Thursday, September 29, 2011

Bobbies Take to the Streets of London

An early Bobbie seems a bit suspicious of these guys.
Note:  Re-edited and reposted from one year ago today.

On September 29, 1829 1,000 tall men—all six footers or more—in even taller hats began patrolling the streets of London.  The were the first men of the Metropolitan Police Department based out of a place called Scotland Yard.  Organized by British Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel they quickly earned the nick-names Peelers and Bobbies in honor of their founder.  They were, according to some standards, the first modern city police force.

As any reader of Charles Dickens knows, London in the early 19th Century was a dirty and dangerous place.  It was the richest and largest city in the world, the capital of an Empire approaching its peak.  But its densely packed, gin soaked—the water was not potable and gin was cheaper than beer or cider—slums were cold and miserable hell holes and a perfect breeding ground of crime.  

Centuries of trying to maintain order by use of the military or inadequate forces like the Bow Street Runners and draconian sentencing had no impact.  Public hangings of twelve year old pick pockets and shipping hundreds, even thousands away around the world to penal colonies had not had the desired effect.  The wealthy and comfortable cared not a whiff if the denizens of the slums slaughtered each other, but they were being set upon in public, robbed, beaten, and even killed by ever bolder criminals.  Something had to be done.

The Bow Street Runners, also cited as the first police force, had been a start.  Founded in 1745 by Henry Fielding—better known as the novelist who wrote A History of Tom Jones, Foundling—then the Chief Magistrate of the Bow Street Court, the force started with only eight men whose job it was to arrest offenders on the order of the magistrates.  In many ways they were more like bailiffs than police officers.  The force grew under Fielding’s younger brother and came to include some patrol like duties.  But funding came and went at the whim of authorities and the Runners had rudimentary training.  In 1808 a mounted contingent, who came to be known as the Robin Red Breasts because of the scarlet waistcoats they wore under grey greatcoats, as added for street patrol.   But there were never enough Bow Street Runners and their authority and mission not clear.

Enter Sir Robert.  Peel was born in 1778 the son of a wealth Lancashire textile manufacturer who had been elevated to the Peerage.  He was an early protégée of Sir Arthur Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, who sponsored his election to the House of Commons from a 24-vote rotten borough of Cashel, Tipperary in Ireland when he was only 21. He was a fast rising star in the Tory party and given a number of administrative posts.  By 1813 he was Chief Secretary in Dublin where he organized the Royal Irish Constabulary, a para-military police force.

As he rose in the party, he picked up more prestigious constituencies in England, including Oxford University.  In 1822 he entered the Cabinet as Home Secretary.  Peel undertook sweeping reforms of the English criminal law, including greatly reducing the number of capital crimes, repealing many criminal statutes and consolidating them into a code under a series of measures called the Peel Acts.  Central to his reforms were overhauls in the jail system and the creation of the police force.

Because of public resistance to the idea of a large police force, Peel made every effort to make his force as “civilian” as possible.  Their uniform was the high top hats of the day, and blue swallow tail coats with brass buttons.  There would be no scarlet tunic, helmets, or swords associated with the Army.  The men were un-armed except for a wooden truncheon which they kept in a long pocket sewn into the tail of their coats.  They were also issued handcuffs and a loud wooden clacker meant to summon help in an emergency.  The 1000 member force—soon to grow—was necessary because each officer was assigned a relatively small foot patrol beat so that his neighbors were close enough to hear his alarm.  The men recruited had to be “of good character,” never been convicted of a crime, and at least six foot tall so as to be physically able to handle resistance.  A few officers were also assigned to horse patrol.

The men worked seven days a week with five unpaid holidays a year.  They were required to wear the uniforms even when off duty to both enhance police presence on the streets and to assuage worries that police in mufti would become “spies.”  For 1£ a week the mens' personal lives were tightly regulated.  Single men typically slept at stations and men were required to get permission to marry.  They could not vote in elections or express political opinions.  Intercourse with civilians was limited and permission was needed event to dine with one.

The police force was soon proving its worth, particularly in clamping down on general open and riotous behavior.  Their success overcame initial unpopularity and public suspicion.  By 1857 all cities in the United Kingdom were required to form similar forces.

Peel himself went on to follow his mentor the Duke of Wellington as Prime Minister in 1834 and after Whig interlude, returned to serve from 1841-46.  Although very slow to react as Prime Minister during the evolving Irish Famine, his repeal of the protectionist Corn Laws, which were thought to have greatly impacted the agricultural crisis in Ireland, caused him to loose his leadership of the Tories.  He remained active, however, in political affairs.  He led a Tory rump faction known as the Peelites and flirted with fusion with the Whigs and Radicals until he was thrown from a horse and killed in London at the age of 62 in 1850.  His Peelites, under the leadership of his protégée William Gladstone, did complete a fusion with the Whigs and became the modern Liberal Party.

Today uniformed Bobbies continue to patrol the streets unarmed, although special details and units are issued fire arms.  In general they are held with high regard in most communities in contrast to American urban police forces which are armed to the teeth, isolated in squad cars, and regarded as a hostile occupying army in many poor and minority communities.

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