The Police Force: A Brief History

British police as we know them haven’t always been around, in fact there was a time when there wasn’t a police force at all. Before the police, the army was used to minimise disruption, control any rioters, and arrest smugglers. However, this wasn’t an ideal situation for anyone, and often resulted in injured and dead citizens.

Towards the end of the 17th Century, Thief Takers (or private police) were introduced – these were private citizens that apprehended wanted criminals in return for a reward and they’d often negotiate for the return of stolen property. The reward would vary with the severity of the crime. However this system wasn’t very effective as often the Thief Takers were associated with the crime they were supposed to suppress. In 1692, the reward for a capturing highwayman was £40, as crime increased so did the reward up to £140 in 1720 with the intention of victims bringing in their attackers. Instead, more Thief Takers immerged and corruption was rife in the system. The additional £100 was dropped in early 1750s.

The Bow Street Runners were formed in 1750 by John and Henry Fielding, brothers who were both magistrates. The Bow Street Runners were a salaried police, a wholly unpopular concept at the time. Unlike the Thief Takers, they were properly trained, employed full-time by the magistrate office and were paid from tax money.  Rewards could be earned for apprehending criminals, like their predecessors, but it was a much more structured and formal system. The addition of horses, funded by a government grant, allowed the Bow Street Runners to tackle highway robberies a lot more effectively. In 1820, they uncovered the Cato Street Conspirators’ plan to assassinate several Cabinet Members and the Prime Minister. They showed a kind of policing that hadn’t been seen before and proved what could be possible.

London, with the Thames, had a lot of trade coming in and out every day, which meant it was also a target for thieves.  There were other forms of security at the time, privately paid for by businesses but they were susceptible to bribes and persuasion. There was an argument that an impartial and fair group were needed instead.

In 1829, The London Metropolitan Police was founded by then Home Minister, Robert Peel. If you’ve heard the names ‘bobbies’ or ‘peelers’ as informal slang for the police, it originates from Robert Peel’s name. What set The Met, as it became known for short, apart from previous police forces was they were not a local force, and didn’t answer to any local authorities; instead they were under the control of the Home Office themselves. They also served to phase out the involvement of the army in every day matters.

The men hired were carefully checked over to ensure they had good records, were reliable and trustworthy. Several were retired army soldiers so already had some experience in what the job required. Peel’s values for this new police force was to be accountable to the general public, garner good relationships with them, and violence was to be a last resort. The British army at this time wore red and were frequently armed, so to set the police force apart and convey they were different, The Met uniforms were blue and weapons were only used in extreme circumstances.

The police were viewed with suspicion by the general public, believing them to be spies for the military and intent on disrupting their lives. The French Revolution only ended in 1799, so it was understandable that people might be wary of increased government control. A duo that helped partially dispel this idea, although it certainly still remains today, was Charles Field and Charles Dickens (yes, the author of A Christmas Carol), they were good friends and upon searching for inspiration, Dickens accompanied Field on some of his night rounds. This lead to an essay called On Duty With Inspector Field which was published in various newspapers. This portrayal of the police was very positive and helped improve public mood. Inspector Bucket from Bleak House was also loosely based on Charles Field.

The Met had no investigative powers however; they would patrol at night and break up drunken fights, but could only really arrest someone if caught red-handed in the crime. Sir Richard Mayne, a commissioner of The Met, wasn’t pleased about this and took matters into his own hands training some of his men to investigate.

In 1840, politician Lord William Russell was founded slain in his bed. Mayne saw this as the perfect opportunity to try investigative skills he’d been cultivating. The murder was solved, and declared to be the work of Russell’s own butler, who still had the murder weapon among his possessions. This case started a campaign by The Times that there was need of a detective element in the police force.

In 1842, the first detective branch was officially formed in the Met comprising of two inspectors and six constables. The criticism from the newspapers was heavily credited for this development. Over the next twenty years, detective departments were implemented across London and increased in size according to demand. In 1829 when The Met was established, it had 895 constables, today there are 32,475 Police officers (as of Dec 2020).

References:   Britannica.com      Britannica.com     Londontopia.net     Raggedvictorians.co.uk     Met.police.uk     Londonlives.org     Historic-uk.com     Crime Investigated: Jack The Ripper

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