The committee's recommendations…still left real power with the magistrates rather than the Home Office. But they gave him [Peel] a toe in the door. And with one dramatic push Peel changed the police and government of London forever.
Jerry White, London in the Nineteenth Century
It is hard to imagine any modern city without a visible and effective police force. But although there were already police in London by the turn of the nineteenth century, it was only the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 that set the pattern for policing as we know it today.
In the mid-eighteenth century the novelist and playwright Henry Fielding had put together the Bow Street Runners. In 1798 river police were introduced to combat the rising crime that accompanied the growing trade on the Thames. And there were local parish police and watchmen trying to keep the peace too. Now step forward Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary responsible for getting the Metropolitan Police law through parliament.
Peel modelled his 'New Police' force on the river police. They were based at 'Great Scotland Yard' in a Whitehall courtyard and received regular pay, whereas Fielding's Runners relied mainly on rewards from courts and victims for their income.
The Metropolitan Police soon became known as 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers'. Initially, they numbered 1,000 and policed a population of less than two million. By the end of the century, there were nearly 16,000 police in London serving a population of over seven million.
A Peeler's uniform was a strange mix. As 'servants' of the people, they wore tailcoats, which were a non-military blue. But because they needed an air of authority, they wore top hats, strengthened with an iron ring at the crown. These were replaced in the 1850s by helmets, which were more practical but still visible. The 'stock' around their neck was stiff, to guard against garrotting. And from a heavy leather belt hung handcuffs, a wooden truncheon and a cutlass in a scabbard. They also carried a rattle - changed for a whistle in the 1880s - to summon help. Inspectors were issued with a pistol.
Policemen 'on the beat' had to walk a regular route at a steady pace of around 2.5 miles an hour, earning yet another nickname: PC Plod. The beat was intentionally small, so that they would become familiar locally (although they were not allowed to integrate by having a drink in the pub). Previously, the Bow Street Runners had been found to be congregating with 'villains' in taverns, as well as receiving money and goods. Any Bobby found doing so was dismissed, so that within four years only one sixth of the original men remained.
Despite the success of the Metropolitan Police, a separate police force was established in the City and enshrined in law in 1839. This force still polices the Square Mile today. City Police can be distinguished by different markings on their caps and buttons.
During Victoria's reign, the Metropolitan Police were quickly accepted by some parts of society but struggled for authority over others. Some police still got caught lining their own pockets or acting inappropriately. But the continuing existence of the Met today shows that Peel's organised police force was exactly what a major capital city really needed.
Did you know?
London's river police were merged with the Metropolitan Police in 1839 but still operate from the site of their original headquarters in Wapping.