Flashback Friday: the origin of police in England


Ever wonder how the police came into existence?  Of course, it differs with each country, so I’ll focus on England, my area of concentration in grad school.  In England, the year 1829 was key.


The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829

Manchester Police, 1880s, from flickr.com

Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary in the British Cabinet and a Tory, brought about a number of reforms in the area of criminal law and the gaol system, but it was the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 that was most far-reaching and controversial at the time.  For the first time in Britain’s history, the Act established an organized police force in London, with 17 divisions of 4 inspectors each, its central base at Scotland Yard, under the purview of the Home Secretary.  (The Detective division was formed in 1842).

The early names for these policemen – “Bobbies” and “Peelers” – derived from the man who passed the reform.  They carried truncheons as their only protection, and dressed in blue uniforms (similar to the color of the Royal Navy uniform) with long tail coats and top hats (LearnHistory.org.uk says that the top hats came in handy as stepping stools for policmen to stand on and look over walls).

However, the idea of a government-instituted police force made people nervous.  It was an alien concept, in an age of  Bow Street Runners and local constables (poorly-paid and barely trained), hired individually by each town, walking a beat.  What if the government started using this new police force to get rid of its political enemies, or to spy on honest citizens?

But people also knew that their options were few.  The Industrial Revolution was crowding London quickly, and with more people came more crime.  Constables were notoriously unreliable, preferring to drink in a sheltered corner on a cold night, go to sleep, or visit a prostitute.  Even if every constable was reliable, there still weren’t enough of them.

Although it took a while for the general population to accept police (who were often jeered in public), the police force worked well in suppressing riots and bringing down crime in the areas they were allowed to go, driving crime, in a way, out into the neighboring boroughs, which experienced an increase (later Municipal Acts were instituted to address this problem).

One significant black eye for the police, however, came in 1888: Jack the Ripper.

Punch cartoon by John Tenniel, Sept 22, 1888. Wikimedia Commons.

Want more info?

Text of the 1829 Act

Metropolitan Police Act of 1829 (Wikipedia)

History of the Metropolitan Police

Crime, Punishment, and Protest Through Time, c. 1450-2004

The Metropolitan Police


Coming this Mystery Monday:

Another reason to be grateful for the establishment of the police is that without them (and their detective branch) we wouldn’t have detective novels.  And the grandaddy of them all:

What detective novels do you enjoy?

Until next time,


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17 thoughts on “Flashback Friday: the origin of police in England”

  1. Jenny HansenJenny Hansen

    God, I love your posts! You know completely different stuff than I do and it’s so fun to hear about it.

    Thanks for giving me some more info on the “Bobbies”….looking forward to that Jack the Ripper post. When I worked in London, I took the Jack the Ripper walking tour. It was AWESOME!!!

  2. Debra EveDebra Eve

    This story brought back wonderful memories of my first trip to Edinburgh. There’s a statue in the graveyard of a little dog named “Greyfriars Bobby,” who supposedly guarded his 19th c. policeman owner’s grave for years. The guide explained Bobby was named for the policeman’s job post, and told the whole story of how they were so named.

    Looking forward to your take on Jack the Ripper!

  3. NatalieNatalie

    Ahmazing post. I am with Jenny, you know all this stuff that’s so out of my realm, it’s fascinating! I love it so keep em’ coming. And Jack the Ripper….eeeekeeee!!! I can’t wait…

  4. Susie LindauSusie Lindau

    So very interesting! Thanks for sharing!

  5. Julie GloverJulie Glover

    Your mystery/detective stuff is enthralling. I didn’t know any of this. Great stuff! As to fave detective novels, I’m so predictable: Give me a Hercule Poirot tale, and I’m happy. Little grey cells, you know.

  6. Matthew WrightMatthew Wright

    Cool post! Amazing how many slang terms there are for police too – ‘Bobbies’ seems to have survived to the present day, ‘Rossers’ or ‘Rozzers’ apparently is more recent. My grandfather had stories about suffragettes in London using their long hatpins to poke policemen (poss origin of ‘bobby pins’). Thanks for posting, good stuff!

    Matthew Wright

  7. Karen McFarlandKaren McFarland

    That was soo interesting. I had no idea how the police got their start. And you would know that people wouldn’t want to be controlled. But could we imagine NOT having some form of law and order?

    Thanks you for this Kathy! 🙂

  8. Lena CorazonLena Corazon

    Oh, this is just fantastic! I’ve been reading up on the history of the San Francisco Police Department, so it’s fascinating to hear how the Metropolitan Police Department came to be in London.

    Echoing Jenny above — I’m really excited for the Jack the Ripper post. I’m sticking a Jack the Ripper-esque serial killer into my steampunk novel, so I’ve been poking a bit at stories about him.

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