Police Reforms in Boroughs

It is sometimes assumed that the Metropolitan Police Act solved, once and for all, the question as to the manner in which, London was to be policed for the future. Such, however, was far from being the case. The old prejudice was not lived down in a day ; and the jealousy of those who saw what they were pleased to consider their vested rights slipping out of their grasp into the hands of the newcomers, caused the remnant of the old office-holders to make frantic efforts to recover what they had lost, and to hold fast what they were in danger of losing. There were still many irreconcilables, who looked upon the new force as a gang of usurpers and treated it with distrust and suspicion accordingly, hoping that some false move on the part of the police authorities, or some unlooked-for happy chance, might change the fortunes of the day. Luckily no such set-back occurred, and by slow degrees the ultimate success of the principles enunciated by Peel became more and more assured, and Scotland Yard triumphed to the discomfiture of all possible rivals. From the very commencement Sir Robert Peel had declared that unity of design was essential to success ; but when the reorganisation took place, Parliament shrank from the bold course marked out for it, and instead of making a clean sweep of all that was useless, whilst transferring to the new police anything in the old system that was of value, preferred to retain some of the existing unsatisfactory agencies, and to allow them to continue to manage or mismanage their own affairs as before. 

The establishments within the boundaries of the Metropolitan Police area that survived the reorganisation of 1829 were:

i. The Bow Street Horse-Patrol, under the control of the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street. 

ii. The police constables under the separate control of the Magistrates of the Police Offices, to which they respectively belonged, being the following offices- Bow Street, Hatton Garden, Union Hall, Worship Street, Lambeth Street, Queen Square, Marlborough Street, High Street Marylebone, and the Town Hall Southwark. 

iii. The River Police, under the control of the Magistrates of the Thames Police Office. 

iv. The City of London Police, under the control of the Municipal authorities. 

Each of these independent establishments carried out its police functions according to its own peculiar ideas and local traditions. One and all were jealous of their powerful neighbour at Scotland Yard ; and when they dared to do so, were not ashamed to countenance the petty and spiteful tactics that their subordinate officers lost no opportunity of indulgng in.

It will be remembered that a short supplementary Act  had contemplated the transference of the powers possessed by the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street over the Horse Patrol, to the Metropolitan Police Commissioners. This intention was not given effect to at the time, the Patrol being left under the command of its old chief, Mr Day ; and the Act was repealed in 1833  It was not until October 1836, or more than seven years after the passing of Peel’s measure, that the Horse Patrol became an integral part of the Metropolitan Consolidated Police, an amalgamation which, besides increasing the actual efficiency of both forces, effected an annual saving of more than a thousand pounds. The horse- patrolmen became mounted constables, being attached as such to the exterior divisions, where the beats were long.

It took longer to arrive at a satisfactory settlement with regard to the small detached bodies of police belonging to the nine stipendiary offices enumerated above. No one wished to interfere with the judicial functions of these police-courts but it was highly desirable to effect a separation between the judicial and executive branches, and to bring under proper supervision and control the undisciplined plain-clothes policemen who thought more of picking up a good living for themselves , and of ” scoring off” their uniformed rivals, than they did of the preservation of the peace. The manner in which the general business of these police offices was conducted left much to be desired, whilst the arrangements for the conveyance of prisoners, and for their detention when awaiting disposal and under remand, were about as bad as they could be. As many as thirty prisoners of all conditions, of various ages, and of both sexes, were often crowded together in a prison van, in which there was only accommodation for twenty, and left there for hours in the dark whilst the van was making the tour of the police offices. 

When no conveyance was available, prisoners were sometimes conducted from the place of detention to the police-court handcuffed and fastened together by a long chain. It was alleged, probably with truth, that the officer in charge would allow his prisoners to be supplied with drink by sympathetic onlookers as the procession passed through the public streets. Such abuses were put an end to when the inevitable consolidation took place and the separate jurisdiction of the stipendiary offices ceased. The necessary duties about the courts were for the future ably performed by sergeants and constables of the new police, and the old staff, including the Bow Street Runners, were pensioned off or absorbed into the Metropolitan force. This centralization not only materially conduced to increased efficiency and diminished expense, but by severing the too intimate connection that had previously existed between magistrates and policemen, was calculated to reassure the public, in so far that a magistracy untrammelled by police responsibility would be less prone to be over-indulgent towards any excesses of which the Constabulary might at any time be guilty.

The case of the third independent body was altogether different. The duties that fell to the River Police were special duties, and specially trained men were required to perform them adequately. The Thames police establishment, which was recruited chiefly from ex-sailors and watermen, consisted of sixty constables under the direction of twenty surveyors – each surveyor being in charge of a boat manned by three men ; their powers comprised the right to board vessels in search of contraband or stolen articles, and generally to discharge the duties of excisemen and policemen combined. Since the year 1798, when the River Police was remodelled on the lines suggested by Colquhoun, it had proved an efficient body, and there were no obvious abuses or shortcomings that necessitated a radical change ; the arguments for and against amalgamation were therefore more evenly balanced than was the case with the stipendiary offices, but it was felt that as both banks of the Thames were patrolled by the Metropolitan Police, it was rather absurd that the river between should be under a separate organisation and control. It was accordingly decided to continue the work of consolidation, and many of the powers previously exercised by the magistrates of the Thames Office were transferred to the Commissioners at Scotland Yard, the personnel of the river force being left as before.

The police arrangements in the City of London have already been described ; certain modifications and improvements had been recently introduced, but the general scheme remained virtually the same as it had been any time during the last quarter of a century. It is true that a better class of man was employed than was formerly the case ; but the system was not good, marred as it was by a lack of uniformity within, and a failure to cooperate with the kindred agencies without the city boundaries. The expense too was excessive, and there was a period between the relief of the day patrols and the mounting of the night watch when no police at all were on duty. There can be little doubt that if the civic authorities had permitted this unsatisfactory state of affairs to continue much longer, the government would have insisted upon consolidation, thus putting an end to the separate and exclusive jurisdiction in matters of police which, for five hundred years, had been the privilege of the City of London. Such a step, however, was rendered unnecessary by the timely precautions adopted by the Lord Mayor and Aldermen, who, taking the Metropolitan police as a pattern, entirely reorganised the city force, bringing it up to date both in respect to numbers and efficiency, and so ordering it that there should be no cause for friction between the city constables and metropolitan policemen, and no cause for jealousy other than that which proceeds from a healthy sentiment of esprit de corps. The legislature was all the more ready to acquiesce in this compromise, because the City, asking for no assistance from the Treasury, bore the whole expense connected with the improved constabulary out of its private revenues.

By the end of 1839 the consolidation was complete, and within a circumference distant fifteen miles from Charing Cross there remained but two police forces, both organised on similar lines and each designed on intelligent principles, in the place of the heterogeneous medley of samples formerly existing. In this same year, the efficiency of the Metropolitan Police was increased, and its sphere of usefulness enlarged, by an Act  which enables additions to be made to the police district by an Order in Council, and which empowers its officers to act as constables in and for certain specified districts outside the Metropolitan Police Area, such as, for example, the City of London, all navigable parts of the River Thames, and any place within ten miles of a Royal Palace. Authority was also given to police-constables to suppress gaming houses, disorderly houses, and illegal games (such as cock- fighting, prize-fighting, bull-baiting, and the like), to supervise licensed premises and pawnbrokers, and to regulate fairs and street-musicians.

The success that had attended the reorganisation of the police of the metropolis, and the gratifying results that, on the whole, had followed the experiment, encouraged the hope that the benefits conferred by an efficient constabulary would soon be shared by the boroughs throughout the country. It would be an endless task to attempt a description of all the various police systems which found favour in the provincial towns, especially as in no two places was exactly the same pattern adopted ; and it will be quite sufficient for our purpose if we briefly notice the arrangements come to for the prevention of crime and the maintenance of order in the case of a few selected boroughs.

In 1833 Bath had a population of about 20,000, or if we include the suburbs, 55,000 ; there was no permanent body of professional peace officers, only tythingmen or constables to the number of II0. This small force was split up into three parts, each part independent of, and antagonistic to, the others on the occasion of a parliamentary election, when party feeling ran high and serious disturbances took place all over the town, the Walcot and Bathwick divisions gave their assistance, but the city police refused to act, even when they were appealed to by the Mayor in person. If a felony was committed in the city, the guilty party could only be apprehended on the warrant of a city magistrate, and, if the felon should succeed in reaching the suburbs, the city constables could not execute the warrant until it was backed by a justice of the county of Somersetshire. In Gloucester no watchmen were employed before1I822, and the whole available constabulary force consisted of the Sergeant-at-Mace, and the other officers of the Corporation, assisted by twelve constables appointed by the magistrates. The ancient Court of Piepoudrer flourished until 1770 or thereabouts, after which it gradually fell into disuse. In 1831 two day policemen were appointed in imitation of the London system. Coventry, with a population of 28,000, supported 60 peace-officers under the command of a chief constable, and from 8 to 10 watchmen under the orders of an official called “the Inspector of the Watch.” In case of emergency the town looked for protection to the services of special constables who had been enrolled in times of tumult to the number of four or five hundred. Generally speaking the police were unpaid, but when employed in quelling a riot, the constables were sometimes given a shilling or eighteen pence for refreshments. Dover had two distinct forces, one under the control of the magistrates, and the other (established under the “Pavement Act “), wholly independent. The total number of constables was from 25 to 30, but they had nothing to do with watching the town.

At this time Hull contained 36,000 inhabitants, and was policed on a very economical plan. The chief constable supervised thirty-nine officers who were only paid for work done ; that is to say, the constables were allowed so much an hour for time actually spent in apprehending felons or vagrants, on the principle : no prisoner, no pay. The dock companies employed a percentage of their day-labourers to act as night watchmen, and, under a local act, 72 watchmen were appointed for the town and outlying districts. In Portsmouth 22 peace officers pretended to protect nearly 50,000 people, and in Liverpool, where the prevalence of crime was so pronounced that the town was often spoken of as the “black spot on the Mersey,” the only police force existing in 1834 was a body of 50 watchmen (of the usual type), to keep order amongst 240,000 inhabitants. 

These brief but representative examples will give some idea of the diversity of police systems and police expedients to be found in the larger towns. If each borough had been left to work out its own salvation according to its own predilections, constabulary forces more or less efficient would eventually, no doubt, have sprung up here and there ; but the absence of uniformity and co- operation, which necessarily must accompany such a spasmodic process, would have seriously retarded the ultimate triumph of good government throughout England. There were three principal reasons why the im-mediate provision of a general scheme of police reform in the Boroughs was urgently required at this particular moment. Criminals of all kinds are ever on the alert to find an Alsatia where they can ply their trades without the unwelcome interference of their hereditary enemy, the policeman, and the formation of the Metropolitan force was the signal for a wholesale exodus of depredators from London towards other and more secluded centres of activity. The smaller country towns and rural districts offered few thieves, and so boroughs like Liverpool, Manchester and Bristol, where considerable plunder was to be had at little risk, were the chosen retreats of many who no longer dared to brave it out in London. 

If any reliance may be placed on contemporary statistics, this migration entirely altered the distribution of the criminal classes : it was estimated, incredible as it may seem, that in 1797 nearly ten per cent. of the population of London supported themselves “by pursuits either criminally illegal or immoral “: in 1837, the proportion of known bad characters to the population was calculated at only 1 to 89 in the Metropolitan Police District, but at 1 to 45 in the Borough of Liverpool, 1 to 31in the City of Bristol, and 1 to 27 in the Town of Newcastle-on-Tyne. One cannot believe that these calculations were based on perfectly accurate information, but on the other hand it is unlikely that the results are so wide of the mark as to be altogether without value, and after allowing a large margin for error, proof enough remains that the enhanced security of London had, to some extent, been purchased at the expense of the inhabitants of other towns.

The desire to acquire wealth without working is the main incentive that makes men criminal, and experience proves that if those who live by their wits are sufficiently harassed, they soon show their wit by returning to the humdrum path of honesty till such time as the vigilance of their enemies is relaxed. Allow the thief no rest is a sound maxim of preventive police ; and if in 1829 it had been possible simultaneously to provide efficient police for all the towns of England, many and many a thief would have been driven to exchange his old occupation for some less precarious trade. The second reason why delay was dangerous was because of the enormous increase of population in the manufacturing towns. Trade was brisk, money plentiful, and the rapid development of the railway system caused an increasing stream of workers to flow from the country into the industrial centres. The population of Birmingham, for instance, in creased in this way from 90,000 in 1815 to 150,000 in 1832.

The last of the three reasons which contributed to make this particular moment especially opportune for insisting that the provincial towns should provide themselves with an improved and adequate police, was because Municipal reform was the question of the hour, and it was therefore extremely important that the new-fashioned Boroughs should neither perpetuate faulty tradition nor originate impracticable experiment. The history of English Boroughs cannot here be discussed ; it will be sufficient to remark that, early in English history, charters, giving powers of self- government, had been granted to many towns and by many successive sovereigns. The creation of Corporate Towns was esteemed one of the highest prerogatives of the Crown, but the powers so conferred were seldom employed to the best advantage ; and the fact that failure was especially pronounced in the matter of peace- maintenance is sufficiently illustrated by the examples already given of borough police forces, as at this time constituted. Legislative reform was set on foot in 1833 by the “Lighting and Watching Act ” of William IV.,’ which provided that inspectors should be appointed and given a large measure of control over the local police establishments of all English towns with the exceptions of London, Oxford, and Cambridge ; this Act was, however, of little permanent value, and is only worthy of notice as the first attempt to provide a day police outside the metropolis. 

In the following year the whole question of charters, etc., was investigated by Special Commissioners, who issued a report embodying recommendations, which, for the most part, were given effect to by the “Municipal Corporations Act  of 1835. After repealing all Acts, charters, and customs inconsistent with itself, this statute proceeds to create municipal corporations for the larger towns ; such corporations to be styled The Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses.” The Mayor is declared to be a Justice of the Peace for the borough, and no property qualification is now required of him. The Common Law method of appointing constables is placed on a new basis, for the Act entrusts the making of Head and other constables to a body composed of the mayor and councilmen, called “The Watch Committee,” the members of which are empowered, at their discretion, to make regulations for the management of the police, and to discharge or otherwise punish any constable found remiss in his duties, provided that three members at least are present when the award is made.

Borough constables are given powers to act in the county as well as in the town, and are authorised, not only to apprehend disorderly persons at any time, but during the night may take bail by recognizance from persons brought before them for petty misdemeanours, such recognizance to be conditioned for the appearance of the parties before the magistrate. Watch Committees are required to provide station houses, and every quarter must transmit to the Home Secretary a return shewing the number of men employed, the nature of their arms and accoutrements, together with an account of all salaries, clothing, and standing regulations for the forces ; provision is made for the appointment, under certain conditions, of stipendiary magistrates at the request of the Council ; the office of Borough Coroner is instituted ; and finally, the Act requires two or more Justices to nominate and appoint by precept in writing, in October of each year, as many as they see fit of the inhabitants of the Borough to act as Special Constables there, whenever they shall be required by the warrant of a J.P. 

The institution of special constables was a natural accompaniment to the general drift of circumstances which, for a long time, had been modifying English police. Originally, as we have seen, every free Englishman was compelled to take an active part in maintaining the peace : subsequently, by common consent and merely for the sake of convenience, the performance of police functions passed into the hands of individuals, either chosen or hired for the purpose, it mattered not which. As long as the principle of an inherent liability to universal service was generally well understood and acted upon, or, in other words, as long as the Sheriffs posse was available in emergencies, no legislation was required on the subject, because at Common Law a sufficient force of special constables already existed ; but when this common responsibility for action was in danger of being forgotten, or, what amounts to much the same thing, when the existing machinery was incapable of giving effect to it, some new expedient had to be devised to take its place. The first Act of Parliament authorising the appointment of special constables was passed in 1673 and was a tardy attempt to repair the havoc caused by the Civil War, but like many laws that found their way into the Statute Book during the seventeenth century, it might just as well have remained unprinted, for all the use that was made of it.

It was not employed to restrain the Mohocks, nor to suppress the Gordon rioters, nor to save Bristol from the incendiaries. In 1831, however, began a sustained effort to systematise the overwhelming reserve of force at the disposal of the government of the country ; this was the combined work of “The Special Constables’ Act ” of 1831,  of the ” Municipal Corporations Act ”  of 1835, and lastly of an Act which became law shortly after the accession of Queen Victoria. These three Statutes dealt with the subject in detail, by defining what constitutes a special constable, by specifying his powers, and by stating when and by whom he is to be appointed. Between them they authorise  “two or more justices, upon information on oath of any credible witness, that tumult, riot, or felony has taken place, or may be reasonably apprehended, such justices being of opinion that the ordinary officers are not sufficient for the preservation of the peace and protection of the inhabitants and property,” to nominate and appoint by precept under their hand so many as they shall think fit of the householders or other persons (not legally exempt from serving the office of Constable) residing in the parish or place or in the neighbourhood, for such time and in such manner as to the same justices shall seem fit,” and ordain that they shall send notice of such appointment to the Secretary of State and the Lieutenant of the county. Specials may act, not only in the parish or place for which appointed, but throughout the jurisdiction of the Justices appointing, and on the order of Justices of their own county, may act in an adjoining county. Generally speaking, special constables have all the powers, and are subject to all the responsibilities, that ordinarily attach to police constables within their constable-wicks.

The years 1829 and 1839 mark the limits of the most important decade in our police history. During this period of time the English boroughs acquired the means of securing themselves against the rising tide of crime which had threatened to overwhelm them ; and an adequate defence against mob violence was made available by the legislation which restored, and reduced to a system, the power of the executive to enlist as many special constables as might be necessary for the maintenance of law and order. Whilst the former year will always be considered, and rightly so, as the most prominent landmark of the great revival from which dates an almost constant growth of police efficiency, the latter is hardly less noteworthy. 1839 not only saw the metropolitan forces for the first time firmly established on a permanent and satisfactory basis, it witnessed also the earlier stages of that movement in the rural districts which eventually provided the whole of England with a trustworthy constabulary.

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