. The example of uniformed, professional police subsequently spread throughout England over the following decades, but they remained under local control and the extent to which the new police differed from the existing watchmen and constables should not be exaggerated.[3]

These developments provided two different models for colonial policing. First, a centralised, military styled and armed force of Ireland kept away from the local community in barracks. Secondly, a consciously non-military, unarmed, preventive English police supposedly working in partnership with and with the consent of the local community.[4] More often than not elements from both models were employed by colonial police forces and adapted to suit local circumstances. Where the security of the state was threatened, the Irish approach was deployed, while English methods were more pervasive and influenced day-to-day policing of all aspects of social life.[5]

During the 1950s and 1960s, historians of English policing argued that the introduction of the ‘new police’ received widespread community support. The few individuals, who opposed its introduction, it was argued, were soon won over by the force’s ability to prevent crime and maintain social order, so securing it ‘the confidence and the lasting admiration of the British people’.[6] The smooth transition from a locally based ‘inefficient’ parish constable system to an efficient and professional body of law enforcers formed the basis of this ‘consensus’ view.[7] During the 1970s, historians using conflict and social control theories challenged the consensus view of widespread public acceptance. Concentrating on working-class responses, they argued that the ‘new police’ were resisted as an instrument of repression developed by the propertied classes. The ‘new police’, it was argued, were developed to destroy existing working-class culture for the purposes of imposing ‘alien values and an increasingly alien law” on the urban poor’.[8] Conflict historians argued that a preventive police system was developed in response to changes in the social and economic structure of English society. Robert Storch, the foremost proponent of this interpretation contended that, the formation ‘of the new police was a symptom of both a profound social change and deep rupture in class relations’.[9] The working-class, it was argued, questioned the legitimacy of the ‘new police’ and responded to their interference in a variety of ways ranging from subtle defiance to open and, on occasions, violent resistance.


[1] Philips, David, ‘‘A New Engine of Power and Authority’: The Institutionalization of Law-Enforcement in England, 1780-1830’, in Gatrell, V.A.C., Lenman, Bruce and Parker, Geoffrey, (eds.), Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe Since 1500, (Europa), 1980, pp. 155-189; Hay, Douglas and Snyder, Francis, (eds.), Policing and Prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850, (Clarendon Press), 1989; Emsley, Clive, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 2nd ed., (Longman), 1996, pp. 15-23; McMullan, J.L., ‘The Arresting Eye: Discourse, Surveillance, and Disciplinary Administration in Early English Police Thinking’, Social and Legal Studies, Vol. 7, (1998), pp. 97-128. Gattrell, V.A.C., ‘Crime, authority and the policeman-state‘, in Thompson, F.M.L., (ed.), The Cambridge Social History of Britain 1750-1950: Vol. 3 Social Agencies and Institutions, (Cambridge University Press), 1900, pp. 243-310 provides a good overview.

[2] Palmer, S.H., Police and Protest in England and Ireland, 1780-1850, (Cambridge University Press), 1988, chapters 6 and 7.

[3] Styles, John, ‘The Emergence of the Police: Explaining Police Reform in Eighteenth- and Nineteenth-Century England’, British Journal of Criminology, Vol. 27 (1987), pp. 15-22.

[4] Brogden, Michael, ‘An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island: Empire and the Origins of the Professional Police’, International Journal of the Sociology of Law, Vol. 15, (1987), pp. 179-208; Anderson, D.M. and Killingray, David, (eds.), Policing and the Empire: Government, Authority, and Control, 1830-1940, (Manchester University Press), 1991 and Emsley, Clive, The Great British Bobby: A history of British policing from the 18th century to the present, (Quercus), 2009, pp. 104-111.

[5] See, ibid, Emsley, Clive, The Great British Bobby, pp. 91-92 for s succinct discussion of the two models and Hawkins, Richard, ‘The ‘Irish Model’ and the Empire: A Case for Reassessment’, in ibid, Anderson, D.M. and Killingray, David, (eds.), Policing and the Empire, pp. 18-32 makes a powerful case that there was no real ‘Irish model’.

[6] Jones, David, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888,’ Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Vol. 33, (1983), p. 153. For discussions of this debate see, Emsley, Clive, Policing and its Context, 1750-1870, (Macmillan), 1987, pp. 4-7; Bailey, V., ‘Introduction’, in Bailey, V., (ed.), Policing and Punishment in Nineteenth Century Britain, (Croom Helm), 1981, pp. 12-14; Fyfe, N.R., ‘The Police, Space and Society: The Geography of Policing’, Progress in Human Geography, Vol. 15, (3), (1991), pp. 250-252; Taylor, David, The new police: crime, conflict, and control in 19th-century England, (Manchester University Press), 1997, ibid, Brogden, M., ‘An Act to Colonise the Internal Lands of the Island: Empire and the Origins of the Professional Police’, pp. 181-183.

[7] King, H., ‘Some Aspects of Police Administration in New South Wales, 1825-1851’, Royal Australian Historical Society, Vol. 42, (4), (1956), p. 207.

[8] Ibid, Jones, David, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888’, p. 153.

[9] Storch, R., ‘The Plague of the Blue Lotus: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840-57’, International Review of Social History, Vol. 20, (1975), p. 62.

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