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
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.
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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,