Pioneer Reforms

Just when the immediate outlook was the most gloomy, and at an hour when the future seemed most barren of any hopeful sign, unseen and unsuspected influences were already at work ; influences which were destined first to arrest, and eventually to repel, the increasing flood of criminality, as well as to alleviate the hard lot of the unhappy convict. Up to this point the annual total of crime had ever been mounting higher and higher whilst the tale of abuses had continued to increase. the malady had now come to a head, and intelligent public attention was at length focussed on a difficult and unpopular subject, which hitherto had been deliberately avoided by all but the very few who had been familiarised with its magnitude by routine, and who had mostly grown callous to its evils by use. When John Howard began to minister to prisoners, and when Jeremy Bentham began to propound his doctrine of utilitarianism, no one foresaw that the devotion of the one would achieve a transformation of the whole prison system, nor that the profound common-sense of the other would triumph over the irrationality which for centuries had vitiated the penal administration of England.

Foremost amongst the many objects for which Bentham worked were the amendment of the criminal code, the improvement of the Poor Laws, the abolition of transportation, sanitary and prison reform, systematic registration, and the instituting of public prosecutors, in short better police all round and in the widest sense of the term. Though most of Bentham’s best work was done in the eighteenth, his doctrines received but little attention in this country before the nineteenth century, and the practical reforms which he advocated, though for the most part inaugurated in his own lifetime, were the immediate achievements of his disciples and friends. His own special hobbies were not altogether successful, the panopticon idea did not repay him for the labour and the money which he lavished upon it, and his philosophy did not prove the complete panacea for human ills that he anticipated ; but through the medium of his friend Romilly he slew the Draconian monster, and he pointed out the path which Colquhoun followed and which ultimately led to the genesis of modern police. 

The pamphlets of the two Fieldings, and the exertions of other minor reformers who succeeded them, had no doubt done something to stir up public opinion and to pave the way for a better system, but their combined influence was only effectual up to a certain point, and the virtue of the remedies they proposed was not sufficiently potent to get to the root of the all-pervading mischief. The credit of being the first to perceive the true functions of a rational police force, as it should be, belongs to Bentham, and the credit of formulating the details and presenting them in a tangible and practical shape to his contemporaries is due to Dr Colquhoun, who, in 1796, published his famous treatise “On the Police of the Metropolis.” If we think of Colquhoun as the architect who designed our modern police, and of Peel as the builder who constructed its framework, we must remember that there were others who had a hand in the good work, and that a long time elapsed between the drawing of the plans and the erection of the edifice. If it is allowable to carry the simile a stage further, we may say that the Government pigeon-holed the draughtsman’s plans for many years before the order was given for the foundation stone to be laid. This delay must not be attributed to indifference, but rather to necessity. It is, perhaps, a truism to say so, but in order to carry any valuable reform to a successful issue, thought must precede action. Law is the public opinion of yesterday put in force to-day, and as Professor Dicey has somewhere pointed out, legislation has almost always been the outcome of the opinion of thirty years before. 

No better example of the truth of this general formula could be instanced than the case of the police reforms of the nineteenth century : Bentham, Colquhoun, Romilly and others did the necessary thinking and sowed the seed in the public conscience ; a period of thirty years elapsed whilst the seed was coming to maturity ; meanwhile Peel and the Duke of Wellington watched the gradual ripening of public opinion and provided the necessary legislation as soon as the people were ready for it. Colquhoun, who, like Fielding, was a Middlesex magistrate, saw that the essential need was method. He recognized that before any material improvement could be looked for, or any real security obtained, the miserable jumble of wards, parishes, hundreds and boroughs, each with its private establishment of watchmen and constables, who were debarred from acting one yard outside their own boundaries, would have to be swept away, and a centralised agency substituted under the superintendence of “able, indefatigable and intelligent men.” The criminal classes, at this time, had an organisation far superior to any that Society could oppose to it ; in fact, if a committee of pickpockets and burglars had been entrusted with the task of creating and arranging a system of police, they could hardly have devised any scheme under which they would have secured to themselves greater freedom from molestation. 

Colquhoun pointed out how all this might be changed : he would have a register prepared of all the known offenders, containing a complete history of their connexions and haunts, together with a list of all property stolen ; he would establish such a correspondence between the town and country magistrates that the movements of suspected persons might be effectually watched, and finally would “interpose those embarrassments which a vigilant and active police may place in the way of every class of offenders, so as to diminish crimes by increasing the risk of detection.” He also collected a mass of evidence bearing on the causes that were responsible for the prevalence of crime, and proposed that a scientific campaign against the enemies of Society should be inaugurated, under the direction of experts, who should be free to devote the whole of their time and energies to the task. His proposition, in fact, amounted to the creation, if possible, of a centralised police, related to the general government through the Home Office, and officered both in the superior and subordinate grades, by men specially trained for the purpose. It was on these lines, of course, that Peel set to work twenty years later, but there is little doubt that he would have failed to carry his measure, in the face of the opposition which it aroused, if men’s minds had not been to some extent prepared beforehand by the convincing arguments brought forward in “The Police of the Metropolis.”

It must not be imagined that the period immediately preceding the formation of the new police was a time of expectant idleness, or that nothing was being done beyond the publication of treatises. Experiment and legislation were both at work Parliamentary Committees, which sat in the years 1812, 1826, 1818, 1822 and 1828, to investigate the subject of police, collected a mass of evidence, much of which was useful ; and the Select Committee on Vagrancy, appointed in 1821, performed a necessary and valuable task. Distinct progress was also made towards the correction of prison abuses and in the direction of the reform of the penal code, whilst several statutes which were out of sympathy with the new standard of humanity were very properly repealed. The pillory was virtually abolished in 1816, public flogging of women was made illegal in 1817, that anomalous institution “benefit of clergy “disappeared in 1826, and the death penalty could not be inflicted on persons convicted of forgery after 1830. Of new enactments belonging to this period, the most important was the “Alehouse Act” of 1828  which reduced to one statute all the licensing laws passed in former years. Broadly speaking the object of the Act was decentralisation, and its effect to place the whole licensing jurisdiction in the hands of the Justices of the Peace in their several districts. The laws relating to remedies against the Hundred were amended and consolidated in 1826,  and shortly afterwards regulations affecting the jurisdiction of Courts of Quarter Sessions came into force. 

Colquhoun’s activity did not stop short at the production of his first book, a work which roused the Government from its lethargy, and which even awakened the interest of the King, he issued a police gazette containing a full description of all known offenders, which circulated in all parts of the kingdom, and was the means of bringing many miscreants to justice ; he strongly endorsed Bentham’s suggestion that a public prosecutor should be appointed, in order that private persons should be relieved of the odium and expense of coming forward to prosecute offenders, who might enjoy a measure of popularity, or whose conviction might be desirable on public grounds, even if no individual had suffered specific injury ; and in the year 1798 he was induced to turn his attention to the question of river-police. The rich cargoes of West India merchantmen lying in the Thames had long offered temptations, and the absence of police gave frequent opportunities which London thieves could not resist. Robberies were of daily occurrence, and the value of the property annually stolen from ships and wharves has been computed at half a million sterling. Under these circumstances, the principal ship-owners, despairing of ever obtaining protection from Government in return for the heavy taxes they paid, applied to Colquhoun to help them to defend their goods. He assented, and produced a work called “A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames,” which was soon followed by the establishment by Government  of an efficient water- police, with headquarters at Wapping, and composed, for the most part, of sailors who had served their time in his Majesty’s Navy. 

In 1821 the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth, who had given much attention to police questions, determined if possible to put an end to the discreditable state of the London streets, where of recent years robberies had increased to an alarming extent. With this object in view, he decided to confine the services of the Bow Street patrols to the Metropolis, and gave orders that, in future, the wide circuit they had previously guarded was to be reduced, and their energies concentrated within the circumference of the central region. Dividing this limited area into sixteen districts, he attached to each a party of four men under a Conductor, and retained at Bow Street a reserve of one Conductor and fourteen men at the disposal of the Inspector there, for use in any sudden emergency. The suburbs and outlying districts were momentarily left unprotected by this withdrawal of the Bow Street Officers ; so to repair this defect, the Horse Patrol, which in 1805 had been reorganised by Sir Richard Ford, was further improved and its numbers increased. The force was now divided into two branches, the mounted and dismounted, each of which was again split up into four divisions : the strength of the establishment was fixed at 161 of all ranks, apportioned as follows- – 

Mounted  – 2 Inspectors, 4 deputy inspectors, 54 patrols. 

Dismounted – 4 Inspectors, 8 sub-inspectors, 89 patrols. 

As was formerly the case, the horse patrol consisted of ex-cavalry men, and they were dressed and accoutred in the following manner – 

Blue double- breasted coat with gilt buttons, scarlet waistcoat, leather stock, white leather gloves, black leather hat, W ellington boots and steel spurs, whilst each man, when on duty, was furnished with a pistol, sabre, truncheon and pair of handcuffs. 

Only married men were employed, and cottages were provided for them at convenient spots close to the roads they had to patrol, their wives were for- bidden to keep pigs or poultry, a wise prohibition designed to secure to the government-horses their full allowance of forage. 

The mounted and dismounted patrols worked in connection with each other ; the latter were responsible for the immediate neighbourhood of London to a distance of five miles from its centre, and the former looked after the remoter districts included in a circle with an average radius of twenty miles ; their principal routes were – to Enfield by Hampstead and Highgate in the North, to Epsom by Croydon and Richmond in the South, to Windsor by Uxbridge in the West, and Eastwards to Romford on the left bank of the Thames, and towards Maidstone on the right bank. Their orders were to proceed along the specified road at such a pace as would bring them to the end of their beat at the appointed time halt ten minutes and then return meeting the other patrolmen half-way ; when passing travellers they were ordered to make themselves known by calling out in an audible tone “Bow Street Patrol “; and on arriving at the home-end of their beat they were timed to meet the dismounted patrol, and had to communicate to them any news of importance. Every patrol, when on duty, was expected to be fully equipped, with his pistol loaded, and his sword- belt outside his coat ; if his horse should go lame he had to dismount, and on foot patrol half his usual distance ; in the event of a robbery or other breach of the peace coming to his notice, his duty was to join his companion, if possible, and that of the two together to pursue and endeavour to apprehend the offender or offenders, summoning outside assistance if necessary. If they effected a capture their prisoner was to be safely secured till morning, when they had to bring him to Bow Street.

The orders issued to the dismounted patrol, mutatis mutandis, were practically identical with those already detailed : the men were warned never to go out on their rounds without truncheon, cutlass and warrant ; and they had to meet the mounted patrol at the extremity of their beat, or report the circumstances under which they failed to carry out their instructions.

The Bow Street patrols were efficacious to a certain extent. Their presence gave confidence to travellers; and highway robberies on the main roads were put a stop to ; but they were of little use against burglars, and altogether failed to suppress the footpads who took to the lanes and by-ways when the high-roads were protected, nor could the removal of stolen property be prevented as long as the patrolmen were only kept on duty for half the night. The small force at the disposal of the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street, for the purpose of safe-guarding the outlying districts, had to patrol such a large area, and their movements were in consequence so regular, that it was easy for thieves to calculate the hour at which the peace officer was due at any given point, and equally easy to avoid him by concealment in a cross- road or behind a hedge until he had passed : a thief named Wilson long avoided capture in this manner, and when he eventually fell into the hands of the police, it was discovered that he had in his possession a regular time-table on which was marked at what o’clock the patrols might be expected at various points on all the main roads. 

Twelve months after Lord Sidmouth’s improvements had been initiated, a further advance was made, this time at the instance of Robert Peel, by the establishment of a Day-Patrol to supplement the Bow Street force. The new police body was very small, and only of an experimental nature ; but it served the purpose of its institution, and the success achieved by the three Inspectors and twenty-four men who composed this little force was a strong argument for a subsequent extension on similar lines.

These reforms, following close upon each other, showed that at last Government was disposed to make a sustained effort to put the police on a better footing, and to give effect to the recommendations of the Parliamentary Committees, which it had summoned year after year, but whose advice it had hitherto as regularly neglected.

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