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The Development of a Police Force

The Development of a Police Force

Police Truncheon
Police Truncheon

The first policemen, known as 'Peelers' or 'Bobbies', were set up in London in 1829 by Robert Peel, the then Home Secretary, after 'The Metropolitan Police Act' of 1829.

It was the start of a campaign to improve public law. Reform, however, was slow as there was distrust of the police at all levels.

The First Policemen

By September of 1829, the first Metropolitan Police were patrolling the streets of London. There were 17 divisions, which had 4 inspectors and 144 constables each. The force headquarters was Scotland Yard, and it answered to the Home Secretary.

The 'Peelers' wore a long blue coats and strengthened tall hats, which protected them from blows to the head and they could use to stand on to look over walls. Their only weapon was a truncheon although they also carried a rattle to raise an alarm.

At first the quality of officers was poor. Of the first 2,800 new policemen, only 600 eventually kept their jobs. The first policeman ever (who was given the number 1), was sacked after only four hours, for drunkenness. Things eventually settled down.  

Policing the Counties and Boroughs

Despite rising crime levels, most counties retained their Parish Constable. Many people were concerned about the idea of a uniformed force and feared that the police would be used to arrest opponents of the government, stop protests and destroy free speech.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, allowed Borough Councils to organise a police force but few of them seemed eager to implement the law. By 1837, only 93 out of 171 boroughs had organised a police force.

The Rural Constabulary Act of 1839, allowed any of the 54 English Counties to raise and equip a paid police force. The Act permitted JPs to appoint Chief Constables, for the direction of the police in their areas and allowed for one policeman per 1,000 population. This was still optional but saw the development of the first constabularies. It also encouraged some boroughs to hastily form their own police forces, to avoid the high expense of being involved with county forces. The Act still did not meet the Report's demands for a national police force, with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power.

In the 1840s, there was still a great disparity between different areas of the country with no single style of policing. By 1840, only 108 out of 171 boroughs had police forces. Then, in 1842, a new Parish Constables Act was passed in response to the political unrest associated with the chartist movement. The appointed parish constables were part time and poorly paid - sometimes unpaid, so posts attracted a low calibre of persons, who were not prepared to risk life and limb to arrest anyone.

By 1848 there were still 22 boroughs that did not have a police force and, in 1850, only 36 counties that did. In 1855, there were still only 12,000 policemen in England and Wales. This was despite the fact that the police force in London was proving effective in reducing crime and increasing detection.

Why Was Implementation So Slow?

Besides being seen as a challenge to liberties, the legislation was slow to be implemented for several reasons:

  • The new police were seen by some as a means of enforcing the new Poor Law, which was unpopular
  • It was thought to be too expensive
  • Lack of interest at local level and poor co-operation between the boroughs and the counties
  • No provision for government inspection, audit or regulation, meant many just did not bother.

The Development of a National Police Force

The 1856 Police Act saw a system for government inspection, audit and regulation for the first time. This County Borough Police Act now forced the whole of the country to set up police forces. The legislation:

  • Obliged the counties to organise police forces, subject to government control
  • Devised a system of inspection already in use in factories, workhouses and education
  • Made grants dependent on efficiency
  • Shifted the emphasis from the prevention of crime to its detection.
This act saw the start of the Modern Police Service. 239 forces were set up, still with great variations in pay and conditions; only half of them were found to be efficient. In 1869, the National Criminal Record was set up, which made use of the new, rapid telegraph communications between forces and in 1877 Criminal Investigations Department (CID) was formed with 200 detectives; 600 more were added in 1883. Picture Gallery