Who policed England before it had police? 

Let’s start in the sixteenth century, when merrie England was still mostly rural and maybe not 100% merrie, since–well, we’ll get to that later. In the meantime, the feudal system was breaking apart and parishes began taking charge of things that the lord of the manor would have done back when feudalism was fully functional and the peasant knew her or his place.

What was the peasant’s place? Why, firmly under the lord’s thumb, of course. Or else appearing as a defendant in the lord’s court, hoping he’d had a decent lunch and was in a forgiving mood. [See the correction from April Munday in the comments section below. I was trusting to memory here and shouldn’t do that. It’s the stuff we think we know that’ll trip us up.]

Irrelevant photo: primroses.

The breakdown of feudalism

Sorry, I threw a lot of things at you all at once. 

Under full-out feudalism, the lord of the manor not only owned the land that the serfs couldn’t leave without his permission, he also collected a portion of their crops, claimed some of their labor, and collected fees for everything from marrying off a kid to dying. He also dispensed what passed for justice. If peasants broke a law–even if in breaking the law they wronged him–he was the person who judged them.

Really, it’s only fair. 

So that system was breaking down, as systems will. 

Now let’s define a parish, since it was taking over some of the tasks the lord had once handled. The word came into use in the Catholic Church in the thirteenth century and a workable definition is an area that has one church which is cared for by one priest.

Or, if you like, it’s the church community in that area.

In seventeenth century England–because that’s later than the period we’ve slid into without me bothering to tell you–it came to mean the most local level of government. In other words, it went from being a purely churchy word to also being a civil one, and that happened because of the way the lines blurred in our first paragraph between the chuchy responsibilities of a parish and the civil ones.

Thanks, guys. As if the English language wasn’t messy enough without that. 

So we have the lord of the manor’s civil power fading and the local church organization moving into the opening. Because the church organization was there and what the hell, it worked. And possibly because some of the better-off parishioners were itching to get their hands on a bit of local power. 

The Tudors gave increasing amounts of responsibility–and power–to parishes. In 1555, they were responsible for maintaining the roads. In 1601, they were responsible for looking after the poor of the parish. (No one said they had to look after them well, but that’s another tale.) 

And in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, they took on increasing responsibility for what we now think of as policing.

You knew we’d get to policing eventually.

In the towns, watchmen–also called bellmen–had been around since Edward I’s time, patrolling the streets at night. They were unpaid, and all men were expected to volunteer–unless of course you had enough money, in which case you could pay someone else to volunteer for you. 

Justices of the peace

At the same time as parishes took on a bigger role, so did justices of the peace. 

The JP was a medieval post–an unpaid one that local landowners generally took on for the prestige. And possibly the power. Never rule out the power. They organized road repairs, checked weights and measures, licensed ale houses, and supervised poor relief. 

They also held what were called petty sessions–courts that dealt with low-level crimes. 

For more serious stuff–you know, assault, rioting–a number of JPs would pass judgement jointly. But the truly big-league crimes–murder, witchcraft, or (again) rioting–went to the assize courts for the big kids to deal with. Because witchcraft isn’t something for the amateurs to take on. You need an established director, a big budget, and lots of special effects people. That’s more than your average local court can assemble.

The JPs also led and organised the parish constables or (in towns) the town watchmen, and here, at last, we get back to policing. After 1554, a JP could arrest someone and question them for three days.

The JP could also appoint a parish (or petty) constable. This was an unpaid job that a person–a local tradesman; a farmer; somebody who wasn’t rich but also wasn’t poor–would hold for a year, and the populace was expected (okay, required) to help out when they were called on. 

The constable kept order in the alehouses and inns, sent illegitimate children back to their original parishes (and here we get around to how merrie a place it was), impounded stray farm animals, arrested people who had (presumably) committed crimes, prevented poaching and trespassing, carried out punishments such as whipping vagabonds (did I mention merriness?), and rode herd on apprentices, who were considered (and may well have been) a rowdy lot.

Either the constable or someone who’d been wronged or who discovered a felony was responsible for raising the hue and cry. And everyone (whether that meant everyone or every man I’m not sure) who heard it was responsible for chasing and arresting the felon. This was, remember, long before the accused was considered innocent until proven guilty. If the accused had what the Britannica calls “apparent evidence of guilt on his person” or resisted capture, the crowd could kill them. Merrily.

The last elements of the hue and cry system weren’t repealed until the nineteenth century. 

And yes, the felon did change from being male to being plural as soon as the Britannica got out of my way. It’s an English-language thing. Either you inaccurately assume that everyone’s male or you inaccurately assume that all individuals are plural. Or you repeat “he or she” until you’re feeling a bit multiple yourself. Screw it. 

I mention that to point out that I’m in control of (at least some of) my mistakes here. I know you’d lose sleep over it if I wasn’t.

If you’ve been trying to find a clear dividing line between judging criminals and arresting them–or between what we’d now think of as the courts and the police–I don’t think you’ll find one yet. They were all tossed into the same pot and stirred vigorously.

Creeping professionalization

In the seventeenth century, Charles II (we’re into the Restoration if you keep track of these things) set up a (low-)paid force. This was a significant shift, and not just because the force was paid. The king was now involved in policing where in the past towns and villages had policed themselves. 

At least that’s what the BBC says, although I’d add that the towns and villages policed themselves according to laws they had no control over and under the watchful eye of their richest and most powerful residents. So even if the whole community was bound to help the constable, it wasn’t just to protect the average person’s safety and possessions, it was in large part to protect the powerful and the system itself. Catch those poachers, whip those vagrants, get rid of those illegitimate kids so they don’t sneak in from neighboring parishes. 

The members of Charles II’s new force were sometimes called Charlies. Or–English spelling still being a fluid instead of a solid–Charleys.

By the eighteenth century, the population of towns and cities had grown noticeably. According to one source, the crime rate was rising, although I doubt statistics were accurate enough to bear that out. Let’s say that at a minimum people felt it was rising, and for all we know they were right. If you get enough people in one place, the crime rate’s likely to go up. Cities lend people a certain anonymity. That’s a good thing if you want someone else’s lawn mower. Even if it hasn’t been invented yet.

Another factor driving up the crime rate–if it did go up–was that a hefty proportion of the people who migrated to the cities had been run off the land. They were poor and they were desperate. Unlike anonymity, desperation wasn’t something the cities lent them. It was a full-out gift, and they couldn’t give it back.

The patchwork system of unpaid and low-paid amateurs couldn’t keep up with this new reality. 

Having said that, let’s toss a bit of weight on the opposite side of the scales: History Extra says that evidence–that would probably be transcripts–from the Old Bailey (a criminal court) shows that a number of the watchmen and constables knew their law. Presumably, they were competent. It doesn’t, however, say that the system they worked in was up to the job it now had. 

Thief takers stepped into the gap. They’d capture a thief and negotiate with the loot’s original owners about getting it back, making sure they got a profit from the transaction. That worked well for the thief takers, but I doubt anyone else thought much of the system.  Jonathan Wild, called the Thief Taker General of Great Britain and Ireland, policed the London streets and handed criminals over to the authorities. He and his men were also, it turned out, behind most of the thefts in the area.

Which at least meant they knew who to sell stuff back to.

The Bow Street Runners

Midway through the century, Henry and John Fielding, magistrates at Bow Street, formed the Bow Street Runners, who were paid by the government. They started with six full-time officers and ended with sixty-eight. In addition to their base pay, they got rewards along the same lines as the thief takers, although probably not by doing their own robberies.

If you recognize Henry’s name, you’re right: He was also the novelist Henry Fielding.

The Fieldings carried over the tradition of the hue and cry, appealing to the public through newspapers, which were still a hot new technology, for help in solving crimes. After Henry’s death, John published a paper, The Quarterly Pursuit, later renamed The Public Hue and Cry, publicizing information on stolen property, on crimes, and on suspects. 

But the Bow Street Runners worked in a small part of London and the system wasn’t picked up elsewhere. People were skeptical. A police force would be expensive. People would lose freedoms. Their privacy would be invaded. 

Hell, they might even have to wear masks to keep from spreading a virus.

Sorry–wrong century. It’s interesting, though, to see things we take for granted treated as new and threatening developments.

Here and there, though, moves were being made in the direction of more organized policing. At the end of the century, the River Thames Police were formed to protect the port’s cargoes. (That was the first time the word police was used in England to mean, um, police.) In 1805, a horse patrol was set up and nicknamed the Robin Redbreasts because of their red uniforms. In Glasgow, watchmen and constables were organized into a single force to protect the city. 

The Peelers

And now, in the spirit of telling a story directly, let’s back up a bit. 

After soldiers were called in to put down the Gordon Riots in 1780, demand for a metropolitan police force rose among the middle and upper classes, but the City of London Corporation and the lord mayor (do you know how hard it is to type “lord mayor” without making a wisecrack?) opposed it. It might trample on their independence. They had their own institutions, even if they weren’t working. https://notesfromtheuk.com/2019/08/02/the-gordon-riots-religion-poverty-and-no-revolution/

We’ve all been there, in small ways and in large. The system may not work, but by god it’s ours and we’ll defend it.

Just to be clear: I’m not arguing that anyone was wrong (or right, for that matter) about the impact a police force would and later did have. And I’m not arguing that the best of all possible solutions was found. You don’t have to support the solution to poke holes in the objections.

Predictably, the French Revolution, which was the boogeyman of the era (at least in Britain), entered into the debate.Could England have a police force without it becoming like the French (or at least what he English thought the French police force was like)–political and militarized? 

In 1822, while that question was still being batted back and forth, Robert Peel (who would much prefer, even when he’s long dead, to be called Sir Robert Peel) became home secretary and by 1829 he’d established a unified London police force. 

Unified, that is, except that it only covered an area within a seven-mile radius of the center of London.  And unified except for the area the Bow Street Runners patrolled. And unified except for the City of London, which is separate  from the city (no capital letter) of London and even today has its own laws, police force, government, and silly clothes. 

This is a complicated country, and it’s in love with its own complications. It’s complicated enough that I’m referring you backward to several of my own posts here. The topic has an endless number of side stories and this is too long already. Apologies for a bit of self-serving vanity, but no one else on this couch is offering herself up to play expert so I’m afraid your choice is to consult me or Lord Google. 

One of the factors that weighed in Peel’s favor as he drove the police force through was the 1819 Peterloo Massacre–a demonstration that was broken up chaotically and bloodily by a somewhat random combination of soldiers and semi-professional local military units. Another factor was the demographic shifts of an industrializing country and the impression was that the crime rate was rising. And, although the BBC doesn’t say this, industrial unrest was an ever-present fear among the powerful.

Not everyone was happy with the unified system. (When is everyone happy?) Under the earlier system, every parish had its own constables and watchmen, and the richer tha parish the more of them it had. The Metropolitan Force meant that local control was lost. Richer parishes might now have fewer men on patrol. And they were paying taxes to support the Metropolitan Force, not their local one. 

When the wealthy complain, they tend to get heard, so in 1833 the government agreed to pick up a quarter of the cost of the Metropolitan Force. 

Ten years later, the radius the force patrolled was expanded to fifteen miles and the Bow Street Runners, the River Thames Police, and the Watchmen were incorporated into it. 

By 1882, the Metropolitan Police had 11,700 officers.But we haven’t arrived in 1882 yet. We need to stop in 1835, when a law gave towns outside of London the power to set up police forces, and in 1839, when counties got the same power. 

But those were powers, not an order to use the power. That didn’t come until 1856, when both towns and counties were told to get with it and set up paid, full-time forces with one officer for every 1,000 people. 

Inspectors of the Constabulary had to certify the new forces as acceptable, at which point the national government would pick up some of the cost and local taxes had to cover the rest. 

That leaves an odd situation where all police forces except London’s are still controlled by local governments but London’s is controlled by the home secretary, who’s part of Britain’s national government.

So what happened to the fear that the police would be militarized and the French Revolution would creep into Britain? I can’t swear that it’s the reason the police wear blue uniforms, but the choice of blue was made so that they could be distinguished from the military, which wore red. 

37 thoughts on “Who policed England before it had police? 

  1. Oliver Cromwell’s to blame for the paranoia about the military. The Duke of Wellington made soldiers quite popular, but the 17th century fear of standing armies never quite went away. You can make a pretty good case for Cromwell being responsible for the Second Amendment – militias over standing armies!

    Liked by 2 people

  2. In the towns, watchmen–also called bellmen–had been around since Edward I’s time, patrolling the streets at night. They were unpaid, and all men were expected to volunteer–unless of course you had enough money, in which case you could pay someone else to volunteer for you.

    So, if everyone had to volunteer does that mean that at some point the thieves they were looking for were also patrolling the streets?

    Hue and cry? I understand the cry part, if I were robbed I’d cry too. But hue? Is this a racial slur? Only people of a certain hue could cry?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Word origin, hue and cry, from old French: cri meaning cry, hue meaning outcry or noise. So basically, two words meaning the same thing. English does that a lot.

      The thieves? Probably, yes. I’m not sure anyone was a full-time thief anyway in the medieval period anyway–certainly not in small towns and villages–so think of this as something they’d do in their off hours.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Over here, British all police officers are called Bobbies. They always wear the same tall hat and are never seen without a police club. Americans learned everything they know about those bobbies when Charlie Chaplin introduced them to film goers. Now we know all there is to know because Hollywood defines everything for us, such convienience makes it easy to know wot’s wot without expending the effort that thought involves. Every man who is not a bobby wears a bowler. Nothing complicated about it. :-)

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I’d like to take issue with your paragraph about manorial courts. It wasn’t the lord who passed judgement, but the peasants themselves. The lord’s steward oversaw the court, but wasn’t supposed to interfere. He probably did occasionally, though. The lord did benefit from any fines levied by the court. It was a system that meant that medieval people were a lot more aware of the laws that governed their lives than we are and they were also much more litigious.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Even in recent times, local bigwigs weren’t at all happy at having their local (small-ish) police forces merged into larger regional ones. But now there’s occasional talk of merging them into a single national service, as they did in Scotland.

    Oh, and shipping the destitute back to a “home” parish for whatever could pass as social support was a thing until modern times. My father’s first job in the 1920s was as office boy in the section of the Edinburgh city council that did just that.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And we’re still doing it. What else is it that has us turning away refugees as unworthy? And (if I remember right) homeless people who come from some other city are supposed to go “home” if they want any help. Or maybe that was some specific kind of help. Either way, if you’re not ours, you’re someone else’s problem.

      It’s heartwarming that we’ve gotten so much better as a society.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Wow. This is indeed, a window into a complicated history of policing. Very interesting.
    “This is a complicated country, and it’s in love with its own complications.” Brilliant.
    I have a wife like that.
    Have a great weekend.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Thanks for this great post. I’ve read a lot of historical mysteries and gotten some (fairly accurate) ideas of the history of British policing and of the Middle Ages – but this really fleshed out what I knew – or thought I knew !

    Liked by 1 person

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  9. Pingback: Who policed England before it had police?  — Notes from the U.K. – Strider's Table

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