“The New Police”

The depth of lawlessness under which London lay submerged, and the deplorable condition of the feeble bulwarks that the richest city in the world had so long been content to rely on, have been considered at some length, because it is only by contrasting the security of recent years with the lawless confusion previously existing, that an intelligent appreciation of the debt we owe to Sir Robert Peel is made clear. The evidence given before the various Parliamentary Committees reveals to us an impartial contemporary view of things as they then were. The year 1830 saw an almost instantaneous change in the police of London, a transformation from an ‘inconceivably rotten and antiquated system into one which immediately became an example to the world.

Simultaneously with the police revival there suddenly dawned an unwonted era of security out of the dark and dangerous shadows of the past : that this was due to Peel’s Act, and to no other cause, is conclusively proved by the fact that the rural parts of England, to which the Act did not apply, had no share in the improvement which was at once manifest in the metropolis. The sharp contrast between the state of London under the old végime and its condition under the new administration is well illustrated by a comparison of two critical articles taken from the leading reviews of the day. A year before the introduction of Peel’s bill the Quarterly Review said – “There can be no doubt that the whole of the existing watch system of London and its vicinity ought to be mercilessly struck to the ground. No human being has the smallest confidence in it. Their existence is a nuisance and a curse “; and some years afterwards, when people had begun to realise how indispensable their police had become, the Edinburgh Review refers to the Metropolitan force in these words : “The arrangements are so good, the security so general, and the complex machinery works so quietly, that the real danger which must always exist where the wealth and luxury of a nation are brought into juxtaposition with its poverty and crime, is too much forgotten and the people begin to think it quite a matter of course, or one of the operations of providence, that they sleep and wake in safety in the midst of hordes of starving plunderers.” 

The change was the more sudden because it had been so long deferred. When the transition stage was over there could be no sustained conflict between the new champions of order and the old allies of disorder, because the latter had been allowed to hold the boards until their charlatanism and worthlessness were thoroughly exposed. People might, and actually did, say that the new system was bad and would lead to all kinds of disaster, but no one was bold enough to assert that the old system was good. Population had increased enormously, people were richer, more civilised and more humane than they had ever been before, and yet they put up with the same old apology for police that their grandfathers had been dissatisfied with and ashamed of. In some respects it is fortunate for us that this was so; for when the inevitable change was brought about, we got a better article than we should have done if an earlier model had been adopted, or if the abuses had not been allowed to flourish until they had become sufficiently glaring to demand radical measures for their removal.

Of the many Parliamentary Commissions, which since the year 1770 had investigated the police problem, the only one which did its work in a satisfactory manner was that convened on Peel’s initiative in 1828. This Commission went into the question very thoroughly, and came to the conclusion that ”it was absolutely necessary to devise some means to give greater security to persons and property,” As soon as the Commissioners’ report was issued, Peel decided to act upon it immediately, and on the 15th April 1829, introduced his bill in the House of Commons. After briefly reviewing the prevailing state of insecurity, and commenting upon the notoriously defective police arrangements in vogue, he declared that no longer must petty parochial jealousies be allowed to outweigh higher and more extended principles. He then unfolded to the House his general plan. Recognizing the impossibility of simultaneously providing the entire metropolis with trained policemen, he proposed, in the first instance, to start on a modest scale, hoping that by the gradual absorption of parishes, the central agency would become exercised in the management and control of the police, until in course of time it should be competent to take charge of the whole constabulary of London   the first experiment would begin with Westminster ; Kensington and Hammersmith would come next ; and eventually every parish, any part of which was within fifteen miles of Charing Cross, would be taken over. 

Most recent attempts to reform the police had been entered into under the influence of panic, and when some patched-up defence could be extemporised against the danger that threatened, those responsible for the public quiet had been content. Peel’s aims were more comprehensive : he set himself to design a framework sufficiently rigid to withstand the stress of the moment, and elastic enough to admit of expansion along the lines of future development. A nice judgement was required to determine how far the old materials could be made available for the reconstruction, to decide how much to retain and how much to discard. Certain sound and well proved principles, admirably suited to the national temper, underlay the structure which he was bent on modernising, and these, he saw, could not be dispensed with. No mania for novelty blinded him to the value of much of the groundwork of the old system ; and his reforms, therefore, were in the best sense conservative, for whilst there was no break in the continuity of whatever was good, neither was there any deliberate retention of anything that was bad. It is largely due to Peel’s moderation that, the more one studies the anatomy of modern English police, the more one discovers birthmarks of its Anglo-Saxon parentage. 

Two months after its introduction, Peel’s measure became law. The famous Act of Parliament creating the Metropolitan Police Force was entitled  “An Act for improving the Police in and near the Metropolis.” The preamble declared that, it having been found expedient to substitute a more efficient system of police for the local establishments of nightly watch and nightly police which had proved inadequate for the prevention and detection of crime, a new office of police was to be constituted, under the immediate authority of the Home Secretary. The Act is a long one, but its main provisions are simple and concise. His Majesty appoints two Justices of the Peace to conduct the business of the Police Office, and to frame regulations for the management of the force, subject to the approval of the Secretary of State. The financial department is placed under an official called the Receiver, and the Police Rate (which must not exceed eightpence in the pound) is to be collected by Overseers like the Poor Rate. The existing watch shall continue to discharge its duties in the various parishes until notification is made that the new police is appointed, and then all watch-boxes, arms, etc., shall be handed over, and the present watch rates shall cease. The limits of the “metropolitan police district ” are defined to comprise Westminster, and such parishes in Middlesex, Surrey, and Kent, as are enumerated in the Schedule of the Act. The Metropolitan police district is partitioned off into various “divisions ” according to counties, those of Middlesex being as follows, Westminster, Holborn, Finsbury, Tower, Kensington, Brentford, and a division comprising certain extra-parochial places such as Grays Inn, Furnivals Inn and Ely Place. A short supplementary Act relieves the chief magistrate at Bow Street of the direction of the Horse and Foot Patrols, and places them under the new police office. 

This Office, as created by the Act of Parliament, the chief provisions of which are above detailed, was situated in Westminster and was called Scotland Yard. It differed from the older Offices in many respects, for whilst it was given no judicial functions to perform, it was charged with the duty of supervising the police machinery of the metropolis. It thus became a centre from which to amalgamate the heterogeneous elements that went to make up London’s police, and from which to administer the reclaimed territory in an ever-widening circle, until the whole metropolitan area, amounting to nearly seven hundred square miles, was freed from the trammels of Bumbledom, and brought under the control of a bureau directed by “able, indefatigable, and intelligent men.” 

The intimate connection that had always existed between Justice of the Peace and constable was not severed at the birth of the metropolitan force, and the first officers of the new establishment, appointed under the provisions of the Act, were two Justices. Colonel Rowan, a soldier of distinction who had already gained some experience with the Royal Irish Constabulary, and Richard Mayne, an eminent lawyer, were the men selected. The task could not have fallen into better hands, and to the energy and tact displayed by the first Commissioners must be attributed, in great measure, the success achieved by the new force from its inception. In the course of an appreciative report, dealing with the results obtained by the New Police, a Parliamentary Committee, which sat in 1833 and I834, paid a high compliment to these gentlemen. “Much, in the opinion of your committee, is due to the judgement and discrimination which was exercised in the selection of the individuals, Colonel Rowan and Mr Mayne, who were originally appointed, and still continue to fill the arduous office of Commissioners of police. On many critical occasions and in very difficult circumstances, the sound discretion they have exercised, the straightforward, open and honourable course they have pursued- whenever their conduct has been questioned by the public – calls for the strongest expression of approbation on the part of your committee.” 

The task in front of the Commissioners was far from being an easy one : they had to raise a new force, but more important still was the business of restoring to the discredited office of Constable some of its native dignity and prestige. To this end it was necessary to get rid, as quickly as they dared, of all the unworthy ministers whose shortcomings had emboldened the lawbreakers and whose backslidings had disheartened the law-abiding ; in so doing they had to incur the odium of causing the wholesale dismissal of public servants, who, worthless as they were, had no other trade to fall back upon. Nor was this the end of their difficulties. They had to organise and train a very considerable army of recruits, they had to drill this force and educate it to discharge duties requiring tact and forbearance, they were assisted by no expert opinion, and had little previous experience to guide them. The novelty of the problem increased the difficulty of its solution. They had to encounter a popular prejudice that was almost unanimously opposed to them, and although a false step might have produced the most disastrous consequences, no delay was allowed them for consideration or experiment. Having undertaken the task, however, they were not the men to turn back, and in an incredibly short space of time they had the whole machine in work- ing order ; the metropolitan area was mapped out into police divisions, the divisions divided into sections, and sections subdivided into beats : the various grades of Superintendent, Inspector, Sergeant, and Constable were created, and to each grade was assigned its proper duties. By June I830, the Metropolitan Police consisted of 17 Superintendents, 68 Inspectors, 323 Sergeants,and 2,906 Constables, or 3,314 of all ranks. At first the twenty-four hours were divided into two day reliefs and two night reliefs, half of the entire force being on duty by day and half by night. This arrangement was not a success, and was subsequently altered, when the day duty was performed in two reliefs and the night duty in one relief : under this system two-thirds of the force were employed by night, one-third by day, individual men doing eight months’ night work and four months’ day work during the year. By this means a greater degree of security was attained when it was chiefly required, and the health of the men suffered less than under the former plan. 

Such in outline was the organisation of the Metropolitan Police ; absolute and arbitrary uniformity, however, was not insisted upon, but when necessary the system was modified to suit local requirements ; thus, there were not exactly 144 Constables in each Company, but the number varied from 262 in the Stepney (K) Division down to 96 in the Whitehall (A) Division. The first mentioned of these two Divisions was densely populated, whilst the other contained but few people, and the White- hall Company, therefore, which was mainly com- posed of picked men, was generally available should any sudden emergency arise in other quarters of the town.

Prominent amongst the earlier constitutional functions conferred upon the English constabulary for the prevention of crime were those of Presentment and Inquiry. We have seen how, with the decay of the police system which once effectually maintained the peace, these primary duties had fallen into disuse, and how in consequence, the principle of “quick and fresh pursuit” had been neglected, partly by reason of the defective information possessed by the executive, and partly on account of the inefficiency of the inferior officers. Under the new régime, however, these most essential constituents of successful police action were reintroduced, a conspicuous feature of the new police being the excellence of the arrangements arrived at for the supply of information as to the persons and habits of delinquents. To this end, a report or “presentment” containing the results of all inquiries made during the last twenty-four hours was daily rendered to the Commissioners, who were thus enabled to take steps for the prevention of any threatened breach of the peace. When a serious crime had been committed, not only were the known facts of the case immediately circulated amongst all the members of the London force, but necessary Particulars were periodically notified to a wider circle through the columns of the “Police Gazette,” a new official organ which superseded the old Bow Street publication known as “The Hue and Cry.”

The police constable who made his appearance in 1829 was a very different kind of man from any of his predecessors in the same office. The new force was recruited from the best procurable material, and those who sought admission to its ranks were expected to possess good physique, intelligence above the average, and an irreproachable character. Hitherto a variety of officers had been employed in their separate capacities of constable, watchman, street-keeper, and thief-taker : now, all these duties had to be performed by the same individual. new policeman, also, was required to have sufficient acquaintance with ordinary legal procedure to enable him to collect and arrange the available evidence in such a manner that, when his case came into court, the magistrate could dispose of the matter without vexatious delays induced, either by blunders com- mitted, or by necessary formalities omitted. The difficulty of securing a sufficient number of men with the necessary qualifications at the rate of remunera- tion offered was immense ; and although great care was exercised in the choice of candidates, but a small proportion of those selected were retained for any length of time. The extent to which this weeding out process was carried may be estimated from the fact that between 1830 and 1838 there were nearly five thousand dismissals, and more than six thousand resignations, most of the latter not being altogether voluntary. This was in marked contrast to the happy-go-lucky method of the old parochial bodies, who readily accepted infirm old men, ex-thieves, and sometimes thieves without the “ex,” provided only that they were cheap. 

For the guidance of all ranks, a set of rules and regulations were drawn up embodying principles and maxims upon which our modern police codes rest. “At the commencement of the new establishment,” say the Commissioners, “it is the more necessary to take particular care that the constables of the police do not form false notions of their duties and powers. The powers of a constable, as will appear hereafter, are, when properly understood and duly executed, amply sufficient for their purpose. He is regarded as the legitimate peace officer of his district ; and both by the Common Law and by many acts of parliament, he is invested with considerable powers, and has imposed upon him the execution of many important duties. It should be understood at the outset that the principal object to be attained is the prevention of crime. To this great end every effort of the police is to be directed. The security of person and property, the preservation of the public tranquillity, and all other objects of a police establish- ment will thus be better affected than by the detec- tion and punishment of the offender after he has succeeded in committing the crime. This should constantly be kept in mind by every member of the Police force, as a guide for his own conduct. Officers and police-constables should endeavour to distinguish themselves by such vigilance and activity as may render it extremely difficult for anyone to commit a crime within that portion of the town under their charge. 

When in any division, offences are frequently committed, there must be reason to expect that the police in that division is not properly conducted. 

The absence of crime will be considered the best proof of the complete efficiency of the police. In divisions where this security and good order have been effected, the officers and men belonging to it may feel assured that such good conduct will be noticed by rewards and promotions.”

Touching the duties of the individual constables, Mr Mayne, who drew up the regulations, went on to say “He (ie the constable) must remember that there is no qualification more indispensable to a police officer than a perfect command of temper, never suffering himself to be moved in the slightest degree by any language or threats that may be used : if he do his duty in a quiet and determined manner, such conduct will probably induce well-dis- posed bystanders to assist him should he require it.” These regulations require no comment, they speak for themselves : but in view of the intense and unreasoning hostility direct against the police both by press and public, not only in 2830, but also on more recent occasions, it is fortunate that this evidence of the conciliatory spirit in which the reforms were introduced, should be on record. 

The immediate result of the institution of an effective police force, whose main object was prevention, was precisely that which was to be expected convictions for crimes of violence decreased, because evil-disposed persons knew that they could no longer commit them with impunity, and convictions for minor offences increased, because the vigilance of the new policemen brought to their proper punish- ment many a petty depredator who had easily hood- winked his familiar friend, the old parish officer. Under the date of Nove ber 3rd, 1829, or little more than four months after the passing of the Act, the Duke of Wellington was able to write to Peel – “I congratulate you on the entire success of the Police in London, it is impossible to see anything more respectable than they are ” and Peel to answer I am very glad indeed to hear that you think well of the Police. It has given me from first to last more trouble than anything I ever unde took. But the men are gaining a knowledge of their duties so rapidly, that I am very sanguine of the ultimate result. I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.” Nothing has yet been said about the expense of the new establishment. At what cost to the rate- payers was this increased security obtained?  

Such a question is not easy to answer with any Before 1829 many parishes were practically without police of any kind, and if they spent little in Watch-rates they paid dearly in the heavy tolls exacted by “the organised gangs of thieves ” referred to by Peel. Other parishes kept their accounts so carelessly that their records are useless for purposes of comparison, and it is therefore impossible to tell how much money they wasted. The 1834 Committee, which investigated this question of comparative expense, had all the available material before them, and they gave it as their opinion that strict economy pervaded the new system. In support of this opinion, they quoted the case of the parish of Hackney, which was moderately well policed as things went then. Prior to the introduction of the reformed police, the ratepayers of Hackney contributed £3,380 per annum, whereas at the maximum police rate that could be levied under the new system (eightpence in the pound) the bill was only £3,164.

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