A Brief History of the British Police

By Tim Lambert

Early Law Enforcement

From the Middle Ages, there were local officials in England called constables who were responsible for keeping the peace. Men took it in turns to take the post for one year and it was unpaid. Also if somebody witnessed a crime he was supposed to raise the alarm and all men were supposed to help catch the criminal. This was called hue and cry. It was abolished in 1827.

From 1663 there were paid nightwatchmen in London. In the late 18th century many provincial towns also employed nightwatchmen to patrol the streets.

Meanwhile, in 1749 a London magistrate called Henry Fielding formed the Bow Street Runners to catch criminals. (They got their name because his office was on Bow Street). In the 18th century, London was Britain’s busiest port. So in 1798, the River Police were founded to protect cargoes.

Police in the 19th Century However at the beginning of the 19th century many people in Britain were suspicious of a full-time police force. They feared the government might use it to oppress them. Yet the Industrial Revolution meant that life was changing rapidly. Cities mushroomed and the old system became obsolete.

A police force in England was formed in London in 1829 by Sir Robert Peel. (Policemen were called Bobbies or Peelers after him. Sometimes they were called coppers from the old English word cop, meaning to grab or seize hold of). The first British policemen were not armed with guns. Instead, they carried truncheons and rattles. (Policemen carried whistles from the 1880s). They wore top hats. (They were later replaced by helmets designed to protect the head). Constable Joseph Grantham was the first policeman to be killed on duty in 1830.

In 1835 local government in England was reformed. All boroughs were compelled to form their own police forces. In 1839 counties were permitted but not compelled to form police forces for rural areas. (It was made compulsory in 1856).

The first force of detectives was formed in London in 1842. In 1878 the detective force was reorganized and it was renamed the CID.

Police in the 20th Century

Law enforcement was helped by the invention of fingerprinting in the late 19th century. In 1901 the fingerprint branch of the Metropolitan Police was formed. The first British murderers to be convicted by fingerprint evidence were Albert and Alfred Stratton. Both were hanged in 1905.

Meanwhile, in 1903, the Metropolitan Police bought two cars, the first police cars in n Britain. In 1909 policemen began using bicycles.

The first murderer to be caught by radio was Dr Crippen in 1910. He tried to flee by ship in disguise to Canada. However, the captain grew suspicious and sent a radio message to London. Detectives caught a faster ship and arrested Crippen when he arrived in Canada. In the 1920s police cars were equipped with radios. Also in the 1920s police boxes were introduced in Britain. Inside the ‘box’ was a telephone so a policeman could call his station.

Meanwhile, the British police went on strike in 1919. As a result, they won higher pay and the Police Federation was formed. Then in 1937, the 999 emergency number was created.

The first policewoman in the world began duty in Los Angeles in 1910. The first British policewomen were appointed in 1914. The same year, 1914 the first special constables were appointed. The Flying Squad was formed in 1919.

In the 1960s policemen were carrying personal radios and police boxes became redundant. In 1984 the Police and Criminal Evidence Act changed the way police make arrests and question suspects.

Last revised 2024