Policing in Britain c.1750–1829 Research Paper

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The last few decades have seen a dramatic change in the manner in which police history in Britain has been analyzed and interpreted and in the level of interest it has provoked. Once the almost exclusive preserve of former officers and civil servants, the development of the so-called “new” police in the nineteenth century has increasingly drawn the attention of professional scholars from the fields of history, sociology, criminology, and legal studies. In so far as the police serve as a mechanism for enforcing the law and utilizing state force, the emergence of the “policeman state” must be regarded as one of the most profound institutional developments in recent history (Gatrell 1992). The introduction of modern policing was crucial not just to the evolution of modern criminal justice systems but also for developing an understanding of the construction, distribution, and operation of power – social, racial, and gender – in government and society (Reiner 2000; Westmarland 2002). As this research paper shows, the fundamentals of modern policing had been established in Britain long before central government introduced the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act – once widely regarded as representing the birth of modern policing (Critchley 1967).

Key Issues In Police Historiography

In older, institutional police histories, the 1829 Metropolitan Police Act – which established a full-time, uniformed police force to prevent crime in the metropolis of London – was a watershed in law enforcement (Ascoli 1979). Introduced in response to an unprecedented rise in crime, the inefficiency, inadequacy, and corruption of existing law enforcement arrangements and the pioneering influence of police reformers, the “new” police that took to the streets were a marked improvement on their predecessors and quickly became an example for provincial centers, counties, and other countries to follow. What distinguished the new police from their predecessors, according to this view of police history, was the high standards of professionalism and efficiency to which they were subject: Metropolitan police officers were carefully selected, full-time, salaried, organized, and disciplined, while law enforcement arrangements were rationalized and coordinated. Officers were the embodiment of a “new science of policing,” charged with preventing crime through their uniformed presence and a beat patrol system of policing rather than merely responding to it. In such histories, police reform is viewed in a favorable, inherently progressive light – as an unproblematic, linear development beginning with the earliest police reformers, like Henry Fielding and Patrick Colquhoun, and culminating with the architect of the Metropolitan Police Act, Sir Robert Peel.

In the 1960s and 1970s, this conservative, consensual model of police history was challenged by a revisionist interpretation (Silver 1967; Storch 1975). Far from being a marked improvement on their predecessors, the “new” police were shown to have suffered from the same problems and weaknesses as the “old” police, as chief constables struggled to instill discipline and professionalism in a profession undermined by high turnover rates and low pay (Taylor 1997). What was “new” about the new police introduced in London in 1829 and then in provincial towns and counties over the next two decades was not the police’s enhanced efficiency, discipline, and professionalism but rather their role and function in society (Hay and Snyder 1989). The new police represented a new, bureaucratized form of social management designed to penetrate civil society with the values of the state through continuous surveillance of working-class society. Influenced by Marxist thought, this view argued that the new police were introduced to meet the needs of a class-based capitalist society and to respond to threats of political unrest and industrial militancy. They were the product not of growing criminality but rather of class antagonisms, changing middle-class perceptions of the sprawling masses, greater demands for urban order, and the erosion of traditional forms of social control that accompanied the transition to urban, industrial society. Fighting crime, in other words, was less important to police reformers than keeping the lower orders disciplined and under close surveillance, and ultimately safeguarding private property, the status quo, and the interests of one section of society over the other.

In recent years, a plethora of studies has nuanced and challenged both of these “problem response” interpretations of police history. Scholars have questioned whether the police were introduced on a scale capable of disciplining and controlling the working classes, the degree of consensus that existed among men of property as to the merits of reform, and just how far the “new” police were introduced in response to the failures of the old system. Indeed, much scholarship has pointed to the degree of innovation in law enforcement prior to the so-called birth of modern policing in London in 1829. Far from heralding a new style of policing, 1829 was, in many ways, the culmination of a long period of reform from at least the mid-eighteenth century in London and provincial English centers. Moreover, the major cities and towns of Ireland and Scotland have been shown to have been at the forefront of innovation, introducing police acts some time before their larger and more widely acclaimed neighbor (Palmer 1988; Barrie 2008). Predating, in many cases, the full-scale introduction of capitalist working practices and industrialization, advances in law enforcement before 1829 point to the need to appreciate more fully broader social, demographic, intellectual, gender, and civic influences behind the birth of modern policing than the pioneering traditional/consensual and revisionist/conflict models – for all their merits – have hitherto done. Recent studies have also situated reform within wider changes to criminal justice systems, addressed the impact of Enlightenment thought, and emphasized the multi-faced nature of police work and the differing police typologies under which police officers function (See, for instance, Emsley 2007).

Fundamentals Of Premodern Law Enforcement

There was no single model of law enforcement in mid-eighteenth-century Britain. There were variations between and within national borders, which were determined by long-standing national and local charters and customs, demography, and urban–rural practices. Differing legal systems also affected how the law was enforced. Scotland, for instance, had a public prosecutor who would carry out preliminary investigations of reported crimes to establish whether a case was worth prosecuting; in England and Wales, the overwhelming majority of prosecutions were brought by victims themselves. There were also, however, a number of similarities in the different parts of the British Isles. In most small parishes, amateur parish constables carried out policing responsibilities under the authority of local justices and magistrates. Drawn predominantly from men of the middling ranks, and elected by local boards and trustees, parish constables were expected to serve for 1 year and would often carry out their duties on a part-time basis in conjunction with other employment. They received no formal training or, in most parishes, annual salary, although many constables were able to make a decent living by collecting rewards and expenses. Those who refused to serve as constables were expected to pay for a substitute or face formal prosecution. Constables tended to be reactive rather than proactive. They would not patrol or seek to prevent crime by their visible presence and would only carry out extensive criminal investigations if the victim was willing, and had the financial means, to pay for it. In most cases, victims would have to take the time and trouble to investigate crime and identify offenders themselves before constables would get involved.

In urban centers, the office of constable was sometimes supplemented by watch forces that would patrol the streets at night. In certain parts of the country, local male householders would, like the office constable, perform this task on an unpaid basis as part of their civic duty to the local community. The system, though, was inconsistently and unevenly applied, with local justices invoking ancient statutes that governed “watching and warding” during periods of heightened tension with law and order. In the large centers, local authorities, or men of property, sought to put arrangements on a more permanent footing by employing paid watch forces. The various parishes and districts of London in the late eighteenth century employed several thousand watchmen between them (Paley 1989; Reynolds 1998), Dublin several hundred (Palmer 1988), and Edinburgh relied upon an Old Town Guard to police the dimly lit nighttime streets of Scotland’s capital. The role of such forces, though, was fairly limited: they would protect property, assist magistrates and constables in the exercise of their duties, and apprehend suspicious persons or those committing public order offenses, but they did not investigate and detect crime.

Influenced by the eighteenth and early nineteenth-century criticisms of police reformers, older police histories perceived such arrangements as being inefficient, inadequate, wretched, and, in some cases, corrupt. It is certainly the case that many watch forces were staffed by old, sometime infirm, ex-soldiers and struggled to attract good recruits because of low pay. It is also the case that some constables, such as the notorious Jonathan Wild in London, were involved in criminal activities. Moreover, as constables and watchmen lived in the communities they served, there was often a reluctance to enforce unpopular legislation or laws that would provoke the wrath of the general populace. Whether or not a crime was investigated, or indeed taken seriously, by local law enforcement officials was often dependent upon the character, social background, and gender of the victim; the nature of the alleged offense; and, above all, the capacity of the victim to fund a criminal investigation and prosecution.

For the most part, though, mid-eighteenth-century policing arrangements functioned adequately. Far from being unreliable and of suspect character, research has shown that the majority of constables were sober, conscientious, and civic-minded individuals who took their responsibilities seriously (Morgan and Rushton 1998). Although in principle an amateur system of law enforcement, arrangements were not necessarily unprofessional in their workings. In some parishes, the position of constable appears to have become almost semi-permanent and salaried. Constables were often retained in office after their annual service was up, thereby increasing their experience and expertise. As John Beattie’s work on the policing of the City of London, 1660–1750, has shown, the authorities pioneered a number of policing initiatives in an effort to turn this area of historic civic importance into a prosperous symbol of security in an expanding commercial world (Beattie 2001). A perceived rise in property crime, sensationalized in a burgeoning print culture, combined with a desire better to control and regulate the “night” heralded significant reforms to the quality of London’s watch system. Moreover, in the overwhelming majority of Scottish towns, local elites had such confidence in existing policing arrangements that they excluded watching and constabulary provisions from local police and improvement legislation for the bulk of the eighteenth century.

To the pioneering scholars of police history, writing over 200 years later, such arrangements appeared backward and inefficient when compared to modern policing practice, but they were perfectly suited to meet the needs of the time, the existing social and religious power structures, and the ethos of criminal justice systems. This was a system of law enforcement that was valued by local justices because it was cheap to administer and it conveyed upon all the legal participants a degree of discretion and influence. While a number of histories have shown that all sections of society made use of local courts (King 2000; Gray 2009), it was also common for disputes to be resolved informally or through extrajudicial means. Indeed, recourse to the law was often the last resort – and an unaffordable and burdensome one at that. This was especially the case in Scotland where local criminal courts in many parts of the country would sit infrequently and at irregular intervals (Barrie and Broomhall 2012a). Indeed, Scots were more likely to be brought before a Church Court – where the local Kirk Session would be actively involved in regulating the behavior and morality of parishioners – than a criminal court in the eighteenth century.

Judicial discretion and exemplary punishment, rather than certainty of prosecution, were the hallmarks of the unreformed eighteenth-century criminal justice systems in both Scotland and England. In pre-Enlightenment Britain, punishing a small number of offenders in a severe, exemplary manner was, it was believed, the best safeguard against future criminality. This, along with a long-standing unwillingness to pay for full-time police forces that might threaten individual liberty, and the status, power, and authority of local elites (Philips 1980), underpinned the workings of eighteenth-century law enforcement. Men of property would respond to periods of disorder and rioting through paternalism or by recourse to military or auxiliary forces, or to periods of heightened concern with crime by voluntarily subscribing to watch forces or associations for the prosecution of felons. But, for day-to-day law enforcement, the mid-eighteenth-century system of parish constables delivered what it was expected to – it responded to reports of crime and brought suspects before local justices, rather than seeking to prevent, investigate, and, in most cases, prosecute crime.

This was a system of policing, though, that was suited to the modest expectation of law enforcement at that time and to small, sparsely populated preindustrial parishes. It was not a system that was able to meet the changing needs of a rapidly urbanizing, commercial society, the challenges brought about by large-scale political protest and unrest, and a growing desire among the middle ranks for better protection of private property and uniformity in practice and performance. As the subsequent section examines, these social, economic, intellectual, and political drivers would stimulate a wide array of local policing innovations and experiments throughout Britain, which would ultimately lay the foundations for greater central government direction from London in the nineteenth century.

Key Issues: Policing Innovations And The Drivers Behind Reform, C.1750 To 1829

Given its size and importance as Britain’s leading center of commerce and governance, it should come as no surprise that London pioneered innovations in law enforcement on a more regular basis from the mid-eighteenth century onward. John Beattie’s recent work on the Bow Street Runners has shown that the system of criminal investigation established in 1750 by the Middlesex magistrate Henry Fielding, and later by his half-brother John Fielding, developed the Bow Street Magistrates’ Office into a leading center for policing and prosecution in the metropolis (Beattie 2012). The officers appointed, under the control of Bow Street magistrates, were detectives in all but name, highly skilled in investigating crime, in hunting down and arresting offenders, and in securing convictions in London’s main criminal court, the Old Bailey. Introduced in response to ongoing concerns about property crime, the work of the Fieldings, and the officers they (employed) was important to the way that policing in London developed over subsequent decades. It helped to spread the idea that crime could be reduced through efficient and quick detection, and in doing so, it offered an alternative vision of how to control crime other than through exemplary punishment (Rawlings 2002, p. 96).

In provincial areas, criminal detection in the second half of the eighteenth century was facilitated by the growing use of thief takers, who would pursue suspected offenders for financial reward (for more on the issues discussed in this paragraph, see the collection of essays in Hay and Snyder 1989). Also important was the rise in print advertising offering rewards for information on crime, which was greatly facilitated by the expansion of the provincial press, and the spread of associations for the prosecution of felons, which raised funds through subscriptions to defray the costs of investigating and prosecuting crime. These initiatives, which often developed in response to perceived rises in criminal activity, were symbolic of the fact that among the rising middle ranks there was a growing intolerance of property crime and a growing willingness to seek legal redress rather than settle matters informally. The reimbursement of expenses for successful prosecutions in England in the mid-eighteenth century provided a further stimulus to legal action, while the courts’ declining use of capital punishment relative to the number of capital convictions in the second half of the eighteenth century – and the emergence of new forms of punishment such as transportation – encouraged more victims to seek legal redress safe in the knowledge that they would not have to carry the burden of having someone executed for a relatively minor crime.

These developments were carried out against an intellectual backdrop that was slowly beginning to question not only traditional forms of policing and law enforcement but also the ethos and purpose of the criminal justice system itself and how its institutional structures should function. Arguably, the most famous treatise of the time, the Italian philosopher Beccaria’s essay On Crimes and Punishment (1767), argued that certainty rather than severity of punishment was a more effective deterrent to crime (Draper 2000). Beccaria’s theories were quickly incorporated into English penal theory debate and utilitarian thinking and permeated to some degree middle-class discourse on the hallmarks of civilized society. Although by no means universally accepted, his ideas, and the way in which they were picked up and developed by police and penal reformers in England, helped to stimulate debate and lay the intellectual foundations for new thinking on crime control. Ideas about the merits of preventative policing and controlling crime through patrol and surveillance started to become more popular in London in the 1780s (Beattie 2012). This new wave of thinking was perhaps best exemplified by Patrick Colquhoun’s Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (1796), which went through seven editions by 1806 and stimulated discussion on policing in the capital. In it, Colquhoun advocated a “new science” of policing, shifting emphasis away from apprehending and severely punishing criminals once a felony had been committed to preventing it from happening in the first place. He called for the creation of a centralized police force in London to prevent and detect crime, as well as the establishment of a public prosecutor in order to relieve victims of the trouble and expense of prosecuting criminals. Ward constables were to maintain a “general superintendence” of their districts, and there was to be a separation between police and judicial powers. Crime, he argued, was a product of indigence, ignorance, and immorality and needed to be tackled through the poor law and education, as well as police reform.

However, Colquhoun’s plan was never fully implemented due in no small part to local opposition to his centralized model and the threat it would pose to the power and status of vested propertied interests and because (as is revealed below) the existing system was working much better than Colquhoun claimed (Gray 2009). Nonetheless, his influence was much more important than recent historians have acknowledged. Treatise on the Police was widely and enthusiastically acclaimed in the press and Parliament, had a significant impact upon middleclass thinking, and put the issue of police reform on the political agenda. Not long after it was published, Colquhoun was invited by local businessmen to establish the privately funded Thames River Police to prevent dockland crime – a topic close to Colquhoun’s heart from his time in Glasgow, where he established the world’s first Chamber of Commerce in 1783. The Thames scheme was established in response to a perceived rise in dockland crime, but its creation was also indicative of the crucial role of the redefinition of crime and the reformulation of employer-employee relations played in shaping police reform. The Thames police officers were largely engaged in clamping down on the customary practice of taking perquisites from workplaces as a supplement to their wages – a practice that was being challenged in business circles and by business leaders seduced by the free-market notions of Enlightenment thinkers, not least another influential Scot, Adam Smith, in his famous Wealth of Nations (1776). The “new science of policing” that was slowly evolving was not just about crime and its control; it was about responding to wider structural changes in the economy and society and to the interests of the propertied.

This was a period of significant innovation in policing in the metropolis. In the early 1790s, seven police officers under the control of stipendiary magistrates were established in Middlesex, which was an important milestone for expanding the capacity of summary justice to deal with more offenders and forged an important link between the police, reported offenses, and the criminal courts (Paley 1989). According to Gray, city officials, and not just the Bow Street Runners, became more proactively engaged in investigating and detecting crime in this period (Gray 2009). Moreover, night watch forces – both in London and the larger provincial towns of England – were professionalized over the course of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in response to mounting fears of property crime and disorder, especially during the periods of economic downturn that followed the end of the American Revolutionary (1775–1783) and the Napoleonic (1793–1815) Wars when concerns with law and order intensified. Far from being an inadequate, wretched mess as police reformers argued, many of these forces not only performed preventative police functions through beat patrolling – the hallmark of Peel’s so-called new police – they also introduced a tiered command structure and put in place a plan for the “new” model which would be initiated in 1829. Indeed, according to Reynolds, Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 Metropolitan Police Act centralized policing arrangements in the capital rather than created them (Reynolds 1998). Modern policing in the capital therefore evolved out of the old watch system through the efforts of local officials rather than politicians in central government. Moreover, as Palmer has pointed out, Peel’s blueprint for the Metropolitan Police drew heavily on his years serving as secretary of state for Ireland, where full-time, professional, armed policed forces were introduced in Dublin in 1786 and in provincial Ireland in 1787 in response to concerns with Irish nationalism (Palmer 1988).

Urban and commercial expansion, allied with an increasingly free-market economy, not only loosened the social and paternal bonds that had provided an important safety valve and form of control in many parts of preindustrial English society, it also provided an environment in which more crime, immorality, and drunken disorder could flourish. However, whether crime was actually on the increase in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is debatable. There was certainly a disproportionate rise in recorded indictable property crime relative to population growth in this period, but this is likely to have reflected to some degree the growing willingness of victims to prosecute due to legal and administrative reforms, changing expectations of law enforcement and a hardening attitude among the emerging middle ranks toward property offenses (Gatrell 1992). Moreover, the expansion of middle-class newspaper readership and the annual publication of criminal statistics from the early 1800s fuelled middle-rank concerns about crime and its control (Lemmings and Walker 2010). They made crime appear more visible and helped to strengthen not just the resolve of police reformers to implement change but also the case for it – something that was ruthlessly exploited by Peel in London and provincial police reformers throughout England. As Emsley has pointed out, it was the perception that crime was on the increase that was important, not whether it actually was or not (Emsley 1996). At the same time, social and cultural habits were changing in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Towns, especially those in the first phase of industrial expansion, were becoming larger, more rowdy, and more difficult to control at a time when the rising middle classes were demanding higher levels of urban order and discipline from the expanding urban masses. It was a demand for order in civil society that would result in watch and police forces being introduced and professionalized across in the great municipal towns of England and time-honored, popular working-class pastimes criminalized as a desire to control public space and the built environment became a preoccupation for men of property.

Scotland, with own distinct legal system and legislative tradition, was also at the forefront of policing innovations. In the 1780s, the rapidly expanding mercantile and manufacturing center of Glasgow was home to Patrick Colquhoun, who served as Lord Provost of Glasgow between 1782 and 1783 and as a Lanarkshire Justice of the Peace for much of the 1780s. Protecting private property and controlling urban rioting were a major concern for Colquhoun and his civic counterparts, and a number of policing proposals were put forward and experiments implemented to effect these aims. In 1788, magistrates appointed an “intendent of police,” a police clerk, and a number of “police officers” “in order to detect and prevent crimes” and divided the city of Glasgow into nine districts, each with “ward superintendents” – a concept that would resurface in Colquhoun’s Treatise. The initiative was innovative and forward thinking in seeking to prevent crime by establishing a degree of community supervision over local residents and was indicative, in many ways, of Colquhoun’s notion (espoused in his famous Treatise) of establishing a “general superintendence” of local districts. Its underlying premise was that a successful scheme of police required locally appointed ward superintendents with intimate knowledge of suspicious characters and crimes. The scheme coincided with mounting concerns about crime, vagrancy, and rioting in the city, but underlying them was a growing recognition that a more professional system for investigating and detecting crime was necessary for such a large and prosperous city. It was accompanied by a sustained campaign to acquire a statutory local police act which illustrated just how far the new thinking of preventative policing had permeated the discourse of the city’s business community. In discussing a proposed police bill in 1789, the Trades’ House – which represented craft interests in the city – argued that the law enforcement clauses would prove ineffective as they were designed only “for the detection and punishment of crimes once committed” and fell “exceedingly short of that much more important object of preventing the increase, and removing the possible cause of the crimes” (Barrie 2008) The ensuing discourse on law enforcement in the city exposed not only a growing intolerance of crime but also the growing problems of investigating and detecting it. There was growing resentment in middle-rank circles that victims were expected to take the initiative in bringing legal action against offenders, and new ways were being sought to defend private property more effectively by making it easier to bring criminals to justice.

In his famous Treatise, Colquhoun drew inspiration from policing systems in France and Dublin, as well as his experiences serving as a magistrate in London. It is also possible, though, that developments in his native city provided an intellectual influence on his thinking. Colquhoun came from a background that was questioning the existing system of criminal investigation and prosecution and looking at new ways better to protect private property. A number of the ideas he expressed in Treatise bore a striking resemblance to the political discourse surrounding police reform in Glasgow in the late eighteenth century and to a wider intellectual culture of Scottish Enlightenment thought on the rule of law, jurisprudence, and civic governance. How much influence Colquhoun was able to exert over policing arrangements in Glasgow is impossible to say. What is clear, though, is that Colquhoun’s self-proclaimed “new science of policing” was being discussed and debated at length in middle-rank circles in Glasgow several years before it made its appearance in Treatise, which raises the possibility that his Scottish heritage and the intellectual and philosophical discourse which emanated from the Scottish Enlightenment influenced, to some degree, subsequent thinking in London.

In 1800, Glasgow finally acquired its first police act after years of protracted debate and political infighting among urban elites over issues of control and cost. The city’s lead was followed by a large number of Scottish burghs, including Greenock (1801), Edinburgh (1805), Paisley (1806), and Dundee (1824). Indeed, 23 Scottish burghs in total introduced police acts between 1800 and 1826. These statutes were similar to, and influenced by, eighteenth-century English improvement legislation in that they covered a wide array of powers relating to the general well-being and good ordering of local communities and included provision for full-time, paid watch forces. They did not represent the triumph of a new police model but rather the expansion of a model that had been introduced in English towns and was familiar on continental Europe (Dodsworth 2004). “Police” in early nineteenth century urban Scotland, in keeping with the concept’s European origins, was defined broadly as a form of civic administration for the common good. The intention behind these acts was to levy assessments, elect commissioners, enlarge judicial boundaries, and obtain and extend powers for regulating the civil and criminal affairs with the intention of promoting cleanliness, health, security, and good order.

However, although public amenity provisions featured prominently in these acts, it would be wrong to regard them as having little significance for the evolution of modern policing or being merely an offshoot of English practice. In many cases, provision was also made for police forces under a hierarchical command structure for the prevention of crime under the management of locally elected police commissioners. This new, bureaucratic structure of law enforcement was an important step in the professionalization of law enforcement and in associating “police” with crime control. Moreover, in the larger cities, police courts were set up to expand the capacity of summary justice with senior police officers taking on the role of public prosecutor for minor crimes, offenses, and misdemeanors – a role the “new police” in England would not take on until the second half of the nineteenth century (Barrie and Broomhall 2012a). These courts came to be integral to the smooth running of towns, the maintenance of urban order, and the development of the Scottish criminal justice system. They were the principal local courts before which people were likely to be summoned and interact with the law and were instrumental in bringing about a massive increase in the number and type of crimes and offenses that were dealt with and punished in a summary manner. They were therefore an essential component of the emergence of the “policeman state” (Gatrell 1992).

The economic and social profile of “improving” burghs consisted mainly of expanding manufacturing centers, such as Glasgow, Paisley, and Airdrie; buoyant sea ports, such as Port Glasgow and Leith; and flourishing commercial centers, such as Dumfries. Many had western coastal locations, which suggest that police reform in urban Scotland was closely associated with urban growth, demographic change, and the development of trans-Atlantic trading. As in England, urban growth and changing work practices brought growing concerns with crime and its control. There were acute periods of heightened tension with property crime, vagrancy, and urban order, especially during periods of economic downturn. The post-Napoleonic years were also marked by political radicalism and industrial militancy. Relations between employers and employees became increasingly fraught in the face of changing work practices and declining wage levels, which accompanied the move toward a more market-orientated system of production. As in England, middle-class attitudes toward crime and the expanding, industrial urban masses were hardening. Men of property were becoming increasingly intolerant of urban disorder – partly because it was becoming more prevalent as rapid urban expansion and economic takeoff in expanding Scottish burghs brought more and more migrants and social problems and partly because an effective system of police was deemed essential to the progress of civil society. The 1800 Glasgow Police Act, for instance, was introduced not long after a major disturbance in the city, while the 1805 Edinburgh Police Act of 1805 was framed within the context of heightened anxiety over public safety, growing intolerance of public begging, and mounting criticism of the problems victims faced in bringing offenders to justice.

The inclusion of watching provisions in local police acts, however, also reflected an expansion of late-night entertainment and a growing reluctance among men of property to carry out their time-honored watching duties. Indeed, some police acts included a provision for watching by proxy in lieu of personal attendance. Other towns embraced reform because their neighbors had done so. What is particularly striking about the pattern of police development in Scotland in the first few decades of the nineteenth century is its clustered nature. Burghs within the same region tended to introduce improvement and police legislation around the same time. Acquiring statutory police powers set new standards that were likely to have made provisions in neighboring towns appear backward, as what was once acceptable quickly became unacceptable in light of competing models. Indeed, far from London providing the main driver for reform, provincial elites throughout the United Kingdom often looked to each other’s models for inspiration. It was not uncommon for improvement commissioners in English northern towns to look to Scottish practices or police commissioners in Glasgow and Edinburgh to look to policing arrangements in Manchester or Liverpool whenever the issue of reform was on the agenda. Indeed, in 1806, commissioners in Edinburgh ruled out looking at London as a model for police reform on the basis that its size and significance were unique in a United Kingdom context.

There were similarities here with the policing of rural England. As Philips and Storch have shown, traditional forms of law enforcement in the second quarter of the nineteenth century came to be viewed as inefficient and ineffective when compared with the Metropolitan Police, and in the face of mounting criticism of its deficiencies in government circles, even though, in practice, they were functioning fairly effectively (Philips and Storch 1999). Luddite disturbances, rural riots, the erosion of paternal authority, a perceived rise in crime, and changing expectations of the criminal justice system caused men of property in rural England to think of better ways to defend their property and resulted in the introduction in the 1820s of new policing initiatives based on the underlying principles and ethos of the old constabulary system (Philips 1980). Indeed, far from being a radical departure from what had gone before, opposition to the introduction of the new police from the propertied ranks in rural England in the 1830s and 1840s was somewhat reduced because it was not fundamentally new but rather a product of earlier innovation and experimentation. In many English towns and counties, the “new police” were often staffed by the same men who had served in the “old police,” while in other parishes, constables continued to play an important role in the apprehension of criminals long after their so-called demise. The transition from “old” to “new” in rural England after 1829 was not, therefore, necessarily a product of the failure of the system but rather has to be seen in the context of long-term transformations of the local state and a changing social outlook and administrative philosophy of the ruling elite – a philosophy which prioritized a bureaucratic system of stipendiary magistrates and paid police in order to meet the new expectations of law and order associated with the Metropolitan Police and to respond to heightened sensitivity about crime, order, and public decorum.

Therefore, even although it is difficult to define exactly what constitutes modern policing, it is highly unlikely to have begun in 1829. Many of its recognizable characteristics – such as crime prevention and detection, police-led prosecutions, and police courts to administer summary justice – were in operation in different forms and in different parts of mainland Britain long before Peel’s police officers took to the streets. Modernization had a long history and many layers – a history of debate, experimentation, and reform which is extremely difficult to periodize in any precise manner and which did not evolve in a vacuum from wider thinking of other branches of the legal system. Police culture was, and indeed continues to be, heavily influenced by traditions, customs, and practices (Williams 2010).The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act was still of historic importance and would, according to Philips and Storch, become the main model for law enforcement against which others were measured in England following its introduction (Philips and Storch 1999). But it was not the historic turning point that was once claimed in traditional/conservative histories, especially in Scottish towns where it had little significant impact at all beyond providing – in the form of the Metropolitan Police – a pool of officers to recruit when required.

In the large, expanding commercial and industrial cities of mainland Britain, structural changes within society and the economy, and concern with industrial militancy, disorder, and radicalism, would come to play an increasingly important role in strengthening the resolve of men of property to improve law enforcement arrangements as the nineteenth century progressed (Carson and Idzikowska 1989; Storch 1975). But, there were sufficient innovations in nonindustrial areas to caution against overstating social-control, class-conflict revisionist models that locate the emergence of police to the problems thrown up by industrial society. In some of the smaller Scottish burghs, police reform, and the wide-ranging municipal powers that were acquired under police legislation, was indicative of changing attitudes associated with civic consciousness and urban refinement. Indeed, for a town to seek statutory policing powers was by no means always an admission of social problems; in some cases, it was indicative more of the concept of a new civil society beneath which many forms of improvements could be introduced and administered. Similarly, eighteenth-century English improvement commissions, with their wide-ranging municipal powers, were rooted in Enlightenment notions of improvement for the common good, even if, as in Scotland, men of property had a self-serving notion of what constituted the common good. This points to the need to locate police reform in British cities more fully within the context of the long history of municipal governance, Enlightenment thought, and changing attitudes toward, and expectations of, the built environment and the criminal justice system and what these should deliver, rather than merely the viewing it as being the knee-jerk response to a specific problem. Concerns with crime, disorder, and unrest might have helped strengthen the resolve of men of property to introduce reform, but, in many cases, it had been on the local agenda for a considerable period of time and for a variety of different reasons.

Conclusions: Future Directions On The Evolution Of Modern Policing

While recent years have witnessed the emergence of major studies of policing in nineteenth-century urban Scotland and provincial England, more attention needs to be devoted to the policing of eighteenth-century English towns, rural Scotland, and Wales (which has been well served by David Jones’s studies on nineteenth-century police and crime but less so for the eighteenth century; Jones 1992). Such concentration will not only address major gaps, it also has the potential to further understanding of an historiography (pre-1829) that has been largely preoccupied with London and which might have skewed a wider national picture. It is certainly the case that London’s problems had a disproportionate role in shaping national policy and government thinking on English criminal justice matters, but eighteenth-century provincial towns and cities were by no means incapable of independent action. Indeed, as Peter King recently pointed out in his study of the English criminal law and courts, eighteenth and nineteenth-century justice was often made from the margins by local elites rather than by Parliament in London (King 2007). Throughout Europe, states and cities studied each other’s police systems (Emsley 2007), but how much intellectual transfer there was in municipal and rural policing in eighteenth century in Britain is yet to be fully investigated. As in the early nineteenth century, it is possible that civic rather than metropolitan emulation was a fundamental driver of reform – a fact which has significant implications not just for police reform per se but also for a wider understanding of the construction and dissemination of police typologies, civic governance, and the relationship between the center and the localities.

While a number of studies have explored the relationship between the eighteenth-century summary courts (Gray 2009), much more, surprisingly, is needed on the police courts that were introduced in the nineteenth century. What work has been done in a British context has, with a few exceptions (Barrie and Broomhall 2012a; Godfrey 2008), been London centered, with attention focusing on the reform to the Bow Street Police Offices in the 1790s and the extent to which London police courts provided a poor man’s system of justice (Davis 1984). But these courts have captured the imagination of historians far less to date than the eighteenth-century English “Bloody Code,” despite the crucial role they played in the expansion of summary justice and the police’s regulation of nineteenth-century urban societies. Examining the relationship between police courts, police forces, and police magistrates will provide a fuller understanding of the extent to which police development was interconnected with wider changes in the criminal justice system and how the different branches of police regulated urban and industrial society.

Recent years have also seen greater attention being devoted to the historical relationship between police, gender ideologies, and power structures, and especially how they have impacted on police culture, the experience of female officers (Jackson 2006), and how ideas about masculinity have shaped police culture, practice, policy, and institutional organization over time (Barrie and Broomhall 2012b). Yet, much more needs to be done, especially on the ways in which policing reflects, sustains, embodies, and enforces ideas about masculinity given the gender imbalance that still exists within police forces. Indeed, the paucity of studies which have stressed the importance of gender in shaping eighteenth and nineteenth-century systems of policing relative to class-based interpretations is surprising given that police institutions not only incorporate changing models of male authority but also are closely intertwined with the distribution and operation of power within society. As Barrie and Broomhall have recently argued, a greater appreciation of masculinity has significant implications for the historian’s understanding of the birth of modern policing and police typologies. In historical studies of policing that prioritize gender as a key focus of analysis, conceptualizations of “old” and “new” police models cannot be sustained as all models of policing – including the eighteenth-century old parish system and the reformed bureaucratized model that replaced it in the nineteenth century – have linked their justification and practice of control over communities to concepts of masculinity. Indeed, rather than holding up the Metropolitan model as a template for modern policing practices throughout the world as many studies have done, Barrie and Broomhall have stressed the importance of different models in shaping international institutional policing structures and practices – models that were shaped by conceptions of masculinity and which have been subject to change in different historical and geographical settings (Barrie and Broomhall 2012b).

Lastly, critiques of traditionalist and revisionist accounts of police history as outlined above have encouraged many historians to abandon overarching structural interpretations of reform in favor of local variation. There has, in recent years, been a move away from attempting to pinpoint a particular incident, individual, or social interest as the main driver for police reform (Emsley 1996). However, although recent empirical research and local histories have been extremely valuable in highlighting the complex ways that modern policing evolved, there is a danger, as Philips and Storch warn, of failing to give sufficient historical context for wider, national moves for reform and how these relate to wider changes in the economy, society, and governance of British towns and cities (Philips and Storch 1999). Preoccupation with local diversity, while providing a useful corrective to oversimplified explanations, runs a risk of becoming too specific and neglecting not only the wider context in which reform emerged but also the common problems found in different circumstances (Taylor 1997). The major future advancements in the field will not come from scholars who engage in myopic empiricism alone but rather from those who seek to locate their research in wider theoretical frameworks and ideologies of, among others, class, gender, race, and ethnicity; from those who are attentive to national, intellectual and political developments; and from those who seek to explain diversity rather than using it as the basis for abandoning general, theoretically informed explanations.


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