The rise of the Great British ‘bobby’: a brief history of Britain’s police service

Why do police officers wear blue? How did they operate in the past? And when was the first female 'bobby'? Crime historian Clive Emsley, author of The Great British Bobby, reveals everything you need to know about the history of the British police service

Four police officers, members of the Bow Street Horse Patrol, pose for a photograph with a horse.
1

When was the police service as we know it established?

The date for the beginning of the police in Britain is often given as 1829, when the Metropolitan Police first took to the streets of London. The Scots and the Northern Irish can dispute this, pointing to their earlier institutions. And, indeed, many other issues about police institutions are open to dispute. First, at least as far as England is concerned, the Metropolitan Police did not replace men like Dogberry and Verges, the comic characters from Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing responsible for a group of bumbling watchmen. Nor did they replace doddery old constables who could barely lift their lanterns. Police institutions around the country were already becoming increasingly professional before 1829, and especially during the 18th century. Evidence from the Old Bailey, for example, reveals the presence of a number of courageous watchmen and constables; these were typically former soldiers, under the age of 40, who knew the laws of the land. In some parishes, these watchmen wore numbers painted on the back of their overcoats so that they were identifiable.

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An illustration showing the characters Dogberry and Verges accosting two individuals.
The bumbling antics of constables Dogberry and Verges, from William Shakespeare’s comedy ‘Much Ado About Nothing’, are not an accurate reflection of historic law enforcement, says Clive Emsley. (Photo by Photo 12/UIG via Getty Images)
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Why was the Metropolitan Police established?

Traditionally, the assumption has been that the Metropolitan Police was established because of an increase in disorder and crime. This is, however, extremely difficult to prove.

What we do know is that there had been an earlier attempt to establish a professional police body. In June 1780, London suffered more than a week’s rioting when the Protestant Association, principally directed by politician Lord George Gordon, began protesting about a minor easing of the then-laws against Catholics. The suppression of the riots – later known as the Gordon Riots – necessitated the use of soldiers, and shortly afterwards there was a (failed) attempt to establish a Metropolitan Police. One reason for the failure of the attempt was the hostility of the Lord Mayor, Sir Watkin Lewes, and the City of London Corporation, who were both intensely proud of their independence and their own institutions.

Parliamentary committees meeting after the Napoleonic Wars were sympathetic to the idea of creating a police force, as long as it did not contain what the English feared about the French police: political ties and militarisation. It wasn’t until Sir Robert Peel became home secretary in 1822 that any real change took place. In 1829, Peel set up the first disciplined police service for the Greater London area through the Metropolitan Police Act. One reason was to establish some sort of uniformity in how crime was dealt with across London – although the powerful square mile of the City of London was allowed to go its own way, and it still has its own force and commissioner today.

Portrait of former British prime minister Sir Robert Peel
A portrait of British politician Sir Robert Peel, who set up the first disciplined police service for the Greater London area. (Photo by Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Not everyone was happy with the new system. Before 1829, the London parishes had differing numbers of constables and watchmen; generally, the richer the parish, the greater number of men and the better their pay. These men belonged to their locality, and when the Metropolitan Force was founded there was considerable annoyance among rate payers that the government expected them to pay for a force over which they no longer had any control, and which, in some instances, put fewer men on the streets of their parish. This dissatisfaction was partly settled by an act of parliament in 1833 that provided for a quarter of police costs to come out of the Consolidated Fund [the government’s general bank account, which held its money from taxes and other revenue at the Bank of England].

3

Why do police officers wear a blue uniform?

The determination to ensure that the Metropolitan Police did not appear ‘military’ was one reason for the blue tunic (as opposed to the red of the British infantry) and the stove pipe hat rather than a shako [a cylindrical military cap adorned with a plume]. By the end of the 19th century, however, the police helmet was not greatly different from the infantry helmet.  In contrast, the Irish Constabulary (Royal Irish from 1867) looked like the military French Gendarmerie; they were armed and stationed in small barracks on the main roads.

An illustration showing a London policeman, dressed in blue, directing traffic.
An illustration showing a man wearing the blue uniform typically associated with the British police. “The determination to ensure that the Metropolitan Police did not appear ‘military’ was one reason for the blue tunic,” says Clive Emsley. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)
4

What type of person became a police officer?

Until the end of the Second World War, most rank-and-file police officers came from the semi-skilled and unskilled working classes. Often, they did not join the force with a career in mind but to tide themselves over during a period of unemployment. The pay was steady and did not depend on market fluctuations (unlike other working-class jobs where the pay might, at times, be much higher). However, it could slip at times or, in a serious downturn, go down to nothing.

In smaller boroughs, the chief constable was usually a career policeman who had risen from the ranks and who had been born into the working class. In the larger towns and cities (and some counties), the chief constable was more likely to be a man who could fit in with the wealthy elite. Invariably he was a man used to commanding others, either in the armed forces or from one of the paramilitary imperial police forces – such as the Royal Irish Constabulary or one of the forces in Imperial India. It was only between the two world wars that the government began to insist that such men had an awareness and experience of policing.

Even though Britain was a seagoing, imperial power, there were hardly any black or Asian officers before the 1970s. Even in the last 20 years of the 20th century, many police recruits faced considerable racial prejudice from white fellow officers.

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What was life like for a policeman and his family?

Unlike other working-class groups, a policeman’s wife was not allowed to take employment on her own behalf, which permanently limited the couple’s income. The fear was that a policeman’s working wife might be tempted to use influence or be put under pressure because of her husband’s job. Police officers were meant to appear as members of the ‘respectable working class’ (even if their pay was so much lower), and the wives of such men did not work.

Nonetheless, if a man was a village policeman his wife was expected to act as his auxiliary – taking messages if he was out on patrol or at court. Some chief constables allowed police wives to do a little domestic service or dressmaking, providing this did not interfere with her duties of looking after her home and family.

Depending on agreements with the local watch committee or Standing Joint Committee, police officers enjoyed a variety of perks including rent assistance and even free family medical care. Many officers also benefitted from a number of unofficial perks, such as a free loaf of bread from the local bakery, or a weekly penny for acting as an alarm clock for workmen needing to get up in the morning.  Not all police officers were angels, and some would abuse their position to partake in genuine criminal activity. Some accepted more illicit perks – such as a case of whiskey from the bookmakers for closing a blind eye to their best runners, who took bets illegally in places where they worked and socialised.

The relatively low pay, restriction on family income and the hard life of patrolling every day in the open-air, whatever the weather, ultimately fostered union activity in the force. This was most apparent during the First World War and engendered two strikes – the first in 1918 and the second in 1919 – that affected several forces at the war’s end. The second strike, which was over what form a police union should take, led to the establishment of the Police Federation of England and Wales. This meant that the police were barred from belonging to a trade union and no longer had a right to strike.

6

When did women start working as police officers?

The first women police officers were recruited during the First World War to supervise young women who either worked in munitions factories or were feared to be ‘pursuing’ young men in uniform. Many chief constables were delighted to be able to get rid of women at the war’s end in 1919, and regretted having to recruit them again in 1939. Chief constables did their best to limit women’s activities to typing, filing and making tea.

The women officers who remained or who joined after the Second World War were largely limited to looking after women and children until the equality legislation of the 1970s, which made their role legally and practically the same as their male colleagues. Many male officers continued to see them as a potential problem, believing that male officers would be too worried about their female colleagues to do ‘a man’s job’ effectively.

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How has the role of the police officer changed over time?

The first police officers were told that their principle role was the prevention of crime. Each man was given a beat [a territory and time in which to patrol], which was supervised by sergeants who periodically checked that each officer was where he was supposed to be. In London, police were expected to walk at a regulation 2.5 miles an hour. In rural districts, the men were given more discretion in the way that they patrolled since the ground they were covering was much greater.

The traditional beat patrol lasted for more than a century, although it became more flexible over time as it became clear that any sensible burglar or robber could simply wait until the constable had passed through their territory before committing a crime.

A black and white photograph showing a police officer with a new Ford Anglia 105E patrol car.
A police officer with a Ford Anglia patrol car, c1967. Rises in vehicle ownership in the second half of the 20th century changed how police officers operated. (Photo by Harry Dempster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

As cities expanded and the suburbs grew, the initial scale of coverage provided by the police became unaffordable. Increases in vehicle ownership, too, meant that more police were required to patrol in cars to prevent traffic regulation breaches.

As ever, changes in social behaviour and increasing awareness of certain issues all led to new fields within the force. Specialisms were created to tackle issues including the use and production of ‘recreational drugs’, the growth of football hooliganism, and the use of the internet to commit crime, including paedophilia and terrorism.

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Clive Emsley is author of The Great British Bobby: A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present (Quercus, 2009).