The Police

This month in the occupations section to go with the theme of our criminal ancestors we thought we would have a look at the group of people responsible for catching them: the Police.

Little Nell has written a very interesting piece about the history of the Metropolitan Police and the involvement of four of her ancestors, all brothers. But, first of all, a little bit of background information.

Before the establishment of an organised police force, the basic structure in place to deal with local law and order in England hadn’t altered much since Tudor times. At the lowest level was the watch, often cobbled together from old and decrepit men to form a motley crew of inefficient night watchmen who, for very little wages, were supposed to patrol the streets armed with a staff, watching out for fires, calling the time and giving a weather forecast.

Watching over the watch and responsible for their supervision were the local constables. They were appointed for a fixed amount of time by the parish, represented by the vicar and his churchwardens, and again paid very little for this time consuming job. It was considered a public duty to accept an appointment as a constable and so busy men were often forced to buy their way out of it.

Constables were supposed to give chase to criminals and rally any public-spirited citizens around at the time to join him in the “hue and cry”. The arrested criminal would be taken to the local round house (those of you who watched the BBC’s adaptation of “Cranford” will recognise this as where Harry’s father was taken to after his arrest) and kept there until a magistrate could see him. Constables, in general, did not have a good reputation. Shakespeare makes fun of them and they were known for preferring the company of their fellow constables in public houses to keeping the streets of country parishes and towns safe.

For more serious and large-scale disturbances and riots, the authorities relied on the militia and the army. In 1714, during a time of intense civil unrest, the Riot Act was brought in to deal with unruly groups of more than twelve people. The act gave the rioters twenty minutes to disperse after its reading, after which they were guilty of a felony and so punishable by death.

The Riot Act was read in 1819 at a public meeting in St Peter’s Fields, Manchester, which had been called by the Manchester Patriotic Union Society to discuss radical parliamentary reform and the repeal of the Corn Laws. When the reading of the act did not result in the dispersal of the 60,000 or so peaceful participants the cavalry was called in to break up the meeting, resulting in the death of eleven people and the injury of 500 including 100 women. It became known as the Peterloo Massacre.

By the beginning of the 19th century it was becoming plain that something had to be done to deal with the rise in crime generated by an increase in the population and the difficult living conditions in the newly industrialised towns. 18th century England had been able to manage without a Police force not only because of its low population but also because there were over 200 capital offences, giving England one of the harshest criminal codes in Europe.

Public opinion was against the forming of any centralised police authority because it was seen as a threat to civil liberties and as something that could be open to abuse. Opponents were fond of citing the continental model and highlighting the actions of the Committee of Public safety during the French Revolution. It was into this atmosphere of distrust that Robert Peel brought his bill for the formation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. It was a model that was to slowly spread out to the rest of England.

The situation in Scotland was different. Constables were first appointed in 1617 during the reign of James VI. In towns order was kept by groups of guards recruited from willing citizens and old soldiers. Glasgow actually had the first police force in Britain in 1778 but unfortunately it didn’t last long. They tried again in 1800 with Britain’s first Police Act and this time they were successful. Eleven Scottish cities had police forces before the establishment Peel’s Metropolitan Police in 1829.


© Georgette 2008


“Elizabeth’s London” and “Dr Johnson’s London” ~ Liza Picard

“The Victorians” ~ A.N. Wilson

“This Sceptred Isle” ~ Christopher Lee

Metropolitan Police History site

Police History Society. Includes links to all British police forces and police museums.

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