Policing in 19th Century Liverpool

The Liverpool City Police, formed in 1836, replaced the Night Watch and the Corporation Constabulary. The other force was the Dock Watch who initially remained independent but amalgamated with the City Police in 1841.None of the aforementioned organisations had particularly good reputations. The Night Watch had a reputation for being drunkards and according to Hugh Shimmin, who wrote a series of articles for the Liverpool Mercury on policing in Liverpool; they were a ‘terror to nobody and an amusement only to mischievously disposed lads’.

The watchmen called out the hours of the night which actually acted as an aid to the lawless as it identified their locations and they slept in sentry boxes that became a target for the local youths who frequently, for fun, overturned their sentry boxes and stole their lanterns. The best description of the watchmen came later from Nott Bower who regarded them as ‘corrupt, many of them drunkards, most of them aged or crippled and all of them utterly useless for almost anything but calling the hours of the night’. The Corporation Constabulary were little better as they only worked during the day and were generally corrupt, accepted bribes and deserted their beats. 

Probably the most efficient out of a bad bunch were the Dock Watch but the rivalry amongst the groups regularly led to the Dock Watch attacking the Night Watch and locking them up overnight in the dock-side bridewells. Regardless of their obvious faults the Watch Committee appointed at least half of the Corporation Constabulary and 53 of the Night Watch to the new police force, along with 12 Inspectors as the rank of Sergeant was not introduced until 1885 by Nott Bower.

The new force was organised using the Metropolitan Police plan. The town was separated into two divisions, simplistically North and South. The boundary between the two divisions ran from the River Mersey, Water Street, Dale Street, Shaws Brow(William Brown Street), London Road and Prescot Street. The Bridewells of the North Division were at Exchange Street East and Vauxhall Road and the South Division at Brick Street and Duncan Street East. However, by the mid century although the boundary line had not changed the parade stations had. The North Division paraded at Rose Hill Police Station and the South Division at Seel Street Police Station. Conditions for the first 360 policemen were very harsh. The officers averaged a twelve hour working day even in the coldest weather, they did not get any Rest days and for this, they were paid the princely sum of 18 shillings per week (90p)

Having decided to appoint members of the previous discredited watches to the new force on the grounds that ‘only serving constables and watchmen had the experience or the desire to work long hours in dangerous conditions under stringent rules for 18s weekly’ one would assume that in modern day parlance that ‘things could only get better’ and to a certain extent they did as in 1839 the Watch Committee reported that the behaviour of the police had ‘progressively improved’ as there had only been 639 cases of drunkenness and 1,592 other disciplinary offences recorded that year against police officers out of a force of 574!

Turnover of police officers throughout most of the century was high with less than 10 % serving after two years and less than 1% after ten years and it is obvious that many of the recruits were not of the highest calibre. For example, in 1838, 73 officers resigned, and 101 dismissed. Some of those dismissed were for offences of drunk on duty (25), for being the worse for liquor and being in public houses when on duty (19), for being asleep on their beats (3), for being absent from their beats and neglect of duty (15), for being the worse for drink when off duty (3) and 23 for other offences. If this list wasn’t bad enough 160 officers were fined or reduced in rank for being drunk on duty, 396 for being in a public house or being the worse for drink whilst on duty, 550 for being absent from beats and 107 for being asleep on duty. . Retention of officers was so bad that in 1857 interviews for entry to the force were held every Thursday! Recruits were required to be able to read and write and had to apply in their own handwriting along with testimonials to the Head Constable. If successful in the interview he underwent a medical, was sworn in and given his uniform and equipment of a great coat, an oilskin cape, two pairs of boots and trousers, a hat, two pairs of gloves, a whistle, a rattle and a truncheon. 

A recruit was classed as a 3rd class constable and was paid 18s per week which was roughly the wage of a labourer or dock worker. He was also supplied with a ‘Book of Instruction: covering 800 points concerning by-laws and instructions. Therefore, the ability to read was a necessity.* The turnover in personnel was not just because of bad behaviour as the job of a police officer was viewed as ‘unskilled and poorly remunerated’ and a job that many took only as a stopgap or when it was the only possible job available in times of economic recession. Beside those reasons there were restrictions on social life, exposure to weather, personal risk and working every day, so, officers could not be blamed if they left when the first favourable opportunity came along. Failing to retain police officers was not peculiar to Liverpool as it was common in the early years of the ‘new police.’ For example, Lancashire Constabulary lost a quarter of its strength in the first six months of its existence and even over 30 years later a ‘third of all new recruits did not last one year’.

By the mid-century the police force was well established and then, like now, few people would have been aware of the multifarious duties that officers had to perform. Many of them will be familiar with officers who served in Liverpool in the nineteen fifties and sixties. Some but not all were highlighted by Shimmin when trying to impart this information to the public: Ensuring that pubs closed on time: removal of street obstructions: ensuring that cellar grids are secure: no chimneys set on fire to save the cost of a sweep: visiting lodging houses: ensuring that no excavations were left without protection or proper signal of danger (ropes and lamps): reporting of water leaks: ensuring street lighting was lit and in good order: anything such as defective flagging on pavements likely to cause an accident had to be reported: ensuring no cruelty to animals particularly working horses: ensuring that maids etc. cleaning windows did not sit outside the windows and ensuring that ‘no dogs run at large in the month when, according to the old popular superstition, the canine race are more likely than at any other period to go mad.’ 

Police officers had to take into care lost children, assist at fires, suppress vagrancy whilst at the same time ensuring none died from destitution, ensuring prompt medical attention was received at any accident and with tongue in cheek SMIMMIN argues that their humane instincts are such ‘that they will not even allow a poor wretch to drown himself without fishing him out’. The force even had a facility at Collingwood Dock Police Station as a ‘receiving-house for the resuscitation of persons apparently drowned’ where a boiler ensured that the water in a large bath was constantly heated day and night. As soon as a ‘body’ was recovered from the river or dock it was brought to the station and placed in the warm bath and a Doctor sent for whilst the Bridewell Keeper ‘takes the necessary means for the restoration of life, acting on the printed instructions of the Humane Society’. According to SHIMMIN this method was successful on the majority of occasions and only having been opened for 4 years ‘it had been the means of already saving hundreds of lives’ (it can only be assumed that there was a very loose interpretation of the term ‘apparently drowned’). Notwithstanding the interpretation, the humane instincts of Liverpool police officers then in saving lives, has continued throughout centuries since, attested by the number of Liverpool Shipwreck and Humane Society awards to police officers.

The shifts police officers worked allowed for the fact that except for the Docks the Night shift had to be stronger than the day shift. This led to shifts worked on the town sections that probably wouldn’t be allowed today because of Human Rights. For example: A police officer would parade for Night duty at 8.45 pm and continued on duty until either 5am or 6am as the season may be: The next night he paraded again at 8.45 pm and again worked as before: He then paraded again at 3pm and worked until 9pm, the next day he paraded at 6am and worked until 10am. He then re-paraded at 8.45 pm that night and his shift pattern started all over again. When taking into account the time for the officer going to and from his home Shimmin argued that the ordinary duties of a police officer were ‘somewhat heavy and oppressive’. Again, familiar to police officers working Liverpool in the nineteen fifties and sixties where working a beat and checking property was the norm, it would come as no surprise that in 1856, 1,465 premises were found to have unlocked doors which included 321, dwellings: 368 shops:269 warehouse:202 yards and 17 churches and chapels!

Working a beat in mid- nineteenth century was not dissimilar to working a beat in the twentieth century. On parade prior to going to their beats, officers had to produce their appointments, by holding his cape over his left arm and holding his truncheon, whistle and rattle in the other. The content of the ‘Reading Out File’ was read to the officers who were then marched out to their beats. Supervision of officers was demonstrated to Shimmin when the Superintendent struck the pavement with his signalling stick which was acknowledged by the sound of a police whistle followed shortly afterwards by the appearance of a police officer who touched his hat, said that everything was ‘all right’ and then resumed his beat. The Superintendent then demonstrated that if there was an emergency he would strike the pavement twice or three times which resulted in three or four police officers running to him. Shimmin was impressed and doubted whether the exhibition had been staged for his purpose but cynics may think otherwise. Whether the demonstration was staged or not the continued use of a signalling stick was still commonly and effectively used in twentieth century Liverpool before personal radios were used.

In the series of articles by Shimmin it became obvious that he held the force in high regard as he described it as ‘THE MODEL FORCE OF THE KINDOM’ but, over the following years, his opinions changed and when he ran his own newspaper, ‘The Porcupine,’ he was most vociferous in his columns when denouncing bad behaviour by police officers and certainly became less sympathetic to their plight. Whilst in 1857 he admired their stature, attitude and bearing and likened them to members of a crack regiment, in the 1870’s he had other feelings. He wrote a parody on how the public react to a police officer arresting a prisoner who is resisting arrest. He describes the officer as ‘poor bobby’ who is assaulted sometimes but nobody minds as it is all part of the business for which he receives his twenty shillings a week and, whilst he is fighting for his life the crowd looks on cheering and laughing ‘ as if it were a fight between two dogs’. Sadly this could have been the case on many occasions during the 19th Century and at times in the 20th Century as police officers when arresting offenders had to walk them through the streets to the police station. Most of the time they were on their own with no means of calling for assistance other than a police whistle. But even as Shimmin admitted in his earlier days this was a common occurrence in certain districts of the town as crowds gathered to prevent prisoners being arrested. In fact one such occurrence he describes was right outside Rose Hill Police Station!

Sadly it was a fact that generally in Britain the ‘new police’ were not only disliked, but also resented by elements of the population. Archer argues that between the formation of the force and the turn of the twentieth century the police and the working class were both fighting for control of the streets as the police were trying to impose what the Victorians took to be decorum and civilized behaviour whilst the working classes were attempting to retain control of their neighbourhoods, of their ways of doing things. To those living in the slum courts the ‘English criminal justice system was not seen as relevant or even necessary by many people when dealing with their warring neighbours or settling domestic fallouts.’ Also the police marching to their beats likened by Shimmin to members of a crack regiment appeared to some, particularly the Irish population, like an occupying army because, where they came from, the police were a paramilitary force created especially to oppress the native people. To use a modern idiom, for most of the century, police officers ‘were between a rock and a hard place’.

It was hard being a police officer during these times and over the remains of the century they had many incidents involving major outbreaks of violence to deal with whilst at the same time preventing and detecting crime. But slowly things improved in the life of police officers. Nott Bower became the Head Constable and instituted educational changes to ensure all officers were literate, he introduced the rank of Sergeant to ensure closer supervision of officers and by 1899 discipline in the force had improved to such an extent that alcohol related offences in the force numbered only 68 out of a force of 1,804. Police Officers were no longer required to work every day including Sundays but now received 30 to 40 days off per year and more, if an officer’s health had suffered. Also, weekly contributions from officers and the Watch Committee ensured that Long Service and retirement brought a pension that was considered by Victorian standards to be quite generous.

The force by the end of the nineteenth century had changed and matured. Nott Bower could boast that the force was now sixty times better than when it was formed and crime had decreased between 1895 and 1900 However, there was a reaction to this success that could mirror the situation today. In 1898 ‘in consequence of the continued and great diminution of crime and disorder’ the Watch Committee ‘experimented’ by reducing police strength by 100, which was made permanent the next year.

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