It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.
However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.
For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing. “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.
Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.
Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.
Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.
Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours. What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?
Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.
While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.
In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.
A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.
[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]