A fruit seller reveals the growing pains of professional policing


In 1839 the Metropolitan Police force was just ten years old. The move towards a fully professional police had taken several decades from the early pioneering work of men such as John Fielding at Bow Street. There were several attempts to improve existing policing networks such as the night watch and proposals to parliament that were rejected even in the wake of serious rioting in the Gordon Riots. The turbulent post war years following Wellington’s victory at Waterloo saw increased concerns about law and [dis]order but still there was resistance to putting uniformed police on British streets.

Eventually (and probably in reaction to complaints from ratepayers in  parishes further from the centre of the expanding English capital that their persons and property was at risk from criminals) Sir Robert Peel eased the Metropolitan Police bill through Parliament, with relatively little scrutiny.

Not everybody welcomed the police. Not a few ratepayers soon started to grumble about the cost of supporting a large body of ‘bobbies’ full-time. There were early accusations of drunkenness aimed at some constables on the beat, and numerous suggestions of overly friendly liaisons with servant girls and, worse, local prostitutes. Some of those recruited in 1829 were soon kicked out of the force to be replaced with more reliable officers.

The police were also unpopular with those they policed; the working class resented the imposition of an army of ‘blue locusts’ who interfered with their daily lives, work and play. There were accusations too that the police overstepped the mark on occasion; that they abused their powers. The new police were made up of the same demographic as the communities they protected and to many it must have caused considerable irritation to be told to ‘move along’ and ‘go home’ by ‘one of your own’.

At Hatton Garden Police Court in August 1839 a poor (and unnamed) fruit seller appeared to complain about one of these new policeman whom she felt was overreaching his authority. She had been selling fruit on a Sunday (in contravention of trading laws) and a policeman had seized her basket.

She had come to ask for its return but the copper told the court he had sent it to the Green Yard and she would have to pay a shilling to reclaim it. The Green Yard had existed since the 17th century and was a sort of pound for lost or otherwise misplaced property. In the 18th century stray animals were rounded up and taken there, and it seems to have operated a bit like a modern car pound.

The fruit seller told the magistrate that her husband was sick and she had to support a large family on her own. She ‘had not a farthing in the world’ and certainly no spare money to pay the fee to redeem her basket. Normally a policeman would have simply confiscated a hawker’s goods and kept them at the  station house so they could be picked up on the Monday but this one was over zealous.

The magistrate agreed and ‘cautioned’ the constable as to his future behaviour. His worship then gave the poor woman a shilling from the poor box so she could have her property ‘restored to her’.

The policeman was chastised and hopefully chastened by the experience; he had applied the law but without sensible discretion. These were early days for the police and it is a reminder that the justice system was not monolithic; it adapted to the introduction of professional policing and continued to do so as the century unfolded but in working-class districts the ‘boys in blue’ took a very long time to gain any measure of acceptance, and a grudging one at that.

[from The Examiner, Sunday, August 18, 1839]

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