I’m always amazed by how long it took London to get a police force. These days, a police force is regarded as one of those basic requirements of civilisation (assuming you’re not being kettled, amirite?). Yet there was no centralised law enforcement agency for the Metropolis until 1829, when Robert Peel, the Home Secretary, passed his Metropolitan Police Improvement Bill through Parliament.
Prior to this, the policing of the city had been a mess. Each parish appointed watchmen to do the actual policing, and these men did not exactly strike fear into the hearts of evildoers, being generally old, decrepit and poorly paid. A spoof advert published in 1821 suggested that the ideal watchman should be,
the age of sixty, seventy, eighty or ninety years; blind with one eye and seeing very little with the other; crippled in one or both legs; deaf as a post; with an asthmatical cough that tears them to pieces; whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore.
Then you had the parish constables, an unpaid role that every able-bodied gentleman of the parish was expected to perform at some time. In practice, as the job was unpopular, would-be constables often paid someone else to do the job for them.
This system left much to be desired – for a start, all a thief had to do to escape pursuit was cross into another parish. Where the parish fell short, though, private enterprise was willing to step forward. It was common for the wealthy to hire private bodyguards when travelling on the roads. In the city, thief-takers offered a kind of private police force, apprehending criminals and collecting the reward money. In practice, however, the thief-takers were often gangsters who simply used the appearance of policing to better control their own sections of the criminal underworld.
In 1753, Henry Fielding (writer, satirist and Chief Magistrate for London) founded the Bow Street Runners, the first attempt at an organised police force. The Runners were few but effective, being made up largely of former constables and, indeed, former members of the thief-takers’ gangs. Paid a regular wage and outfitted in smart blue uniforms, these were the obvious ancestors of the modern Met.
However, they couldn’t be everywhere at once, and the need for something more substantial was highlighted by the Gordon Riots in 1780. This shameful episode in London’s history was the result of opposition to a petition by Lord George Gordon to grant a few rights to Catholics which broke out in violence and looting. Having no suitable civil force, the Government sent the army in, who killed some two hundred rioters and wounded at least another two hundred and fifty. The Earl of Shelburne suggested that maybe a police force similar to that in France would be a good idea. This was widely opposed on the grounds that it was totalitarian and a bit French. Peel’s 1829 response (in a letter to the Duke of Wellington) was, “I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.” Dude had a point.
The lack of police was damaging the city’s reputation and, indeed, the nation’s. Spain, for instance, believed a collapse of the British government was imminent and so decided not to bother with peace negotiations. In an effort to prove that sea trade with London was safe, 1798 saw the formation of the Marine Police to patrol the Port.
Further waves of crime and civil unrest shifted Parliament’s opinion, and in September 1829 the first of the new police were rolled out. They were dressed smartly in their blue tunics and reinforced top hats, the latter designed to be stood on where extra height was needed. Each was equipped with a lantern, a baton, a rattle, a pair of handcuffs and a cutlass.
A policeman’s lot, it has to be said, was not always a happy one. Pay was a guinea a week, but they had to pay the expenses incurred by any wrongful arrest. Police on patrol were not allowed to sit down or lean against anything, and had to be polite to the public at all times. This was not made easy by the fact that a lot of the public were not fans of the polis, nicknaming them “raw lobsters,” “blue devils” and worse (“peelers” and “bobbies” are terms of affection by comparison).
Verbal abuse and physical assault were commonplace, partly due to the extra taxes levied to pay for the police, but largely (one suspects) due to resentment at this form of increased authority. Police were subjected to stonings and knife attacks on a regular basis, with even the odd attempt at vehicular homicide from wealthy carriage owners. If this seems a little daring, it may be worth noting that penalties were surprisingly mild. One young costermonger who injured a policeman for life was given a sentence of only a year, with the jury expressing sympathy for the boy. In 1831, an instance of a policeman being stabbed while breaking up a fight returned a verdict of justifiable homicide. Unsurprisingly, thousands of those early constables either left the force or found themselves turning to drink.
Slowly but surely, though, the police gained the public trust. This may partly have been due to the old watch system being wound down (although the City didn’t abolish their watchmen until 1839). More likely, though, it was due to property owners realising that actually, a few pence extra is a small price to pay for spending 24 hours without getting robbed. Commentator W. O’Brien noted in 1852 that “The habitual state of mind towards the police of those who live by crime is not so much dislike, as slavish, abject terror.” Which certainly beats getting stabbed.
These days, the bobby on the beat is a familiar sight, some would say a little too familiar when you don’t need one and not familiar enough when you do. Nevetheless, it can’t be denied that the Peelers’ modern-day descendents are an iconic part of our city.
As this is the last entry of 2010, may I wish all my readers a happy and prosperous New Year. And all you people who came to this page by mistake while looking for something else, have a good one yourselves.