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The first Metropolitan Police Force: Sir Robert Peel, London, 1829

In June 1780, Londoners saw rioting when the Protestant Ass­ociation protested a minor eas­ing of the then anti-Catholic laws. The suppression of these riots required soldiers, and soon after there was an attempt to establish a professional Metropolitan Police. It failed, due to the hostility of the Lord Mayor and of the City of London Corporation.

So at the beginning of the C19th, Britain did NOT have a nation-wide, professional police force. The first local police force, funded by local taxation, was in Scotland - The City of Glasgow Police was founded in 1800! In those days, Glasgow police undertook more duties than just policing, including fire fighting. 

Robert Peel (1788–1850) was born in Lancashire to a cotton mill owner. He was educated at Harrow and Oxford, and then he entered parl­iament in 1809 as a member of the Tory party. Peel held prominent positions within government early in his career, becoming Under-Secretary for War and Colonies 1809 and Chief Secretary for Ireland 1812.  Peel introduced broad criminal law and prison reform, and established the Royal Irish Constabulary in 1822, to deal with rioting and sectarian violence.

Following the success of the Royal Irish Constabulary it became clear that an organised crime prevention system was needed in Lon­don, a city with a population of 1.5 million people that was policed by only 4,500-nightwatchmen. By the time Sir Robert Peel was Home Secretary in Lord Liver­pool’s Tory Cab­in­et for a second time (1828–30), he had the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 passed in London. The Act provided permanent and paid Metropolitan Police Force constables to protect the capital city & improve public law.

Peelers aka bobbies in long coats and top hats, 1870
photo credit: Getty

Sir Robert Peel
by Sir Thomas Lawrence (who died in 1830)
credit: Tamworth Borough Council

In London the selection rules were quite strict: men had to be aged 20-7, minimally 5′ 7″, physically healthy, literate and have no criminal history. Dressed in long blue tail-coats and strengthened top-hats for protection, policemen began to patrol London’s streets in Sep 1829. The unif­orm was chosen so that the Peelers looked like ordinary citizens, rather than like soldiers with red coats and military helmets. Each Peeler was given a wooden truncheon carried in the long coat pocket, a pair of handcuffs and a wooden rattle/ whistle to raise the alarm.

Many people feared that the police would be used to arrest opponents of the government, stop prot­ests & destroy free speech. Since police were seen as a threat to civil liberties, and some police were seriously harmed by the public, Peel's Principles of Law Enforce­ment were quickly published in 1829:

1.The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.

2.The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police existence, actions, behaviour and the ability of the police to secure and maintain public respect.

3.The police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law.

4.The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes, proportionately, to the necessity for the use of physical force and compulsion in achieving police objectives.

5.The police preserve public favour by constantly demonstrating impartial service to the law, and without regard to the justice of the substance of individual laws; by ready offering of individual service to all members of society without regard to their race or social standing, with courtesy; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life.

6.The police should use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of advice and warning is found to be insufficient.

7.The police should never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary by avenging individuals or the state, or authoritatively judging guilt or punishing the guilty.

Weapons issued to London policemen

Scotland Yard (striped building on the right hand side of the photo)
Victoria Embankment

Why was the legislation slow to be implemented? Firstly the new police were seen by some as a means of enforcing the new Poor Law, which was desperately unpopular. Secondly the system was thought to be too expensive. But mostly there was no provision for government inspection or regulation, so many simply did not bother.

Clearly the policemen’s lives had to be strictly controlled. They worked every day, with only 5 days unpaid holiday per year for which they received £1 per week. They were not allowed to vote in elect­ions and required permission to get married. Nonetheless the initial officers didn’t last. Of the 2,800 new policemen, 2,200 Metrop­olitan policemen were sacked for drunk­enness or for disobeying Peel’s rules. The Metropolitan Police soon had 17 divis­ions, with 4 inspectors and 144 constables each. Under the Home Secretary, the force’s head­quarters were located in Scotland Yard.

Earl Grey’s Whig Government was dismissed in 1834 by the king, who appointed Peel as the new prime minister (1834-5). Although in power, Peel's Tories remained a minority in the House of Commons, so Peel resigned in 1835.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 allowed Borough Councils to organise a police force but only half of the 171 boroughs had enacted the law within a few years. The Rural Constabulary Act of 1839 allowed the Eng­l­ish Counties to raise and equip a paid police force. The Act all­ow­ed for one police­man per 1,000 population, but it still did not meet the demand for a national police force. Thus the Metropolitan Police was the controlling power, almost by default.

Still, these policemen became the model for the creation of all the provincial forces; at first in the London Boroughs, and then into the counties and towns.

Peel was prime minister once again from 1841-6. In June 1846, with support from the Whigs, the much hated Corn Laws were finally rep­eal­ed in 1846, splitting the Tory party. When Peel was defeated on another bill, he permanently resigned, dying in 1850.

The police force in London was very effective in reducing crime and increasing detection, yet there were still only 12,000 policemen in England and Wales in the mid 1850. In 1856 73,240 persons were arrested just in London - for drunkenness, larceny, assaults on policemen & prostitution.

In 1869 new telegraph systems meant a Nat­ional Criminal Record could be created, using rapid communications between counties.

Read The Great British Bobby by Clive Emsley, 2009.







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This season, the American designer will showcase a series of historic objects from the New York museum's.

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