The  New Police in England during the Nineteenth Century

John Lea 2004

the policeAs I noted in the previous lecture there were three main components of the transition during the nineteenth century to the modern system of criminality and criminal justice: 

  • the stabilisation of the urban working class and the changing relationship between the working class and crime, 

  • the urban changes which weakened the power and organisation of traditional professional crime, 

  • the development of the new police and criminal justice agencies and their contribution to the previous two processes 

In this lecture I shall attempt to deal with the third of these.

The fear of the 'dangerous classes'

The ruling classes in the early nineteenth, as in the latter part of the eighteenth century, feared the new urban working class as a potentially rebellious mob, for which they reserved the term the 'dangerous classes'. This fear was a diffuse concern with political disorder, lack of the correct habits of restraint and obedience, and criminality in the more precise modern sense. All these fears merged into one another in a general fear of disorder. As the historian Victor Gattrell put it:

"…it was not only the motley, vast and hitherto little regarded populace of paupers and pimps, vagrants and sharp practisers, pickpockets and beggars, unemployed and derelict, thieves and robbers, who were now transformed into that collectivity which Frenchmen in the 1840's were to term the 'dangerous classes'. The whole world of the poor tended to be accommodated within a system of criminal labelling not only to express the social fear of the respectable, but also to justify a broader strategy of control to cope with that fear" (Gatrell 1980: 270)

In other words - and we shall see this when we come to look at the rise of the modern police in more detail: the fight against crime was not yet clearly distinguished from the generalised disciplining of the lower orders. This generalised concern about the social stability of the new urban industrial capitalism characterises the first half of the century.

Many members of the ruling classes feared the anarchy of the city and a war of all against all. It was a continuation of that fear that was articulated by Patrick Colquhoun in the latter years of the eighteenth century and it led to the view that the main task was the general disciplining of the working classes. In 1844 the Tory publication, Blackwoods Magazine warned that "the restraints of character, relationship and vicinity are… lost in the crowd… Multitudes remove responsibility without weakening passion."(Causes of the Increase of Crime' Blackwood's Magazine 56.) Beware, in other words, of the lack of restraint, the unruly passions of the urban masses which manifested themselves in criminality and a more widespread disorderliness.

The English reformers in the early years of the nineteenth century like Jeremy Bentham and Edwin Chadwick (who were friends with people like Patrick Colquhoun) saw the main problem as that of regulating the tumultuous and unstable life of the growing city populations. More specifically there was the problem of how to ensure an orderly and stable working class that would get up and go to work each morning. Their discussions were couched in terms like 'regulation' 'inspection' 'general prevention' (of disorder) and embraced the more general problems which would now be seen as concerns of local authority urban planning, housing, education, public health as well as police. Today we have a spectrum of institutions which tend to deal separately with these problems. We would not expect the police to be responsible for education. But before these separate institutions had developed, the tendency to think in much more general terms covering the whole of the 'urban problem'

To these general factors were added, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, some specific concerns and fears. The aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars (1793-1815) heightened the sense of panic in the ruling classes. There were food riots during the war years (1795-6 and 1800-1) as after 1815 large numbers of impoverished demobbed soldiers joined the ranks of the poor. Meanwhile the continuation of social crime found its expression in the Luddites struggles against the impoverishment of the weavers in the North 1811-18, and further Bread and Blood riots (1817) in the rural areas

Also demands for political reform were increasing: In 1799-1800 the notorious Combination Acts prohibiting the formation of trade unions were passed. The period immediately following the Napoleonic wars saw riots in favour of universal suffrage (for men) The notorious Peterloo Massacre took place in 1819. In 1820 the Cato Street conspirators threatened to assassinate the cabinet. Also in that year there were riots in Glasgow and throughout Yorkshire of weavers hit by the new technology of the industrial revolution. There was something approaching a general moral panic in the ruling class about working class insurrection. Troops poured into the North, while the size of the yeomanry (part time militia largely of the lower middle classes - a sort of predecessor of the Territorial Army) doubled. As Alan Silver (1967) argued, particularly after the Peterloo massacre when individual members of the yeomanry had been both prosecuted and, in some cases, tracked down and attacked, the ruling classes saw the need for a more permanent body of full time officers who could be relied upon to respond flexibly to the demands of urban public order.

Generally, up to that point public order had been dealt with by the military. If a disturbance got out of hand the local magistrate (Justice of the Peace) would 'read the riot act' and the army would be called in. But having a gang of ill-trained ill-disciplined soldiers, under the control of aristocratic officers, billeted on the local community was often a worse experience than the disturbance they had been sent to deal with. Neither was there much in the way of a Military Police to keep the soldiers in order. There was a need for a more disciplined force, directly under the control of the local magistrates, to deal with public disorder. As far as the commercial middle classes were concerned, while rising crime and disorder were still to be attributed, as in the 18th century, to the moral decay of the masses there was a greater willingness to critique the old criminal justice system as inefficient both as regards crime control and the more general tasks of public order and regulation of the urban working class.

Peel's 'New Police'

Robert Peel became Home Secretary in 1822. Having spent a previous period in Dublin (1812-18) as Secretary of State for Ireland he had already been concerned with police reform. During his time at Dublin Castle Peel had set up the Peace Preservation Force in 1814, which later became the Royal Irish Constabulary. This body was a hardly disguised paramilitary police force whose aim was less the detection and prevention of crime than the wider political task of subduing the Catholic Irish peasantry.

There were, as Philip Rawlings (1999) observes, two models of policing already in London and upon which Peel could have focused for his police reforms: These were the Bow Street Runners set up by John Fielding, a judicial police system under the control of the Magistrate; and the Parish Watch systems which were basically a form of local authority based policing. There had been, as we have already seen, various attempts to reform the Watch and also to create private police forces. There was Colqhuhoun's Thames Police and various docks police forces (in Bristol and Liverpool) modelled on his system, factory watch systems, Associations for the prosecution of the felons. These forces (which in today's terms would be largely the concern of private security companies) continued for some time after the founding, by Peel, of the London Metropolitan Police. This was precisely because, as Rawlings points out, Peels New Police was focused on other things than simple safety of the streets and protection of property.

Read an article by historian Robert Storch
arguing that the state of policing before 
Peel's reforms was not always as bad as
was claimed by the reformers

True, Peel argued in Parliament for his Metropolitan Police Bill in 1828 on the grounds that it would be more efficient than the existing systems. These he characterised as uneven: some boroughs had effective Watch patrols but they tended to displace crime into less well policed areas. But the main task of the new Metropolitan Police was not crime detection. Detectives only appeared in 1842 and then only a very small number. The modern Criminal Investigation Department (CID) did not appear until 1877

The reason for this was that Peel addressed his reforms directly to the more general fear of the 'dangerous classes' mentioned above. While crime such as street robbery and burglary was a problem, it was only part of a more fundamental issue of public order which was seen not simply as the problem of riots but more generally the discipline of the lower orders: how to make the working class as a whole less of an unruly mob and more a sober orderly group who would behave themselves in public and go to work on time and obey their employer's instructions.

The main theme was 'crime prevention' by the moralisation of the working class. The police targeted Ale houses (pubs) and the streets where legislation such as the 1824 Vagrancy Act enabled constables to arrest individuals not for crime committed but for 'loitering with intent' (thus putting the burden of proof on the defendant rather than the police). The police aimed not at those who had actually committed crimes but on the poor as a whole who were seen as a 'criminal class'. Police, as Rawlings notes:

"focused attention on the streets and therefore, on the labouring people who lived, worked and played there… The police could show through the arrest statistics that certain people were dangerous, but, because those arrests depended mainly on subjective assessments by officers of what constituted suspicious behaviour, the size and nature of the problem was largely determined by the police themselves." (Rawlings 1999: 77)

Rawlings also underlines the difference between the New Police and the older forces which had been modernised in the late 18th century by Fielding and others:

"while the new police emphasised crime prevention, this was not in terms of deterring potential criminals by the certainty of detection, which had been at the core of John Fielding's work, rather they looked to the moralisation of the poor and the continual harassment of those identified as the least moral sections of the poor-the 'trained and hardened profligates', the people of St Giles, the vagrants and the drunks." (Rawlings 1999: 77)

Policing in London

Policing in other English cities

Sir Robert Peel's web site
(excellent! lots on prisons and
other aspects of 19th century
criminal justice)

Victorian London website 
(click on 'police and policing')
a fascinating trip through
London history 

West Midlands Police Museum 

Regulation and inspection.

In starting from this broader conception of policing as general social control of the poor rather than simply crime control or even control of public disturbances, Peel was echoing an older tradition which had always seen policing as a wider function than crime control.

This had been well understood by the strong monarchies of continental Europe to whom the term 'police' had, since the later Middle Ages, referred to the need for general order and social control in the kingdom. The notion of police as an essentially military force to secure the kingdom against rebellion, rather than simply control crime, as well as an apparatus for gathering intelligence, was well established in Continental Europe. The historian of French police, Jean-Paul Brodeur quotes a contemporary commentator on the role of the Paris police established by King Louis XIV in 1667 with the aim of strengthening royal authority in all fields of life.

"To perpetually feed in a city like Paris an immense consumption, of which some of the sources can be dried up by an infinite number of accidents; to repress the tyranny of the merchants against the public, while at the same time stirring up their trade; to draw from an infinite crowd all those who can so easily hide within it their pernicious industry; either to purge society of them or to tolerate their being insofar as they can be useful in performing tasks which nobody would assume or carry out as well; to hold necessary abuses within the precise bounds of necessity which they are always prone to violate; to reduce these abuses to such obscurity as they must be condemned, and not even to retrieve them from it by too glaring a punishment; to ignore what it is better to ignore than to punish, and to punish only rarely and usefully; to penetrate inside families through underground passages and to keep the secrets that they never imparted for as long as it is unnecessary to use them; to be everywhere without being seen; finally to move or to check at will as vast and tempestuous multitude and to be the ever active and nearly unknown soul of this great body; these are the duties of the police magistrate" (translated by Brodeur)

read a recent article by Clive Emsley on the 
origins of police in Continental Europe

We have noted in a previous lecture how the English rural gentry guarded what they referred to as their liberty in the form of a decentralised system of justice under their control. Centralised systems of prosecution and police were always regarded as Continental Tyranny. But the urban middle classes were much more open to the idea of a system that would deal with the problem of urban disorder and the general reform of the habits of the working classes.

Thus Peel's conception of police owed something to the Continental tradition. Though he in no way saw the Metropolitan Police as a military force on the model of the French gendarmerie, he had been influenced by his time at Dublin Castle where the tasks of keeping the Irish peasantry subdued had resembled much more closely the concerns of the French model. But alongside this preoccupation with rebellion and public order, were the distinct concerns of the English ruling classes, which now included the manufacturers and factory owners and bankers (the bourgeoisie) of the leading industrial capitalist economy in Europe. Their concern as we have emphasised above, focused very much on the morality and habits of their labour force: the urban working class. This combination of policing tasks: crime prevention, public order, moral regulation and the instilling of disciplined habits of work and obedience were often referred to during the early nineteenth century by reference to terms, pioneered by Bentham and Chadwick, such as Inspection and Regulation. These terms included more than just policing but the whole panoply of urban reform: penal policy, public health, education and the reform of the Poor Law (the social security system)

The development of Peel's new police has to be seen in this much wider context. The Metropolitan police formed the model for the rest of England and Wales. As the idea of the new police spread to the provinces they were often given very wide functions, understandable only in terms of these very general notions of regulation and inspection. Thus the Acts of 1839 and 1842 which enabled extension of police role and functions in the counties, included such matters as collection of rates, road surveying, weights and measures inspection, dealing with vagrants under the Poor Law legislation as legitimate police functions.

According to Carolyn Steedman (1984), in her history of the development of police in the English counties, between 1856 and 1880 40 out of the 43 English counties used their police in this way. She shows how the county authorities saw all sorts of functions for the 'police' including that of Poor law officers, inspectors of nuisances, market commissioners, impounders of stray cattle and inspectors of weights and measures. She continues:

"Indeed the 1860's and early 1870's witnessed something like an inspection fever… (with suggestions that) policemen be appointed as inspectors of taxes, of unemployed children not covered by the Factory Acts, of midwives and truants under the educational reforms of the 1870's. Carried away by the vision of a thoroughly policed and inspected society, some, including county chief constables, suggested that the homes of the poor should be inspected by the police for cleanliness and against overcrowding" (54)

Across the Atlantic many large American cities followed the English example and set up city police departments and gave them similarly wide functions. A historian of the New York Police writes:

"When the New York Department was established in the 1840s it took on the duties of street inspectors, health and fire wardens, dock masters, lamplighters, fire alarm bell ringers, Sunday officers, inspectors of pawn brokers and junk shops, inspectors of hacks and stages and officers attending the polls at elections..." (Richardson 1980: 214)

working class resistance.

As we noted in the previous lecture the development of industrial capitalism during the nineteenth century was helping to stabilise the new working class.

The key developments are

  • the regularisation of labour markets and economic activity such that 'criminal subculture' and 'criminal economy' could be identified as fairly distinct activities and bodies of people though the boundaries always remained blurred.

  • The moving of social and economic life off the streets by regularized employment in offices shops and factories,

  • the organization of social activities in youth clubs, boys organizations and the concentration of public street life into particular times and situations - public events. 'saturday night' (during which police could be more lenient than at mid week)

  • the regularisation of family life with men at work, women in the home, children at school etc.

Working class communities were thus becoming more settled and the regularly employed working class assimilated to bourgeois standards of order and indeed conceptions of criminality. Those in stable employment, oriented to consumption and family, are distanced from the street economy of social crime and cheap goods of dubious origin. Consciousness of the value of property acquired from the wage, and from savings, assimilates the working class to definitions and attitudes to crime shared with the middle classes. The street thief, robbing workers of their pay packets as much as the middle classes of their wallets, or the stalking murderer, preying on the vulnerable of all social classes, becomes the paradigm of crime. During the second half of the nineteenth century the modern 'moral panic' about crime and violence becomes a feature of urban life, of which the two most well known examples in London are the garrotting panic of 1862 and the Jack the Ripper murders of 1888.

Thus gradually the earlier middle class panic about the lower orders in general is displaced by a fear, shared across the social classes, of the marginal criminal stranger which is elaborated into discreet sets of fears compartmentalised by gender, age and class-women's fear of certain types of men, old people's fear of the unruly young and the middle class fear of the 'underclass'

The police contribution to the moralisation of the working class concentrated on the underclass. In big port cities like London and Liverpool where sailors and dockers spent a large amount of time being unemployed the unofficial street economy of cheap and often pilfered goods was especially important for survival. Mike Brogden, in his history of the Liverpool police, points to the close control exercised over the police by the wealthy Liverpool Merchants represented on the Watch Committee of the City Council of which they constituted a majority down to 1910. The Liverpool magistrates were overwhelmingly merchants down until 1870's. The Watch Committee in those days gave direct orders to Head Constable. For example in 1837 they instructed him "to give particular directions respecting the disorderly persons congregating nearly all night at the bottom of James Street the back part of the White Bear Public House, Dale Street…" The regularisation of street activities and public order was the main activity of police throughout the nineteenth century and in 1890 the Watch Committee ordered the Head Constable to "proceed against all brothels"

The police were resented by the poorer sections of the working class precisely because of their moralisation strategy. As the historian John Benson points out:

"The streets provided the largest and most accessible forum for the communal life of the poor. It was in the streets that members of the community came together to talk and play, to work and shop, and to observe (and sometimes resist) the incursions of intruders such as school board visitors, rent collectors and police officers... for most of the nineteenth century the poor were intensely hostile to the police, and...this hostility resulted in large measure from resentment at what was regarded as unwarranted, extraneous interference in the life of the community." (Benson 1989: 132)

The police established their authority and presence in the working class communities - by the turn of the century - not just to deal with crime but for wider task of surveillance and disciplining of working class daily life. Police were part of what historian Robert Storch called "the bureaucracy of official morality" keeping an eye on the streets, pubs, music halls, etc. They were an agent of the Victorian middle classes and their fear of working class exuberance as examples of a the behaviour of the 'dangerous classes' who needed to be habituated to an ordered and disciplined working life. Storch writes:

"The imposition of the police brought the arm of municipal and state authority directly to bear upon key institutions of daily life in working class neighbourhoods, touching off a running battle with local custom and popular culture which lasted at least until the end of the century..... the monitoring and control of the streets, pubs, racecourses, wakes, and popular fetes was a daily function of the 'new police' ... (and must be viewed as)... a direct complement to the attempts of urban middle class elites.... to mold a labouring class amenable to new disciplines of both work and leisure." (Storch 1976: 481)

The police acted

"…through the pressure of a constant surveillance of all the key institutions of working-class neighbourhood and recreational life..... It was precisely the pressure of an unceasing surveillance...[in which] ... the impression of being watched or hounded was not directly dependent on the presence of a constable on every street corner at all times... [but rather]... the knowledge that the police were always near at hand and likely to appear at any time."

article from Canada on the role of the courts and police 
in the changing of working class leisure activities
the nineteenth century (NB. This is a large PDF file)

The police were thus part of mechanisms of social control whereby the working class was gradually incorporated into a disciplined life habituated to the working day - getting up on time, not drinking excessively, engaging in regulated leisure pursuits. By end of the century this task was largely completed, at least for the better off sections of the working class. Working class life had become regularised and disciplined by what Phil Cohen calls 'a moral economy of space and place'

Modern policing as crime control

The political integration of the working class through the extension of the vote, the legalisation of trade unions, the social integration of working class through habituation to work discipline, ordered leisure activities, education, and cohesive family life, and the general removal of everyday life from the streets, eventually enabled did the problem of 'crime' to take its modern form as a distinct social problem and a focus for the police.

Similarly, as a result of all these changes, in which police themselves played a role, could the modern notion of police officer surveying the streets for 'signs of crime' make any sense. Thus . young people 'hanging around' stand out when everyone else is making regular and legitimate use of the streets. The police officer thus is able to develop a modern set of skills in which he or she

"learns who to expect to be doing what, where and when. Such learning equips the officer with sets of expectations of what will be demanded of him or her in different places at different times and what members of the public might be doing in those places at these times" (Brogden et al. 1988: 40)

But at the same time it must be remembered that there was another source of major conflict between the police and the working class. As trade unionism developed and flexed its muscles towards the end of the century the police became a major instrument for the regulation of industrial disputes where they usually sided with the employer against the workers. The police became accepted in working class communities but this acceptance, particularly in industrial towns, was always qualified. Mike Brogden, talking about policing in Liverpool at the turn of the last century puts it:

"In general, by the end of that period, the relations that had developed were not so much ones of consent but rather a grudging acceptance, a tentative approval that could be withdrawn instantly in the context of industrial conflict."(1982: 184)

Opposition to the presence of police in working class areas, including physical resistance, continued well into the present century (White 1986). But an index of its overall decline is the substantial fall in the number of trials for assaults on police (in England and Wales) from an average annual rate of 67 per 100,000 of the population during 1856-60 to 24 during 1910-14 (Gatrell 1980 But see Davis 1989). Indeed, from around the middle of the century recorded rates for most categories of offences fell steadily until well after the First World War, (Gatrell and Hadden 1972, Gatrell 1980), reasonable indications of at least the beginnings of the consolidation of the social relations of crime control.

Though the very police strategy of moralisation of the working class meant that it would still meet periodically with collective resistance from the poorer sections of the working class.

"There was opposition on the streets to police campaigns aimed at moralisation, so that, for instance, although assaults on the police in Manchester had largely subsided by 1847, they revived in the late 1860s in response to a vigorous moral campaign against prostitutes, vagrants and street leisure activities" (Rawlings 1999: 110-1)

It is important, in conclusion to reiterate that the development of policing in nineteenth century England has to be seen in the context of the broader social and economic changes: changes in the city, in the working class community, and in the organisation of criminality itself which we looked at in the previous lecture. 


Benson, J. 1989, The Working Class in Britain 1850-1939, London: Longmans.
Brodeur, J-P. 1983, 'High Policing and Low Policing: remarks about the policing of political activities', Social Problems 30:5 pp 507-520.
Brogden, M. 1982, The Police: Autonomy and Consent. London: Academic Press.
Brogden, M. et al. 1988, Introducing Police Work. London: Unwin Hyman.
Gatrell, Victor (1980) ‘The decline of theft and violence in Victorian and Edwardian England’ in Gatrell, Victor. et al (eds.) Crime and the Law. pp 238-337. London: Europa Publications
Rawlings, Philip (1999) Crime and Power: A History of Criminal Justice 1688-1988. London: Longman.
Richardson, J. 1980, 'Police in America: functions and control' in Inciardi, J. Faupal, C. eds. History and Crime: inspirations for criminal justice policy., Beverley Hills: Sage Publications.
Silver, Alan (1967) 'The Demand for Order in Civil Society' in Bordua, David ed. The Police: Six Sociological Essays. New York: Wiley
Steedman C. 1984., Policing the Victorian Community. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Storch, R. 1976, The Policeman as Domestic Missionary; Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England 1850-1880, Journal of Social History IX. 4. pp 481-509.