Early 19th century London, with
a population of nearly a million and a half people, was policed
by 450 constables and 4,500 night watchmen. Their effectiveness
was weakened because they belonged to different organisations,
all jealous of their own powers.
Attempts by the government to deal with the situation by setting
up a police force for London met with lots of opposition:
- People were suspicious of a large
force, possibly armed. They feared it could be used to suppress
protest and support military dictatorship.
- Paris had the best-known, best-organised,
paid police force. Britain was at war with France from 1793
to 1815, so many people hated the idea of anything French
- People did not think it was the
job of the government to set up and control a police force;
it should be under local control.
- The Mayor and Corporation of
the City of London refused to be part of a London-wide force.
When Sir Robert Peel became Home
Secretary, he was determined to deal with London's policing
problems. The Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829.
It set up a force for London, leaving out the City, but covering
an area 7 miles radius from the centre, later extended to
15 miles. In the 19th century the "Met" was responsible
directly to the Home Secretary, whereas today it answers to
the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Authority..
The government was anxious to avoid any suggestion that the
police was a military force, so they were not armed. Nor was
their uniform anything like military uniform. Uncertainty
about what they could and could not do was responsible for
many of the early complaints about the police (see Case
The constables' pay of 21/- (£1.05) a week was more
than a labourer earned, but less than a skilled worker. There
were however, deductions from their wages for their uniform
and they weren't allowed to have any other income. Some worked
a seven day week, walking a beat of 7 - 10 miles a day. Until
1887 police constables were not allowed to vote.
Ten years later, the Rural Constabulary Act of 1839 allowed
counties to set up their own police forces, (see also Case
But what kind of police was it going
to be? What powers would the police have? Were they to be
armed? What type of people would join?
Peel in 1829 and others in 1839 had to decide on these and
dozens of other questions, as you can see from these documents.
We are still living with the results of their decisions.