British Police Research Paper

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The development of policing in Britain prior to 1918 can be loosely divided into three phases. From the early modern period until around 1850, the “old” police, a system of amateur or semiprofessional parish constables and night watchmen, were involved in the enforcement of laws and social norms. They shared this duty with a broad range of privately paid individuals and community groups, but, from c.1750 onwards, the efficacy of these localized and (relatively) informal mechanisms of policing was increasingly called into question. A variety of new initiatives were trialled, and, following on from the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829, the so-called “new” police forces of the nineteenth century – uniformed, salaried, and preventive – were developed. These new forces did not initially mark a distinctive break with past practices and personnel, and there was a protracted period of overlap and reform. By about 1870, however, all administrative areas of Britain had instigated new, more “professional” institutions of policing. During the course of the nineteenth century, these new forces developed increasingly sophisticated policing techniques. Yet, while popularly depicted as a “golden age,” policing in the later nineteenth and early twentieth century was typified as much by the persistence of police violence, scandal, and discontent as it was by the spread of new standards of order and control. In addition, regional variations across Britain further complicate any simplistic depiction of gradual and consensual reform.

Policing Before The “New Police”

Historical Antecedents

The presence of a uniformed and salaried police service is now so woven into the fabric of daily life that it is easy to forget that this is an institution of recent (in historical terms) advent. In Britain, the role of the central state in everyday life was relatively marginal prior to the nineteenth century, and the role of the individual and the local community in crime control, prosecution, and punishment was correspondingly greater. Indeed, the term “police” was not much used in Britain before 1800 and, even when in use, implied a much broader set of activities than just the prevention of crime and the detection of criminals (Dodsworth 2008).

This does not, however, mean that there was no “policing.” During the early modern period, official policing duties in Britain were carried out by parish constables and urban watchmen. Under legislation dating primarily from the thirteenth century, constables were appointed locally, usually for no more than a year, and were charged with maintaining the King’s peace in the district and reporting felons, miscreants, and nuisances to the local court. The efficacy of these parish constables was variable. There are some well-documented claims of negligence and inefficiency in apprehending offenders but there is also evidence that some served several terms of office, thereby gaining valuable expertise and authority. However, parish constables were not obliged to do anything which would take them beyond the boundaries of the jurisdiction they served, and there was no expectation that they would investigate all offenses which occurred in their locality (although they were expected to search premises or make arrests in instances where a magistrate’s warrant was issued). Watchmen were recruited and funded locally to act as a deterrent to theft, usually in urban areas. They walked established beats at set times (usually at night), checking that doors and windows were locked. Watchmen made occasional arrests if they chanced across offenders, but were also not usually expected to seek out or track offenders after an offense had been committed.

In addition to parish constables and watchmen, there were a range of other, private arrangements made to safeguard property. Game keepers, private armed guards on mail coaches, individuals paid to watch barns and haystacks, and toll-gate keepers all had a role to play in the mixed economy of regulatory activity, and a significant amount of court cases resulted from apprehensions under such arrangements (King 2000, p. 63). In addition to these private policing initiatives, the role of the individual (whether as prosecuting victim or as helpful friend or neighbor) was crucial in early criminal justice processes. Individuals were expected to press (and pay for) charges, if the identity of the offender was known, and would often investigate crimes themselves or offer rewards for the recovery of stolen property.

Activities which would now be termed policing were thus carried out via a mixed regulatory economy, a rudimentary patchwork composed of limited state involvement, private initiative, business and community sanctions, and above all local enforcement of both legislation and social norms. Despite some tensions between the demands of magistrates and the norms of local communities, parish constables and watchmen maintained a broadly effective system of policing up until the end of the seventeenth century (Kent 1986).

The Bow Street Runners

From the 1690s onwards, successive governments attempted to encourage the apprehension of offenders (particularly highwaymen, burglars, and forgers) by expanding the system of rewards offered for successful prosecutions. However, as well as encouraging victims to prosecute, these incentives also served to multiply the number of private, entrepreneurial “thief-takers,” many of whom were involved in corrupt practices such as encouraging (or even facilitating) robberies in order to claim the reward for subsequent arrests. With the bill for reward payments rising, the novelist and Bow Street magistrate Henry Fielding was granted a financial subvention in 1749 to enable him to establish a more organized body of men to confront violent offenders on the streets and highways around London. After Henry Fielding’s death in 1754, this group was developed over subsequent decades by his blind half-brother John Fielding, one of the most innovate magistrates of the eighteenth century, into the Bow Street Runners. Sir John shaped these individuals into a well-known and stable group of officers with recognized expertise in investigating crimes, tracking and arresting offenders, and presenting evidence in court. While the men had no official title, because their role had no official standing, they were an innovation in policing in being both proactive in seeking out offenders (prompted either by orders from a magistrate or by a fee paid by the victim of a crime) and in gaining a degree of proficiency and continuity of service hitherto unmatched.

As part of their working practices, the Bow Street officers developed one of the first enduring systems of record-keeping relating to criminals and a range of rudimentary forensic techniques (e.g., ballistic and medical analyses). Thus, the “runners” can be thought of as “the first detectives,” although the word itself was not used until the nineteenth century (Beattie 2012, p. 2). Indeed, some “principal officers” (a term they employed to differentiate themselves from the more junior patrolmen of the Bow Street magistrate’s office) became highly sought-after professional investigators. John Townsend, for example, who had previously worked as a street vendor, gained such notoriety after a string of detective successes that he developed a close friendship with the Prince Regent and remained in popular demand among those who could afford his services.

The work of the principal officers was not, moreover, confined to London. Unlike parish constables, they were not bound to operate in any particular jurisdiction and, from the 1780s onwards, Bow Street officers were increasingly engaged by employers across the country, to the extent that they might be considered in some ways a precursor to a national police force (Cox 2010). The provincial magistracy, in particular, often required Bow Street assistance in the hunt for offenders, and principal officers often traveled significant distances in pursuit of felons. Because it was primarily the wealthy who engaged the services of Bow Street, this did mean that the officers primarily investigated crimes damaging to commercial interests (such as forgery, arson, and fraud) and there is certainly no sense that this was a police force acting to enforce the law uniformly and in the interest of all members of the public. Moreover, while there is little doubt that many of the principal officers were energetic and effective thief-takers, they were less effective as a preventive force and their numbers were arguably insufficient to make a significant impact on daily life in London, let alone further afield.

Debate And Reform From 1750

During the latter half of the eighteenth century, policing was thus by no means wholly unsatisfactory in many urban areas of Britain. The significance of London as a center of population and commerce meant that policing here was the most well developed in the nation. In addition to the Bow Street Runners, many districts operated their own locally controlled police services (Paley 1989), and many parishes also paid for and operated sophisticated watch systems (Reynolds 1998). There has been comparatively little research into the policing of the rural counties, but it is likely that the quality of policing here depended primarily on the personal inclination and ability of local justices of the peace and parish constables. However, from the mid-eighteen century onwards, significant national debates took place about the desirability of developing new modes of policing which might curtail local control and variability in the field of law enforcement. These debates were centered on London, as the most significant (and rapidly developing) urban center in the period, but also generated strong views from local authorities concerned about the implications of new forms of policing for their power to govern.

A number of factors prompted a focus on policing reform from the 1750s onwards. There was a public concern about the increasing incidence of certain types of crime (including theft, highway robbery, and rioting), but this concern has to be seen as part of a broader anxiety about how to cope with a period of rapid social change in which a mobile laboring class was developing. Equally, the expansion of the ambitions of the state during the later decades of the eighteenth century led to tensions over the correct relationship between central and local authority, and debates over policing reflected these tensions. There were also specific debates over the efficacy of existing policing arrangements as Fielding’s view that crime was best prevented by an efficient detective force came under attack from others (such as Patrick Colquhoun) who believed that a preventive police (operating primarily via the patrol of predetermined beats) would be a better solution to the problem (Neocleous 2000).

Attempts to reform policing in London began in the 1780s when the City of London (the administrative division at the wealthy heart of the capital) organized a small, regular patrol for the city’s streets. This patrol was uniformed from 1791 and gradually increased until it numbered 24 in 1824. In other areas of London, reform attempts began in 1785 when Pitt the Younger introduced the Westminster Police Bill, which was designed to put in place a centrally controlled police force for the whole city. This bill was defeated, but a far more moderate alternative was passed in 1792 and established seven new police offices in the city, each staffed by three stipendiary (salaried) magistrates, with six constables attached to each office. Further reforms followed, with a privately funded police force established by Act in 1798 to protect goods at London’s docks. In 1800, this force was publicly funded as the Thames River Police. Private involvement in crime control remained significant. The Bank of England, for example, developed sophisticated nationwide mechanisms for apprehending and prosecuting forgers (McGowen 2005). The situation in London was unique, however, and most of the country, outside the large towns, “relied for their basic law enforcement on unpaid, part-time constables aged 30 or over” (Philips and Storch 1998, p. 5). Thus, while a variety of debates and reforms were already underway before the advent of the “New Police” in 1829, these were very much focussed on London and the larger cities (notably Glasgow), with much of Britain still policed lightly by systems which had been in place for centuries.

The “New Police”

The Metropolitan Police Act 1829

The most obvious outcome of the debates around policing which took place in the period 1780–1820 was the formation of the Metropolitan Police in London in 1829. This force was the most significant element of the so-called “New Police” of the nineteenth century. This shorthand term, which came into regular use in the decade after 1829, is now used as a useful descriptor for what many have seen as a wholesale reorganization of policing in Britain between 1829 and 1870. It refers to any of the new forces set up in response to the Police Acts of 1829, 1839–1840, and 1856 or, collectively, to all of them.

The Metropolitan Police Act was introduced to parliament by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. When Peel took over as Home Secretary in 1822, he argued the need for a new system of police – uniformed and supposedly both more efficient and more professional than their eighteenth-century counterparts and able to control the capital’s new suburbs where the old system was weak. Although the validity of the statistics Peel used to “prove” his case in 1829 (by showing a tide of rising criminality) was probably minimal, he handled the political sensitivities of the issue adeptly, concealing the fact that he had already made up his mind what the reformed police should look like (Philips 1980, p. 186). Given an easy ride through parliament because of the attention being directed to the issue of Catholic emancipation, the subsequent act established the Metropolitan Police, neatly sidestepping concerns expressed by the City of London Corporation (which was worried about infringements on its authority) by leaving it outside the jurisdiction of the measure.

Thus, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police Improvement Bill was passed, and the new force of 3,000 uniformed constables took to the streets between September 1829 and May 1830. Throughout the 1830s, there was vociferous criticism of Peel’s new force. Many commentators felt the uniforms of the new police betrayed their essentially “military” character, associating them with the gendarmeries of the continent, which were seen to serve political ends. Others complained about the cost of the new system, which was more expensive than the old and often put fewer men on the streets, but which still had to be paid for out of local taxes. In addition, there was considerable overlap with the existent forces policing London. The new police initially operated in tandem with 300 or so constables operating out of Bow Street and other police offices, under the direction of magistrates (loosely supervised by the Home Office). While these constables were primarily a detective force, and the new Metropolitan Police were primarily preventive, there was obviously overlap in their activities. This was investigated by a number of parliamentary select committees during the early 1830s and, in 1836, the Horse Patrol was amalgamated into the Metropolitan Police, with the Bow Street constables being absorbed in 1839. The 1833 Select Committee on the Metropolitan Police did also recommend that the separate jurisdiction of the City of London be abolished, but eventually the city introduced its own police force, via a private bill which precipitated fierce debate (Harris 2004, p. 132–53). As a legacy of this, the City of London still maintains its own police force distinct from that of the rest of metropolitan London.

Thus, the introduction of the Metropolitan Police was the result of a complex process of gradual and contested reform and did not necessarily mark the distinct and sharp break with previous practices that the epithet “New Police” might suggest. Such a large, uniformed force (dressed in top hats and blue tunics with high, stiff collars), firmly based on the preventive principle of beat policing (and initially featuring no detective division), was an innovation. The fact that this new force’s commanders (two Commissioners of Police and a Receiver responsible for financial matters) were appointed by the Home Secretary and ultimately responsible to Parliament was also a departure from previous practice. Despite this, the new metropolitan force had considerable continuities of working practice with previous law-enforcement bodies, and there was also a considerable overlap in personnel, with many “old” police constables finding work within the Metropolitan Police.

National Police Reform

Outside of London, by the late 1820s, members of the provincial ruling class were also increasingly discussing the presumed inadequacy of existing policing arrangements (Philips and Storch 1994). This did not mean that reform followed swiftly, however. After the success of his 1829 Act, Peel devised plans for a “national” network of policing managed by stipendiary magistrates controlled by the Home Office. A bill along these lines was nearly introduced in 1832, but plans were shelved when it became apparent that local authorities were primed to resist on grounds of cost and the erosion of local control. Central control was imposed in some areas where fears of public disorder were particularly acute. In 1839, for example, Birmingham, Bolton, and Manchester had the control of policing taken out of local hands due to fears of political agitation. In general, however, the legislation which was successfully passed in the 1830s was primarily permissive – allowing for policing reform under local control but not requiring it. The national Lighting and Watching Act of 1833, for example, paved the way for urban policing reform by providing borough authorities with the means to improve their daytime watches and night patrols. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 specified that watch committees be set up to appoint and direct urban police forces. For rural areas, the recommendations of the rather one-sided 1836 Royal Commission on a Constabulary Force led to the Rural Police Act of 1839 (and a further amending act in 1840). This permissive act left the decision on whether to establish a rural police (as well as the control of that force) in the hands of the county magistrates.

While 24 counties had implemented the 1839 Act by 1841, and a further 11 did so in the next 15 years, around a third of counties still had not implemented any reforms by the mid-1850s. For this reason, another Select Committee was appointed in 1853 to consider the expediency of adopting a more uniform system of police. The resultant police bill, introduced in 1854 against a backdrop of extensive public order problems in the north of England, proposed that boroughs with less than 20,000 inhabitants would cede control of their forces to the counties and that there would be greater Home Office interaction with Chief Constables. These proposals again encountered stiff opposition, primarily from boroughs, with strong support from the City of London, and the bill was withdrawn. A subsequent bill introduced in 1856, which left local control of the police intact, was more favorably received, partly because of the ending of transportation to Australia, which elevated public concern over ex-convicts remaining at large in Britain.

The resultant County and Borough Police Act of 1856 made the establishment of police forces a requirement at local government level in all counties and boroughs and allowed for part-funding from central government funds via a grant which the force would only receive if it passed an annual inspection (Parris 1961).

By c.1870 almost all provincial authorities had established new police forces but, overall, police reform in the nineteenth century was a complex, evolutionary process. Most counties and boroughs recognized the need for change but feared the loss of their authority to central government. The process of reform was further complicated by the fact that some new forces around the country were actually set up in advance of the national legislation, as a result of local initiative. In Gloucestershire, for example, the parish of Dursley had created its own force in 1814 in a way which prefigured later, national interventions. Thus, the idea that the Metropolitan Police Act served as an example to other areas of the country cannot be wholly sustained. A further layer of complexity is added by the fact that other national legislation passed during the period (such as the Parish Constables Act of 1842 and the Superintending Constables Act of 1850) in fact allowed rural parishes to appoint constables on the model of the “old” system, an allowance that many availed themselves of (Philips and Storch 1998, p. 213–19). Thus, while the police forces introduced as a result of the police acts passed between 1829 and 1856 were “new” insofar as novel legislation compelled the implementation of new structures locally, the debates, delays, and diversions around this implementation meant that the “New Police” did not necessarily represent a sharp break with the past. This statement is equally true in terms of police practice, where continuities with older mechanisms of policing were also in many ways also apparent.

The Practice Of Policing

The Process Of Professionalization

By the latter quarter of the nineteenth century, recognizably modern structures of policing were in place in England and Wales (with Scotland and Ireland, as outlined below, being policed under separate arrangements). In some senses, these “new” police forces were professional from the outset. In contrast to the “old” police, they were salaried, uniformed, and paid pensions after retirement. However, initially at least, many forces had considerable problems with both the enforcement of discipline and high staff turnover, with many constables fined or dismissed for drunkenness and inefficiency. This was partly due to key differences in the expectations the new forces had of their employees. In particular, the establishment of close supervision of the body of the constable (via drill, beat monitoring, and instruction), combined with the novel forms of time discipline required, meant that many “old” police constables found it hard to make the transition to the newer forces (Williams 2013). There were also periodic petitions in some cities for better pay and conditions. While a Chief Constables Association was formed in 1893, the clandestine Police and Prison Officers Union, which sought to represent the rank and file and organized a police strike in 1918/1919, was swiftly outlawed. British police officers have been barred from joining trade unions ever since.

Gradually, however, police forces matured as employers. The Metropolitan Police was one of the largest work organizations of any kind in nineteenth-century London, employing almost 22,000 men by 1914 (Shpayer-Makov 2002). Yet, from the outset, the Metropolitan Police (as with other British forces) was essentially a meritocracy, with all but the top 11 positions being filled from those who had risen through the ranks. This, combined with good pension provision (unusual for working-class employees during the nineteenth century), meant that the labor force of the new police gradually bedded in and the high turnover rates of the early years eventually subsided. The size, nature, and working practices of the new forces were far from static, however. As police forces matured, so new elements of professional practice were continually added to the policing repertoire, a key element of which was plain clothes detection.

Because of public fears that the new police could easily become a political “spy” police such as that believed to operate within many European countries, there were initially no detective departments or specialized detectives within the new police forces. While there were some officers who worked in plain clothes, it soon became clear that dedicated detection activity was a necessary part of police work. The Metropolitan Police set up a detective division in 1842, and the City of London and some larger cities and towns followed suit. Yet detective activity remained a surprisingly small element of police work. There were only a few hundred police detectives in the mid-nineteenth century, although this number had more than doubled by 1918 (Shpayer-Makov 2011). Britain did also, eventually, develop a “political” police of sorts. The secretive Special Branch, initially the Special Irish Branch, was set up in 1883 to combat Irish terrorism on the British mainland, but eventually extended its activities to encompass the surveillance of a wide range of individuals, including those with known left-wing political views (Porter 1987).

The identification of suspects was another important element of police work which underwent significant development. In an age before routine identification documents such as passports, knowing whether a person held in custody was a repeat offender was a complex problem, and the new police were quick to put emerging technologies to good effect. Photography was in use in British prisons as early as 1847 but was not common practice within police forces until the 1871 Prevention of Crime Act, which set up a central registry held at Scotland Yard (the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police). By 1886, this registry contained c.60,000 photographs of known offenders, showing the police as early and enthusiastic adopters of the technology (Stanford 2002). The crucial aid to the identification of suspects was the fingerprint bureau set up at Scotland Yard in 1901. Fingerprinting rapidly became the default means of identification in use in Britain and was much emulated around the world. The technology was not developed in England, however, but rather in India in the 1890s (by the Inspector General of Police in Bengal, Edward Henry), before exported back to the metropole (Cole 2002).

Novel technologies were certainly useful to the practice of policing but much police work was (and still is) based on routine bureaucracy and this, too, is worthy of consideration. The development of sophisticated systems for sharing information of all kinds marks part of the process of professionalization of the police. Internally, from the outset, the new police forces ran themselves via interlocking systems of reports and returns, which subjected the actions of each level to the surveillance and control of those above them. In relation to crime control, the 1871 Prevention of Crime Act set up a register of “habitual criminals,” and from this register, the Home Office prepared an annual register of distinctive marks for circulation to all police forces. In addition, the Metropolitan Police maintained its own sophisticated archives which enabled better tracking and identification of suspects. Other regional forces had similar mechanisms for circulating information about increasingly mobile criminals in an era before widespread telephone communications. Such everyday practices as keeping files and circulating information in a timely and effective manner were the product of considerable thought and design and came to form an integral element of modern policing (Williams 2013).

The Limited Power Of The State

Although police forces were larger and better trained than ever by the turn of the twentieth century, there were always limits to the capabilities of the police. Just as the narrative of institutional police reform was a convoluted one, so the story of the development of policing practice is not just one of increasingly sophisticated techniques of control. On the one hand, despite a public rhetoric which presented the British policing as consensual and the individual constable as simply “a citizen in uniform,” the new forces undoubtedly acted to some extent to enforce new, middle-class standards of decorum. In some districts, the new constables were termed “a plague of blue locusts” due to their role in regulating drinking, gambling, and other working-class leisure activities (Storch 1975). Street offences (such as public drunkenness, vagrancy, and begging) took up an inordinate share of police time, with a similarly large focus devoted to the prevention and investigation of property crime. White-collar crime (a term coined in 1939 to describe fraud and other financial crimes committed by those in positions of authority) was not something which occupied the police particularly during the nineteenth century. The new police could, therefore, be viewed as “a new engine of power and authority,” helping to manufacture an orderly working class suitable to the modern, capitalist economy (Philips 1980).

In reality, however, it was always impossible for the police (as for contemporary forces) to accomplish everything which might be required of them. While the police may have been granted extensive legislative powers and been asked to intervene frequently in the fields of popular morality and public behavior, this does not mean that they always did. Prevalent street culture remained resistant to police control, and the two Metropolitan Police Commissioners (and other chief constables around the country) often found themselves, of necessity, having to tread a path midway between the demands of local authorities and pressure groups, on the one hand, and the practical necessity for good relations with the populations they policed, on the other. Overall, policing practice in the nineteenth century was often designed to establish minimum standards of public order without provoking social conflict by aiming at unattainable standards. The role of discretion on the part of both individual officers (and senior commanders) in deciding what offenses to prioritize was always significant in the operation of policing. While the new police undoubtedly did spend a great deal of their time concerned with minor property crime and street offenses, these duties were often undertaken with sympathy and a degree of understanding (Lawrence 2004), and the police were in some ways a social mechanism which could be engaged by all classes (Davis 1984).

Consideration of the social backgrounds of police officers is a useful key to understanding some elements of policing practice during the period to 1918. English policemen (and they were exclusively male until the First World War) came from a range of backgrounds, but were overwhelmingly drawn from the unskilled and semiskilled working class (Emsley and Clapson 1994). This meant that some officers were at times understandably reluctant to enforce what appeared to many of them to be pointless attempts at social engineering. Moreover, the acquisition of social status through physical strength and aggression remained a key element of working-class culture during this period, and this meant that many police officers strove to be “as hard as the local hard men” (Emsley 2009, p. 149). Violence on the part of the police was a recognized (although not celebrated) facet of policing practice for much of the nineteenth century. Public order policing (particularly the regulation of political demonstrations and trades unions meetings) remained a key part of policing and here, too, violence on part of police also far from unusual.

Overall, it is apparent that the way the police were organized and the duties they were given meant that they were more likely to come into contact with members of the working class than other social groups. It was not until the advent of mass motoring that the middle classes really came into extensive contact with the police. However, any consideration of the operation of the new police in the nineteenth century needs to recognize both the novel demands made of constables and the pragmatism and discretion with which they mediated these demands.

Regional Variations

The policing of the outlying areas of Britain reveals both similarities and differences with England. Wales had the same legal system as England during the nineteenth and early twentieth century, and hence policing developments there followed similar patterns. Initial resistance to reform on the grounds of cost and the erosion of local control was followed by gradual acceptance. While the new police in Wales were involved in the imposition of new standards of social order, the size and composition of forces (particularly in rural areas) very often impeded the efforts of elites to impose certain aspects of social regulation (Jones 1982).

Scotland had its own legal system, yet there has been relatively little research focused specifically on Scottish policing. What is evident is the significance of the English model, but also the ways in which it was tailored to local conditions (Barrie 2008). Scotland emerged from the age of improvement with a modern, professional police, but constabularies were initially administered under a dual control system whereby elected police commissions shared responsibility for the administration of forces with town councils and magistrates. Scottish police forces, as was the case in England and Wales, customarily adopted a pragmatic approach to the many demands placed upon them. More significantly, as in the English case, some elements of working-class culture, such as heavy drinking, remained more resistant to the new police than both police commissions and town councils would have liked.

Ireland, despite having the same legal framework as England from 1801 to 1922, had particular social, economic, and political circumstances which made issues of law and order (particularly public order policing) especially significant. As in England, an “old” police existed in Ireland at the turn of the nineteenth century. Parochial constables had no uniform or training and were usually only policemen in their spare time, but were tolerably effective in some areas (Malcolm 2006). Reforms introduced by the government in London were implemented in 1822 via the Irish Constabulary Act, which established a new force in each barony with chief constables and inspectors general under the control of Dublin Castle (the seat of British power in Ireland). The duties of these forces were in many ways similar to those of the new constabularies in England but they were paramilitary in nature. Armed from the start and divorced from local civil control, the police in Ireland had a much more prominent role in the maintenance of public order than forces in mainland Britain.

Following the Police Reform Act of 1836 and under the command of James Shaw Kennedy (who had originally been offered the commissionership of the Metropolitan Police by Robert Peel), the Irish Constabulary (which gained the prefix “Royal” in 1867) wore bottle-green uniforms, were armed with short-barreled carbines and sword bayonets, and lived in barracks. Dublin itself was policed by a separate civil force – the unarmed Dublin Metropolitan Police. While the RIC gradually became more representative of the Irish population, largely due to sustained efforts to recruit more Catholics into the rank and file, this process took decades, and the turnover among police personnel remained high. Thus, as with the English case, the nineteenth century saw a gradual evolution of recognizably modern mechanisms of policing in Ireland. Although the public order issues raised by Ireland’s complex relationship with mainland Britain, and the armed and national nature of the RIC, meant that there were distinct differences, it is also obvious that constables in both England and Ireland faced many of the same challenges and also undertook very similar sorts of duties on a daily basis.

Conclusions And Future Research

The advent of the “new police” in nineteenth-century Britain did not represent the sudden or total shift in institutions and practices which historians once assumed. The “old” police was in many ways a tolerably effective system in some areas, and there was significant continuity in both practices and personnel as new forces were set up post-1829. Police reform and changes in operational practice during the nineteenth century were extensive but were also often gradual and cumulative, rather than sudden or decisive. By 1918, policing in Britain and Ireland was very different to the pre-1829 era, but even in the 1880s and 1890s, many remnants of older, private, or informal mechanisms of policing still survived.

Despite 30 years of sustained academic research into British police history, however, there are still numerous unexplored topics. In particular, while significant attention has been lavished on London (rightly so, given its significance in the reform process) and a few other major cities, there is relatively little research which looks in detail at how policing was conducted in the rural areas and smaller towns of England. In addition, Wales, Scotland, and

Ireland require considerable research to establish the extent to which developments in England are generalizable to those areas also. The interaction of the new police with the many other interest groups and agencies which were involved in the regulation of social life in the nineteenth century is another area requiring further attention. The significance of policing for any true understanding of the social history of the recent past hopefully means that these areas will not be lacking research for long.


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