Aprons are Defences; against injury to cleanliness, to safety, to modesty, sometimes to roguery. From the thin slip of notched silk, which some highest-bred housewife . . . has gracefully fastened on; to the thick-tanned hide, girt round him with thongs, wherein the Builder builds, and at evening sticks his trowel. . . . How much has been defended, how much concealed in Aprons! Nay, rightly considered, what is your whole Military and Police Establishment, charged at uncalculated millions, but a huge scarlet-coloured, iron-fastened Apron, wherein Society works (uneasily enough); guarding itself from some soil and smithy-sparks, in this Devil's-smithy (Teufelsschmiede) of a world? — Thomas Carlyle, Sartor Resartus, Book I, Chapter 6.

The Maintenance of Law and Order before 1829

  1. Authorities had few resources to cope with riot, crime and disorder.
  2. Country parishes and smaller market towns had constables and the local watch and ward. This was the old Tudor system.
  3. In London, the Bow Street Runners were set up in 1742.
  4. Troops were used to keep order.
  5. Local militias were used for local problems.
  6. Spies were used to track down those who were suspected of disaffection.

The industrial revolution put new pressures on society, leading to violence. Collective living led to collective organisation, which helped to create social disorder on a larger scale. The Penal Code was severe with almost two hundred capital offences and other punishments including transportation. This actually encouraged more serious crime as evidenced by the idiom, "I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". However, prisons were still dens of iniquity, even after Peel's reforms of the 1820s. As Home Secretary, he undertook an overhaul of the prisons and also a large-scale reform of the penal code. Eventually prisons did improve although much of the pioneering work was done by people such as Sir Samuel Romily and Elizabeth Fry.

Debate about the creation of a standing police force in England raged during the early part of the 19th century. Confronted with political objections and fears of potential abuse Robert Peel (later Sir Robert Peel) sponsored the first successful bill creating a bureaucratic police force in England.

In 1829 Peel's Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Wellington's government as a political compromise, the Act applying only to London. The jurisdiction of the legislation was limited to the Metropolitan London area, excluding the City of London and provinces.

Crime and disorder were to be controlled by preventive patrols and no stipends were permitted for successful solutions of crimes or the recovery of stolen property. Crime prevention was not the only business of the new police force: they inherited many functions of the watchmen such as

"Bobbies" or "Peelers" were not immediately popular. Most citizens viewed constables as an infringement on English social and political life, and people often jeered the police. The preventive tactics of the early Metropolitan police were successful, and crime and disorder declined. Their pitched battles with (and ultimate street victory over) the Chartists in Birmingham and London proved the ability of the police to deal with major disorders and street riots. Despite the early successes of the Metropolitan police, the expansion of police forces to rural areas was gradual. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 ordered all incorporated boroughs to set up police forces under the control of a watch committee, but it was not until 1856 that Parliament mandated that provinces establish police forces.

The Metropolitan Police Act established the principles that shaped modern English policing. First, the primary means of policing was conspicuous patrolling by uniformed police officers. Second, command and control were to be maintained through a centralised, pseudo-military organisational structure. The first Commissioners were Charles Rowan (an ex-Colonel) and Richard Mayne (a Barrister). They insisted that the prevention of crime was the first object of the police force. Third, police were to be patient, impersonal, and professional. Finally, the authority of the English constable derived from three official sources-the crown, the law, and the consent and co-operation of the citizenry.

It has been suggested that as London's crime-rate fell, that of nearby areas increased. The number of offences did seem to increase in areas of London where the police were not allowed to go: Wandsworth became known as "black" Wandsworth because of the number of criminals who lived there. As the 1839 Royal Commission pointed out:

Criminals migrate from town to town, and from the towns where they harbour, and where there are distinct houses maintained for their accommodation, they issue forth and commit depredations upon the surrounding rural districts; the metropolis being the chief centre from which they migrate

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act helped older boroughs to sort out their administrative structure and allowed new towns to become incorporated. Towns which were incorporated were obliged to set up their own police force but few of them seemed eager to implement the law:

Municipal forces were about half the size of London, proportionate to population. Most boroughs were slow to take advantage of the 1835 Act and remained grossly inadequate until after 1856.

Police statistics



1 policeman per



450- 500 inhabitants



460 inhabitants



610 inhabitants



840 inhabitants



900 inhabitants

11 provincial boroughs


940-1500 inhabitants

6 provincial boroughs


1500 inhabitants

The 1839 Rural Constabulary Act, which came as a direct result of the Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces of the same year, caused some boroughs to panic and to reorganise their own police forces to avoid the high expense of being involved with county forces. The Act did not meet the Report's demands for a national police force, with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power. The Act permitted JPs to appoint Chief Constables for the direction of the police in their areas and allowed for one policeman per 1,000 population. Response was poor. By 1853 only 22 counties of 52 had police forces. Yorkshire was the poorest served. One division of the East Riding had only 9 policemen. By about 1855 there were only 12,000 policemen in England and Wales.

The provinces were slow to implement the 1839 Act because

Related Material: Images of the police in Victorian art

Created 2001; last modified 4 April 2013