Opposition to the “New Police”

The formation of the new police force in the metropolis aroused the fiercest opposition and remonstrance. Invective and ridicule were heaped upon the measure from all sides. The hopeless incompetence and the discredited character of the blackguardly Charlies were at once forgotten, nor were the prevalence of crime and the insecurity of life and property at all considered by those who made it their business to foment the popular antagonism.

Week by week certain newspapers continued to publish the most preposterous attacks : no story was too improbable to gain credence. A coup detat was contemplated- “it was Sir Robert Peel’s intention to place the Duke of Wellington on the throne – English liberty was to give place to military tyranny – under the pretence of providing protection for the people the government aimed the creation of a secret political inquisition,” in fact anything that was at once inconsistent and absurd was listened to with avidity and partly believed.

At first sight it seems almost incredible that any part of the nation, except the criminal class, should have felt and exhibited such bitter hostility to legislation that we now see had been too long delayed but the reluctance of the people to welcome the innovation was not so unreasonable as it now appears.  The events of the French Revolution were still in the public mind ; and many Englishmen, who had looked on with horror at the spectacle of a neighbouring country writhing in the grip of anarchy, narrowly watched the course of events at home, in fearful anticipation lest any of the causes which had brought about the debâcle in France should be re- produced in this island. Nothing under the ancient régime had pressed the French people so hard nor bitten so deep as the police tyranny of the eighteenth century ; and when the day of reckoning came, the one rallying cry which never failed to stir the Parisians to an extremity of fury, was that for the abolition of the “lettre de cachet ” and for the overthrow of the lieutenant of police and his gang. And no wonder! 

Liberty was impossible under a system which arrogated to itself the right “de tout voir, de tout connaître, et de tout juger ;” when no man could call his conscience his own, and when no fireside was secure against the paid informer. If three men meet together, I can rely on it that at least two of them are on my side” boasted Sartines, a famous Chief of police. “What plan could be more demoralising than the one which sets the servant to spy on the master, the son to watch his father? What system so base as that under which the same hand that presses yours in friendship is the first to arrest you, what instrument so fatal to liberty or justice as the co lettre de cachet which proclaims the innocence of the man who was legally convicted yesterday, and sends to the Bastille tomorrow the man who was honourably acquitted to-day?”

People in England who knew these things, not unnaturally asked themselves the question, Why, with our eyes open, should we forge against ourselves a weapon similar to that, whose sharp point has goaded our neighbours till they were driven to set alight the torch of revolution and to destroy the whole fabric of government? The fear that the continental system of police might be introduced into England was not the only ground upon which this strenuous opposition rested. Another factor was the deeply rooted antipathy that the English have always displayed to any armed force that they feared might deprive them of their liberty. The inherent national suspicion of standing armies is well known : James II. tried to govern by the aid of one, but his attempt ended in failure owing to the opposition of the people ; William III. wished to maintain a large permanent force, but so hateful was the mere name of a standing army in English ears, that Lord Somers, the king’s minister, was constrained to talk of it as a temporary measure, to allay the popular irritation. If this was the feeling with regard to the army, which was to a certain extent indispensable and which was only maintained, ostensibly at all events, for use against foreign enemies, it was not to be wondered at, if the hostility to a strange body of men uniformed and drilled like soldiers, who were admittedly employed to keep their fellow-countrymen in order, was more pronounced. The mildest form of police supervision was believed by many to necessitate the use of domiciliary visits, universal espionage, and official interference with the concerns of daily life. Men could not foresee the possibility of an armed constabulary keeping their hands off law-abiding citizens, and directing their energies solely against law breakers. It has been said, that had the original police constables been first seen in their present head-dress, the result would have been dubious, but the glazed hat was just homely enough to save the situation.

In their fears, the  opponents of the police bill underrated the efficacy of the two safeguards that have proved amply sufficient to defend society against the employment of any objectionable or tyrannical methods by the members of the force. The first safeguard was, that the new police was placed under the immediate control of the Home Secretary, who was directly responsible to the Cabinet, and through the Cabinet to the country, for the actions of the metropolitan force. The second safeguard lay in the power of the public press. The routine duties of a constable were, and are necessarily, performed in the eye of the public, and every bystander is free, through the columns of the newspapers, to tell the rest of London what he has seen. This facility he iis seldom slow to avail himself of, and so any act of oppression, any dereliction of duty, on the part of the police is discussed by thousands of people by the following morning. 

From its first commencement the new force learnt how to combine authority with moderation, and the storms of clamour that attended its birth were disguised blessings that conduced to its subsequent efficiency. The opposition of the less reputable part of the press, and the very lukewarm support that was all it received from the remainder, were not without their effect on the force, though the result produced was far from being that hoped for by the agitators. Commissioners, instead of being discouraged, were stimulated. With rare wisdom, assuming that the complaints which were continually being published against the constables were made in good faith, they carefully investigated each fresh indictment, with the result that, not only was the constabulary purged of its unworthy members, but the better sense of the country, appreciating the devotion to its interests practised by the Commissioners, was the sooner convinced of the advantages that follow from the establishment of a permanent and properly organised se standing army against crime.” Some of the malcontents, however, who, from the first, had been so bitter in their opposition to Sir Robert Peel’s, design, by no means relaxed their hostility after a reformed police was an accomplished fact, but on the occasion of a projected Royal Procession through London in 1830 again attempted to inflame the ignorant, and to provoke them to violence against the new guardians of the peace, by the distribution of anonymous placards. 

One of these placards read as follows : – Liberty or Death ! Englishmen ! Britons ! ! and Honest Men !!! The time has at length arrived. All London meets on Tuesday. Come Armed. We assure you from ocular demonstration that 6000 cutlasses have been removed from the Tower, for the use of Peel’s Bloody Gang. Remember the cursed Speech from the Throne !! These damned Police are now to be armed. Englishmen, will you put up with this ? ” The authors of this precious appeal must have had a pathetic belief in the efficacy of strong language, if they thought that the prospect of a collision with six thousand policemen armed with cutlasses would be a sufficient inducement to bring together an armed mob to oppose them ; but popular feeling ran so high that it was decided to abandon the Royal Procession, and elaborate precautions were taken to prevent a riot. The day passed, however, without serious consequences. At the time of the accession of William IV., the whole country was restless and ripe for mischief. The irritation caused by the rejection of the Reform Bill by the House of Lords stirred up a feeling of violent opposition amongst the masses of the people, directed, not only against the Upper House, against the whole executive machinery of the Constitution. 

The worst outbreak occurred at Bristol, where the gaols, public buildings, and many private houses were burnt, and the whole town sacked as ruthlessly as if it had been an enemy’s stronghold. Birmingham was the headquarters of an association said to consist of 200,000 members, enrolled with the avowed intention of coercing the government by the use of armed force, if they were unable to achieve their objects by legitimate means. organisation, calling itself “The National Political Union ” had been established with affiliated branches all over the metropolis : these branches, or “classes,” as they were called, each consisting of from 80 to 130 members, held secret meetings at which the most violent language was often indulged in : the Union leaders were wont to insist on the necessity of the associates arming themselves, in order that the police might be successfully resisted, and a certain Mr Hetherington went so far as to publicly advertise that he would give a reward of £5 to the best marksman in the ranks of the Union. The most formidable “class ” was the 73rd, popularly known as the fighting class,  recruited chiefly from the Camberwell district, which, for some reason or other, seemed to be peculiarly hostile to the police : other centres were less openly violen.

Fortunately for the peace of London, the National Political Union lacked influential leadership; and this want, coupled with the fact that, by the institution of the Metropolitan Police, a powerful weapon had just been placed in the hands of the government, prevented the occurrence of disasters, similar to those which had devastated Bristol. But amongst the many difficulties that surrounded Colonel Rowan and Mr Mayne, the most exasperating originated in the hostile attitude of these Unions. It was, therefore, much to be regretted that any just cause for complaint should have been given to that discontented section of the populace, which was anxiously looking out for an opportunity to discredit the new establishment. Unfortunately the hoped for opportunity was soon afforded by the improper and unauthorised conduct of a policeman, Popay by name, who took it upon himself to act as a spy, and by pretending to be an advanced radical, to gain the friendship and confidence of the members of one of the classes of the union, in order to betray them to his superiors. It appears that when it came to the knowledge of the police authorities, that speeches of a threatening nature were delivered at the meetings of the various centres, the district superintendents were instructed to send a man in plain clothes to make reports, not with any intention of entrapping the speakers, but in order that any projected breach of the peace might be prevented. Popay was accordingly sent to the Camberwell neighbourhood, and either misunderstanding his instructions, or, as is more likely, purposely exceeding them in the hope of earning the approbation of his officers, entered upon an elaborate career of deceit and double-dealing. Disguised under an assumed name, and pretending to be a struggling artist, he professed revolutionary principles of an advanced character ; and having enrolled himself in the local class, quickly became one of its ruling spirits, inciting the other members to proceed to extreme lengths, railing against the government, abusing the police, and even subscribing to the funds of the society. This sort of thing continued for some months, until it happened one day that a Camberwell reformer, whilst passing a police office, saw Popay sitting at the window with a ledger before him. When questioned as to the business that took him there, Popay said that he had only casually been called in, because the police had got their accounts into a muddle, and had asked him to set them right. Suspicion having been aroused, however, further enquiries were made, and it soon came to light that the ardent politician was actually one of Peel’s hated myrmidons, with the result that the outcry about police tyranny began all over again. 

The new agitation did not materially differ from the old one : the same exaggerations and the identical falsehoods, threadbare already, were again made use of. One new feature, however, was introduced in the shape of a petition, which was presented to the House of Commons, signed by one Frederick Young and nine other inhabitants of Camberwell and Walworth, setting forth their grievances with a great parade of humility. “Some of your petitioners,” they wrote, “have frequently seen those whom they know to be policemen disguised in clothing of various descriptions, sometimes in the garb of gentlemen, sometimes in that of tradesmen and artisans, sometimes in sailor jackets, and sometimes in ploughmen’s frocks that thus feeling themselves living among spies, seeking their lives, and sorely feeling the taxes heaped upon them for the maintenance of those spies, they make this appeal to your honourable house,” etc., etc. Although the mis-statements and exaggerations contained in this petition were patent to all, the House of Commons very properly considered the matter to be a serious accusation against the entire police force, and at once appointed a Committee to enquire into the truth or falsity of the system of espionage, which was alleged to be universal. After the most careful investigation the Committee gave it as their opinion, that the authorities should be exonerated from the charge of connivance, but that Popay’s conduct had been highly reprehensible, adding by way of comment that “with respect to the occasional employment of policemen in plain clothes, the system as laid down by the heads of the police department affords no just matter of complaint, whilst strictly confined to detecting breaches of the law and to preventing breaches of the peace, should these ends appear otherwise unobtainable : at the same time, the Committee would strongly urge the most cautious maintenance of those limits, and solemnly deprecate any approach to the employment of spies, in the ordinary acceptation of the term, as a practice most abhorrent to the feelings of the people, and most alien to the spirit of the Constitution.” 

The Popay incident would not in itself have been of more than passing interest, had it occurred at some later period when results had justified the creation of the metropolitan police, but happening as it did, whilst everything was still in the experimental stage, and at a time when the new constables were, so to speak, on probation, the certainty that even a single policeman had been guilty of such conduct was a severe blow to the well-wishers of the force.

The culminating point of the tide of unpopularity which threatened to overwhelm Sir Robert Peel’s police was reached soon afterwards. In the month of May 1833., it was advertised that a public meeting, under the auspices of the National Political Union, would be held in Coldbath Fields. Lord Melbourne, the Home Secretary, fearing disorder would result, informed the organisers that the gathering would not be permitted to take place, and instructed the Police Commissioners to have the ring-leaders arrested if they should attempt to disregard his veto. The steps taken by Colonel Rowan to carry out these orders were as follows : 70 men of the “A” division were selected for the duty and despatched under a superintendent to Coldbath Fields, with instructions to seize the leaders the moment they began to address the crowd, and, if the attempt was persevered in, to disperse the meeting. It was not considered advisable to occupy the ground in force before the agitators assembled, because, strictly speaking, the police had no authority to prevent peaceable citizens from walking across this particular piece of ground if they were minded to, and because it was foreseen that, should the mob find their rendezvous already strongly held, they would attempt to carry out their programme at some other spot, where there was no police force strong enough to interfere with them. 

Colonel Rowan attended in person to direct the operations of the police, and to read the Riot Act, if either of these steps should appear necessary ; as a further precaution, a considerable body of constables were kept in reserve close by, in order that there should be no danger of the police being worsted in any encounter that might take place. This reserve, which consisted of about 400 men, was kept out of sight, it being thought that, in the excited state of public feeling then prevailing, the display of an overpowering force would be calculated to irritate the mob, and to attract in consequence a still larger crowd than might otherwise be expected to assemble. At the time appointed numbers of people began to congregate on the waste ground at Coldbath Fields, and soon afterwards the speeches commenced.

As soon as it became clear that the meeting was identical with that proscribed by the Home Secretary, the men of “A” division, after having been warned by Colonel Rowan to be cool and temperate in their demeanour, were ordered to carry out the instructions previously given them. At the same time a portion of the reserve was moved from the stables (where the men had been waiting) to support the first party, and it was during this advance that a collision took place at a street corner with a mob of people, who immediately began to throw stones, by which several constables were injured. Thereupon the superintendent gave the word to charge, and in the melée which followed truncheons were made use of, and three policemen were stabbed, one of them being killed on the spot. Meanwhile the crowd was incited to further resistance by the action of a man called Stallwood, who falsely representing himself to be a magistrate, harangued the police from the balcony of his house, and told them that they were acting illegally in making use of force before the Riot Act had been read. The struggle was of short duration. The people began to disperse in all directions, and numerous arrests were made by the police, who committed the error of following up their victory with too much vigour, carrying pursuit in some instances to a considerable distance from the scene of the original conflict. 

This first collision between the Metropolitan force and the people gave rise to a series of charges against the police, which, if they could have been substantiated, might have ended in the undoing of all the good achieved after so many years, and brought about with so much labour and difficulty. It was said that the police were intoxicated and, in that condition, had made an unprovoked assault on unoffending citizens, knocking down women and children with brutal impartiality, and then stunning them with their truncheons as they lay on the ground. Fortunately an exhaustive enquiry was held, with the result that the action of the police was satisfactorily vindicated. An unanswerable argument against the accusers was that, whereas several constables were badly knocked about, and one killed, not a single case of serious injury was to be found on the other side. Public animosity, however, did not pause to reason ; and at the inquest which was held on the body of the murdered policeman Culley, the jury, sympathising with, or intimidated by, the popular feeling, brought in a verdict of “justifiable homicide.” A verdict so flagrantly in the teeth of the evidence could not be allowed to stand : the Crown applied to the Court of King’s Bench, and the inquisition was very properly quashed. A Committee of the House of Commons was then appointed to enquire into the conduct of the police, who came out of the ordeal with more credit than the Government did, for it was proved that the Police Commissioners only carried out the instructions of the Home Secretary, who, when trouble arose, sought to escape all responsibility; and to throw the blame on Colonel Rowan. Whatever may be thought of Lord Melbourne’s action, it is certain that he did not err on the side of over generosity, and the slender support which he somewhat grudgingly gave to the police authorities was hardly of a nature to encourage them in their uphill task. 

It may be that this cold-shouldering of its youngest child by a government department was not altogether a misfortune, for a popular reaction in favour of the police quickly followed, and friendship was expressed in quarters where nothing but hostility had been looked for : vestries which had recently petitioned against the formation of the force now passed resolutions in its praise, and nearly all those parishes situated just outside the boundary applied to be admitted into the Metropolitan police area. Before long provincial towns and outlying districts began to solicit the loan of police officers trained in the London school ; and in eight years some two hundred places, including Birmingham, Bristol, Hull, Liverpool and Manchester were supplied with experts, who carried with them to their new sphere of action the methods they had learnt in the metropolis, and whose excellent work in the provinces did much to disprove the ridiculous fables, which had once gained credence, as to the overbearing incompetence of the new constabulary. 

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