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Law and Order in London in the Late Nineteenth Century

March 29th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

The biggest changes in London’s law and order set up took place in the nineteenth century, around the time of the Jack the Ripper murders. This essay is going to discuss the role of the police, how and why the police force changed, the reasons behind it, and what difference these changes made to society.

Law and order in Britain consisted of two police forces in 1800, the Bow Street Runners and the Thames River police force. The forces were under constant threat because of the rapidly growing population, and the lack of sufficient constables. In London in 1829 there were 450 constables and 4000 watchmen, compared to 1.5 million inhabitants of London. Watchmen and parish constables patrolled the streets of London, who kept an eye out for trouble, and prevented disturbances and robberies. They were probably quite effective, because they knew the local area and the local troublemakers well, but little is known about them. However, these officers could not deal with big disturbances, like riots. At this time, there were frequent Chartist uprisings in London, which the police were completely unable to control. The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) also caused an increase in homicide, robbery, theft and burglary, which added to the demand for a more effective police force.

The main turning point in policing came when Robert Peel, Conservative home secretary, recognised this. The Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 was the first major reform of law enforcement in the nineteenth century. It set up The Metropolitan Police force, consisting of 3,200 men, covering an area of seven miles around London’s centre. Under this act, London was divided into seventeen areas, each with four inspectors and 144 constables. The Metropolitan Police became nicknamed “bobbies” and “peelers” after it’s founder, Robert Peel. They were also known as “boys in blue” as their uniforms were notoriously dark blue tailcoats with tall hats. This was a significant choice of uniform colour, the same as the British navy, who were well respected and often depicted as British heroes. This contrasted to the British soldiers, who were dressed in red, which was an important point for Peel. He wanted them to be as unlike the army as possible, as the British public traditionally distrusted the “redcoats” as the army had often been use to suppress popular demonstrations. It was for this reason that the police were left unarmed apart from truncheons, which unfortunately just left the police open to attacks from resisting criminals. Gradually the constables were issued with cutlasses, as their job became increasingly dangerous, but at first firearms were never used. It wasn’t until the 1840’s and 50’s that inspectors in the Metropolitan Police began to carry revolvers at all times.

Unfortunately the Metropolitan Police did have a lot of problems at first. For a start, the police were so unpopular, as the whole fraternity of London’s criminals felt threatened and aggressive towards the sudden increase of law and order. Policeman suffered violent attacks from the masses of law offenders who simply hated the authority, and being told what to do. Often people purposefully drove their coaches into policemen on traffic duty in the street. There was a case in 1833, where a man who had stabbed policeman P C Culley to death during a political riot in Cold Bath Fields, was found not guilty of murder. The judge felt that the 500 policemen brought in for crowd control had been an overreaction and it was justifiable homicide. Cases like this were common until the First World War, which shows how much the police were publicly hated by everyone.

Yet even after the Metropolitan Police Force had been set up, there was still a lack of major changes in policing, due to the fact that London’s law and order was not united. The Bow Street Runners remained in existence until 1839, and in the heart of London there was an entirely exclusive police force altogether. In other parts of Britain there were arguments over who was to control the police force, whom was to pay for it and even whether one was actually needed at all.

One of the reasons why the police force gradually improved was because the numbers of men keen to join up. The problem was that many of the early recruits had to be dismissed, most commonly because they were drunk and disorderly. This remained a problem throughout the nineteenth century, and in 1847 a constable was dismissed after only four hours of service. A policeman Cavanagh gave a common reason so many men wanted to join the force. He said, “ I had been out of employment for a long time, and made up my mind to get into the Police…or take the Queen’s shilling. I was fortunate enough, with thirty six others out of one hundred and forty applicants, to get on.”

Men joined for other reasons too, such as the huge desire for financial security. The population of London was still increasing rapidly and although large new industries were developing, there was still widespread unemployment all over Britain. Many jobs were seasonal, such as farm labour, and provided no back up like sickness pay, compensation, pension schemes, and with trade unions of no strength to change these things. In contrast, policemen were given a regular, more reliable wage, a pension (as opposing to the fate of the workhouse for many others). In 1829 the wage offered by Robert Peel for a man joining the force was three shillings a day, whilst farm labourers were scraping by on six shillings a week. Men were also eager to join the police force because it was at last the prospect of a respectable career, something that connate have been easy to come by, especially when living in the East End of London.

However, despite all the initial problems for the police force, Londoners gradually began to see that they were having a positive effect on the level of crime, and many finally began to approve. By the late nineteenth century the police presence in London had changed dramatically from the occasional Bow Street Runner. It became much more organised and efficient than it had previously been. This change came about by a series of major developments. Firstly, the Metropolitan Police Force was set up in 1842, a Detective Department was established for Scotland Yard in 1842, the introduction of the telegraph from 1867 was a catalyst to communication, and the Criminal Investigation Department was founded in 1878. The most important role of the new police force was to control and prevent crime. The policemen were supposed to carry out the functions of watchmen and constables, and patrol the streets, keeping order. They were also used to tackle major disturbances such as riots, that the army would have previously have tackled. Once on duty, policemen had responsibilities such as lighting London’s street lamps and watching out for fires.

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, “bobbies” actually became very popular. In 1851 an article in Punch said, “The police are beginning to take that place in the affections of the people that the soldiers and sailors used to occupy. In these happier days of peace, the blue coats, the defenders of order, are becoming national favourites.” At the same time, The Times also wrote, “Amid the bustle of Piccadilly, or the roar of Oxford Street, P.C.W. 59 stalks along, an institution rather than a man.” However, Punches view of the London “bobby” was very one-sided. People saw the police as “defenders of order” and not crime solvers. A policeman on the beat was there to stop disorderly behaviour and to deal with drunkenness, beggars, vagrants and prostitutes. London’s streets did become more orderly, but the number of burglaries went up. Also, the reputation of the policeman as the “friendly bobby” was not shared in many working class districts in London, and the police continued to go on the beat in poorer areas armed with cutlasses. This was the world in which the Jack the Ripper murders took place.

There are good reasons for thinking that the police could have been more efficient than they were. Even so, the uniformed peelers did their job. The force was designed to be cheap and simple, to get men out on the beat where they could keep order, prevent crime, and make London a safer place.

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