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The Great British Bobby

 David Taylor enjoys a well-informed history of policing from the 19th century to the present day

Published: November 8, 2009 at 10:38 am

Reviewed by: David Taylor enjoys a well-informed history of policing from the 19th century to the present day
Author: Clive Emsley
Publisher: Quercus
Price (RRP): £18.99


The doyen of police history has produced a well-informed, thoughtful account of British policing over some 200 years that is a pleasure to read. He brings to bear his own unrivalled knowledge of the subject and recent research in a rapidly growing area of study. 

The approach is unashamedly chronological and ‘bottom up’ and his purpose unequivocal. Policemen “deserve a proper understanding of what they have done and what they do now”. By looking in detail at the careers of a number of individual policeman, Emsley puts a human face to the figure who all too often was seen as “a human cipher representing the law”. This is a considerable achievement given the paucity of records relating to the day-to-day life of the ordinary constable, though, necessarily, there is a reliance upon the atypical who either committed their thoughts to paper or for whom more detailed information has survived. Notwithstanding his strong (and personal) commitment to the subject, Emsley gives an unsentimental account of the police, recognising often deep-rooted problems of corruption, violence and bigotry but without losing sight of the unspectacular, downright ordinary but important hard graft of thousands of men who donned the uniform.

A considerable strength of the overall interpretation is the emphasis on continuity and imperceptible, incremental change. This is a useful corrective to those histories that claim to identify dramatic turning points but there is, perhaps, a danger of overlooking periods of accelerated change such as the second quarter of the 19th century and the last quarter of the 20th. It could also be argued that the inter-war years were not simply a return to prewar ways but contained important elements of modernisation that came to fruition after the Second World War. 

A further strength of the book is its breadth. This is not an Anglo-centric account but considers policing in the UK and the British empire; further, by moving beyond the superficially attractive but misleading dichotomy between ‘English’ and ‘Irish’ (or imperial) models of policing, Emsley shows how the movement of men and mentalities led to a rich exchange that enabled forces to develop from a common pool of ideas and practices but in a way that suited their particular circumstances. 

A final strength lies in the recognition that the ‘great British Bobby’ remained (some might say remains) a white, male figure. Emsley makes clear the prejudices against ethic minorities, women and gays that disfigured much of 19th and 20th-century policing and which sat uncomfortably with the “celebratory discourse” that came to dominate among “respectable classes” from the late 19th century onwards.

Inevitably there are certain questions that might have been pursued further – the influence of police tactics developed in Northern Ireland in the 1970s and the growth of private policing in the late 20th century, for example, but most notably the significance for the police of maintaining law and order in a society markedly divided in social and economic terms. This is seen most acutely in the policing of strikes – and the problematic industrial disputes of Edwardian Britain as well as Thatcher’s Britain deserve further study. But such criticisms are a measure of the book’s quality in that it provokes further questions. Emsley has written a highly readable and thought-provoking book that deserves to be read by historians, criminologists and the general public alike.


David Taylor is a professor of history at the University of Huddersfield 


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