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Part 1: Issues for 1866-1878, 1882-1897 and 1899-1900 from the Cambridgeshire Police Archive

A Short History of the Police

Whilst some form of policing can be traced back to Saxon and Norman periods it is important to realize that organised policing as we know it in the form of the “new police” dates back only 1829 and the formation of the Metropolitan Police. (1)

It is not the intention to give here a details history of policing. This is comprehensively covered elsewhere and the reader is referred in the first instance to the History of Policing in England Wales by T A Critchley, and for greater detail to the History of the English Criminal Law by Sir Leon Radzinowicz. The subject cannot be ignored completely, however, and the following is put forward as a list of significant dates and phases in the development of policing in England and Wales to give some practical assistance to those unfamiliar with this topic.

Pre-1829 – The Parochial System and “The Old Police”

As set out above it is possible to trace a form of policing back to pre-Conquest times. The Anglo Saxon idea of “Frankpledge” was a joining together of the community with all its members bound by social obligation to keep the peace. From this developed the idea of the Tytheingman and the Hundred Man being responsible for ensuring that the system worked. The system was stiffened by the Normans whose Sheriffs were required to hold special courts known as the “view of frankpledge” at which the Tytheingman presented to the court details of crimes committed and other matters and were required to produce wrongdoers. If that was not possible fines would be levied against the whole community. Eventually the post of Tytheingman became that of the Parish Constable. By the 13th Century this post had emerged as an unpaid office served in turn by members of the community. The post holder still had to make presentments to the Manorial Court or Court Leet but also had powers and responsibilities to keep the peace and pursue wrong doers with the raising of “hue and cry”. No uniform went with the post but a staff of office was usually passed to each person who served in his turn. (2)

The Parish Constable was to some extent a subordinate officer to the Justice of the Peace under whose direction he would have normally worked.

The post of Parish Constable was not popular. It was unpaid and took the holder away from his normal work. In some places the responsibilities of the post were onerous. Failure or refusal to serve was punishable by fine. Some paid the fine to avoid the post but in many places the practice of appointment of a paid deputy was more attractive. By the 16th Century such practice was common, often the same substitute serving for some years. The cheapest substitutes were those who could, through age or infirmity, find no other work and it is not difficult to see how the post of Constable often fell into disrepute.

In the towns the Constable was responsible for setting the watch. Watchmen also originally served on a rota basis, keeping watch by night for felons and strangers. Eventually in some incorporated boroughs it became the practice for the Corporation to pay the Watch. In some places powers to do this came from 18th or 19th Century local Improvement Acts which variously included paving, lighting and watching powers.

In the Metropolis in addition to the Watch and the appointment of Parish Constables there were some advances in policing made during the 18th Century. Mainly these advances centred on Bow Street. There the Fielding Brothers held their courts. (3) They were honest Magistrates in a profession where many “trading justices” made their fortune from the mis-application of the criminal law. The Fieldings introduced a new force, a small number of paid constables, known as the “Bow Street Runners”, who could be directed by the Magistrates to go anywhere in the country to investigate reported crime. Also the Fieldings introduced printed circulars on crime and wanted persons, which were distributed throughout the country as a precursor to the Police Gazette. (4) In addition some successful experiments were made with uniformed mounted patrols to deter highwaymen.

The model of a handful of loyal plain clothed officers attached to a police office serviced and controlled by a small number of Magistrates was taken up in the Middlesex Justices Act 1792 which created seven additional Magistrates’ offices in London. (5)

Alas, virtually no records appear to have survived from this fascinating period of police history. The Bow Street Police Office itself was sacked during the Gordon Riots and the records were burnt. Something of the flavour of the work of these interesting characters can be gleaned from Percy Fitzgerald’s Chronicles of Bow Street Police Office (1888) and Henry Goddard’s Memoirs of a Bow Street Runner (1956).

Another development in London at the end of the 18th Century was the introduction in 1798 of a Marine Police. This service owed a great deal to the ideas of Patrick Colquhoun, one of the Middlesex Justices. Initially the service was funded by the West Indian merchants to prevent thefts. In 1800 however the organisation was put under the Thames Police Office, a further example of the Bow Street model under the 1792 Act.

During the early years of the 19th Century various experimental mounted, unmounted, day and night patrols operated at different times from Bow Street while the politicians wrestled with the problems of reconciling English freedom and the need to control crime and public order by effective policing.

Other police related organisations which emerged in the 18th Century were the many local “Associations for the Prosecution of Felons”. There were hundreds of these in existence in different locations. They were essentially local associations of householders or landowners who paid a subscription to a fund which was used to assist any members who became the victims of crime. The association would usually advertise a reward following an offence committed against a member and would also pay the fees of a Bow Street Runner or a thieftaker together with prosecution expenses in certain cases.

Associations also sometimes actually employed “policemen” to patrol the streets. Some Associations were general in their application while others were specifically formed to deal with certain types of crime, such as poaching or horse stealing. Detailed records of many of these Associations survive in County Record Offices. The records often include membership lists as well as details of crimes committed against members. Many Associations continued in existence until the second half of the 19th Century and a handful still exist – now operating as dining clubs. (6)

Another feature of this period was the professional thieftaker who carried out a very specific role in tracing and arresting offenders either for a fee or for a reward, upon conviction, paid by the Government, the loser or a local Association. Little has been written about thieftakers generally although a great deal has been written about some of the most infamous of the breed such as Jonathan Wilde, the self-styled “Thieftaker General”. (7) There are no specific records relating to thieftakers but an occasional mention of individuals can sometimes be found in contemporary newspaper reports of crime or trials in the 18th and early 19th centuries.

1829 – The Dawn of “The New Police”

After many previous attempts to modernise the largely inadequate policing arrangements of the London area, the Metropolitan Police was formed by Sir Robert Peel. The Metropolitan Police Act became law on 19th July 1829 and the first two Commissioners were Sir Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne. These two tireless individuals built up the force from nothing to a large and well-organised body in a matter of mere months. (8) The more senior officers of the Force, Superintendents, Inspectors and Sergeants, were in the main appointed from persons with experience as N.C.O.s or Warrant Officers in the army and navy. For most of the 19th Century the bulk of the Constables recruited to the Metropolitan Police originated from outside London, many in fact being agricultural labourers. A fascinating account of the way in which the Metropolitan Police was first organised can be found in the early chapters of David Ascoli’s The Queen’s Peace.

1833 – Lighting and Watching Police

In this year the Municipal Corporations Commissioners toured the country examining the state of affairs one local government in the incorporated boroughs. One subject examined was the state of policing in each borough. The evidence given before the Commissioners was often reported verbatim in local newspapers and this, together with the Commissioners’ Reports, can shed some light on the state of policing or watching in the 178 boroughs. Although the first modern police date from 1829 there were more rudimentary police forces in many towns prior to that date and the ubiquitous Parish Constable was to be found everywhere. (see above)

In 1833 there was a legislative change which had far reaching effects on local policing. The Lighting and Watching Act of that year could be adopted locally by a certain number of property owners following a simple procedure of calling a properly constituted meeting purpose and appointing Inspectors from their number. They were then empowered to levy a rate and, among other things, to appoint policemen. This Act was adopted in a great many places, usually where the system of Parochial Constables was failing to meet the needs of the community. As the Act only provided for local inhabitants to pay for their own policing there must generally have been some problem in existence which residents were prepared to pay to solve.

Some Country Record Offices do have on deposit the accounts and minute books of Lighting and Watching Act Inspectors. (9) Occasionally appeal papers can be found in Quarter Sessions paper which individual residents have appealed against the requirement to pay a Lighting and Watching Act rate. In some instances these items relating to rating appeals may be the only remaining indicating of the existence of a Lighting and Watching Act force. If minute books of accounts survive they usually contain details of all the ratepayers attending meetings and paying rates. Minute books can also be a rich source of material with detailed accounts of appointments, indiscretions, achievements and general activities of the appointed full-time and temporary supernumerary officers. Occasionally a real gem will survive in the form of the day book of some little force which will literally contain a daily blow-by-blow account of policing in the often barely literate words of the officers of the day. (10) A classic recent book on the work of one such Force at Horncastle in Lincolnshire is Lawless and Immoral by B J Davey. A researcher interpreted in the Lighting and Watching Act Force may strike lucky and find some very valuable material lies hidden in the local CRO indexed under “Lighting” or “Watching”. These lighting and watching forces usually existed at the parish of small town level and may only have employed one or two policemen.

1836 – The New Borough Police

In this year the incorporated boroughs (11) were reorganised under the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 which followed the report of the Royal Commission. Policing was a function of the new Corporations and new Borough Police Forces were established under the supervision of Watch Committees. Many of these forces were very small and a great deal of day to day control over forces was exercised by the Watch Committees. This level of control is usually reflected in the level of detail in the Watch Committee, minutes which often contain the names of individual officers.

1839 – The First County Police Act Etc

In this year the report was published of the so-called “Constabulary Commissioners”. This Royal Commission had been appointed in 1836 to review the policing needs of rural areas. One of the three Commissioners was Sir Charles Rowan, by then a very experienced Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. The second Commissioner was the reformer Edwin Chadwick. Both were very keen to see a rural constabulary following the Metropolitan Police model and the report paints a graphic picture of lawlessness in a country which was simply not equipped to deal in any meaningful way with crime in the majority of areas. The Report is strongly recommended to the historian who wants to get detailed background material on the state of law and order at the time although given the views of two of the three Commissioners some of the illustrations in the report may be less typical than the report suggests. The original submissions made to Commissioners are in fact available amongst the Home Office papers in the Public Record Office at Kew (12) and these contain more detailed local information from around the country. (See Appendix A, following).

In 1839 the first County Police Act found its way on to the statue book. The Act was permissive and could be adopted where the Justices in Quarter Session decided that they should levy a rate and set up a Police Force in a County or part of a County. The Act was rushed through Parliament in the face of considerable apprehension concerning public disorder involving the Chartist movement. (13)

Some Counties readily adopted the provisions of this Act immediately while others adopted it in the ensuing year. (14) County Record Offices and Local Studies Libraries often contain detailed contemporary pamphlets in the relevant cases either for or against the adoption of this Act. Where they survive these can be very useful in indicating the policing measures in existence at the time and their relative effectiveness and cost.

It is from this period that most of the county police forces date. Many recruits among the senior officers came from the Metropolitan Police of from some of the more efficient borough forces. Constables were generally recruited locally from the labouring classes.

1856 – Universal County Police At Last

The County and Borough Police Act of this year finally made it compulsory for all counties in England and Wales to establish proper police forces. The Act followed the recommendations of the Select Committee On Police of 1853. (15) This report again provides a detailed insight into policing of the period and the report includes the evidence taken from many senior officers of the day.

The 1856 Act also made it compulsory for some of the smaller borough forces to amalgamate with county forces. The Act also allowed for part central funding for police forces which achieved an acceptable standard of efficiency. To improve efficiency and effectiveness the Act created the posts of Her Majesty’s Inspectors of Constabulary (H.M.I.s) who were required to certify annually that a police force was sufficiently efficient to attract grant.

From 1856 To Date – Consolidation and Development

During this period there has been a move towards fewer and larger police forces. The Local Government Act of 1888 set up Standing Joint Committees of County Councillors and Magistrates who took over the police committee function of the Quarter Sessions. This Act also abolished police forces in towns with a population under 10,000, reducing the number of forces in 1889 from 231 to 183. Despite continued pressure from the Home Office, the next massive wave of amalgamations did not take place until after the Second World War in the wake of the Police Act of 1946. Further strides in this direction were made in the years following the 1964 Police Act and the 1972 Local Government Act.

The period also marks the entire development of many aspects of policing as we know them today. This embraces the establishment of various specialist departments and functions, the employment of women, mechanisation, improved communications, the use of information technology and much more. All of this is well documented in Critchley’s work. (16)

Les Waters
Cambridgeshire Constabulary
Divisional Police Headquarters
Parkside, Cambridge


1. Metropolitan Police Act 1829

2. There are a number of collections of parish truncheons or staffs in museums and private hands. Many can be seen at the police Staff College and the Castle Museum at York. The Policeman’s Lot by M A Mitton (1986), deals with truncheons and other items of police equipment. With a bit of diligent research it just might be possible to track down a parish staff actually carried by an ancestor who was a parish constable.

3. Henry Fielding, the novelist and playwright, was a Magistrate at the Bow Street Office from 1748 until 1754. Thereafter his half-brother John, later Sir John Fielding, took over the office until 1780. Both brothers experimented with different areas of police reform and both published works on the subject.

4. See Paper Pursuit by L A Waters in Police History Society Journal No. 1 (1986) p30.

5. These additional Public Offices were:

  • Great Marlborough Street
  • Queens Square Hatton Garden
  • Worship Street Lambeth Street
  • High Street Shadwell
  • Union Street Southward

6. For example the Newmarket Felons.

7. See Gerald Howson, Thief Taker General (Hutchinson 1970) now in print under the title It Takes a Thief (Cresset 1987).

8. See David Ascoli, The Queen’s Peace (Hamish Hamilton 1979) pp 78-199, T A Critchley A History of Police In England And Wales (Constable 1978 Edn) pp 51-57.

9. These could be indexed under “lighting”, “paving” or “watching”.

10. A classic example is to be found in the Cambridgeshire County Record Office in the form of the Day Book Of The Cottenham Police.

11. There were 178 Boroughs covered by the Act of 1835. The Watch Committee was to consist of the Mayor plus not more than one third of the town council.

12. H.O. 73.2 - H.O. 73.9

13. See F C Mather, “Public Order in the Age of the Chartists” (1959) p 128.

14. For a good account of the effect of the Act see David Foster, The Rural Constabulary Act 1839 (Standing Conference For Local History 1982).

15. pp Vol XXXVI (Police) Session 1852-3

16. Op. cit. pp 101 – 295

17. No doubt the poor rates of pay for constables also played a part. At one point in the 1830s the annual rate of wastage in the Metropolitan Police was 33% of the strength.

18. In some County Record Offices these are known as the “Session Rolls”.

19. 1 Geo 4 c. 37 ss 1 & 2 and Special Constables Act 1831

20. For an account of railway Police history see J Whitbread, The Railway Policeman (Harrap 1961). Another specialised non-Home Office Police is covered in Glyn Hardwicke’s Keepers of The Door (Peel Press 1979) (Port of London Authority Police).




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