When I planned to write this article I thought I knew about the origin of ‘policing’ in this country, but my research showed me otherwise. There was a system in place much earlier than I had believed.
It seems the origin of the British police lies in early tribal history and is based on customs for securing order through the medium of appointed representatives. In effect, the people were the police.
The Saxons brought their system of ‘tythings’ over to England with them. This meant that each village divided the people into groups of ten – the tything – with a tything-man as the representative of each group; and then these men were divided into larger groups each of ten tythings under a ‘hundred-man’ who was responsible to the Shire-reeve – or Sheriff – of the County.
Then when the Normans invaded they developed the system. The tything-man system changed quite a bit after contact with Norman feudalism, but it was not wholly destroyed. As time passed the tything-man became the parish constable and the Shire-reeve became the Justice of the Peace, to whom the parish constable was responsible. Just as in Anglo-Saxon times, if a hue and cry was raised, everyone had to join in.
Medieval towns had curfews in place to maintain law and order. A bell would ring at about 8pm, warning residents (and inn-keepers) to finish working and stay indoors. Anyone caught outdoors – or “abroad” – after curfew had to be prepared to justify their actions to the night watch crew.
During the Middle Ages, coroners had numerous legal duties that went beyond investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. In some parts of the country the coroner was responsible for investigating all felonies – crimes that carried the death penalty. Capital crimes included murder, manslaughter and the theft of any item worth a shilling or more.
The coroner had to record details of all deaths he investigated on his rolls. The process was so cumbersome and convoluted that it often resulted in errors. As a result witnesses and other people involved in the investigation were often fined. It wasn’t unknown for folk to carry a corpse by night to another village to avoid being burdened with the results.
In the towns the responsibility for maintenance of order was conferred on the Guilds and, later, on to other specified groups of citizens, usually made up of higher class citizens, as well as tradesmen, craftsmen and shopkeepers. They supplied bodies of paid men, known as ‘The Watch’ who guarded the city gates and patrolled the streets at night. It was also their responsibility to light street lamps and watch out for fires – a major concern in those days.
Throughout the medieval period it was believed that the only way to keep order was to make sure that the people were scared of the punishments given for crimes committed. For this reason all crimes from stealing to murder had harsh punishments.
Although there were gaols, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment, which ranged from simple fines to being placed in stocks or the pillory – where one could be pelted with rotten eggs, squishy tomatoes, or a well aimed stone! – mutilation (cutting off a part of the body), or death were the most common forms of punishment.
Up until this point any disturbance that couldn’t be controlled by The Watch had to be dealt with by the military. The Justice of the Peace would ‘read the riot act’ and the army would be called in. But having a group of ill-disciplined soldiers, under the control of their aristocratic officers, billeted on the local community was often worse than the disturbance they were meant to control. The need for a more disciplined force, directly under local control became obvious. As far as the middle classes were concerned, rising crime and disorder were still to be attributed to the moral decay of the masses. There was a willingness to criticise the old criminal justice system as inefficient, both as regards crime control and the regulation of public order.
In the eighteenth century came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns. The parish constable and “Watch” systems failed completely and the impotence of the law-enforcement machinery was a serious menace. Conditions became intolerable and led to the formation of the ‘New Police’ in the nineteenth century.
There was an attempt in the middle of the eighteenth century to improve matters with the introduction of the ‘Bow Street Runners’. There had been other men who attempted to solve crime for a small fee, but the Bow Street Runners were the first official ‘thief takers’ as they were assigned to a Magistrate (Justice of the Peace). These men did not patrol but served legal writs and ‘arrested’ offenders, eventually even travelling nationwide to apprehend criminals. Often former constables, at the end of their year of service, were selected for the positions, after having some formal legal training.
The Police – as we know the term today – was the brainchild of Robert Peel, the Home Secretary from 1822. Building on the idea of The Watch, the Bow Street Runners, and the dock police in London, Bristol and Liverpool, Peel formed the London Metropolitan Police. (Though it should be mentioned that these older ‘forces’ continued for some time after Peel’s founding of the ‘Peelers’ because Peel’s New Police was focused on other things than simple safety of the streets and the protection of property.)
Peel argued in Parliament for his Metropolitan Police Bill in 1828 on the grounds that it would be more efficient than the existing systems. These he characterised as uneven: some boroughs had effective Watch patrols but they tended to displace crime into less well policed areas.
Peel addressed his reforms directly to the more general fear of the ‘dangerous classes’ in society. While crime such as street robbery and burglary was a problem, it was only part of a more fundamental issue of public order which was seen not simply as the problem of riots but more generally the discipline of the lower orders: how to make the working class as a whole less of an unruly mob and more a sober orderly group who would behave themselves in public and go to work on time and obey their employer’s instructions.
The main theme was ‘crime prevention’ by the moralisation of the working class. The police targeted Ale houses and the streets where legislation such as the 1824 Vagrancy Act enabled constables to arrest individuals not for crime committed but for ‘loitering with intent’. The police aimed not at those who had actually committed crimes but on the poor as a whole who were seen as a ‘criminal class’. The main task of the New Police was not crime detection.
Detectives only appeared in 1842, and originally there were only a few of them. The modern Criminal Investigation Department (CID) did not appear until 1877.