The nineteenth-century English cop

We can date the beginnings of Britain’s police forces back to the nineteenth century, but let’s not talk about how they were organized. Let’s talk about what kind of person became a cop in those early days and what life was like for–and I use the pronoun advisedly–him. 

The first women weren’t hired until World War I. We’ll come back to that.

If you want some background on the origin of the police forces themselves, you’ll find it in an earlier post. I’m referring you to myself here. You know, to that noted expert on everything. 

Irrelevant photo: hellebore


Your average copper

Until the end of World War II, your average cop came from an unskilled or semi-skilled working class background, and he was almost invariably white. He was likely to have joined when he was out of work, because the pay was low, although it was at least steady. 

Joining the police force doesn’t seem to have been anybody’s first choice. If you’ve seen Gilbert and Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance, you might remember the song “A Policeman’s Lot Is Not a Happy One.” Yes, they were kidding around, but they had something there to work with.

Semi-relevant factoid: The first recruit to London’s police force lasted four hours before being found drunk while he was on duty and getting his hind end fired.

The cop’s work involved patrolling on foot, regardless of the weather, and at least in larger cities that would have been under the supervision of a sergeant who checked every so often to see that he was where he was supposed to be. In London, he was supposed to walk a regulation 2.5 miles an hour on a regular beat. After about a century of organizing the work that way, it occurred to someone that any burglar with half a brain would plan their work for the moment when the cop on the beat went past. 

A century? That’s not me exaggerating for the fun of it. It really did take them that long to shake the pattern up a bit. 

The job did have benefits, however, both legal and il-. Some forces offered help with the rent or free medical care for the family, and many a cop got freebies from local shops or–more lucratively–cash in return for not noticing a bit of illegal activity here and there. 

In places, cops might also add to their income by working as knocker-upppers–the folks who tapped on windows to wake people in time for their shifts at work. Why not? They were already awake and walking a predictable beat. It made them some extra money, even if it sometimes took priority over policing. And it wasn’t forbidden.

What was forbidden was for a policeman’s wife to work. The theory was that having her own job might mean she’d influence her husband in some untoward direction. I can’t entirely make that argument come together, but hell, it was the nineteenth century. Women were, by common agreement, such frail creatures. Let them out into the world and, silly little things, they’d believe any words that were poured into their ears and then go home and use their wiles on their husbands. 

Never mind the logic. It was a rule. And besides, the wives of respectable working men didn’t have jobs of their own–or not ones that paid them money, anyway. You know how women get it they have money of their own. So even if the police forces didn’t pay as well as a respectable working class job, policemen and their wives were expected to follow the era’s social media influencers and forgo that second income. In villages, a policeman’s wife acted as his office, taking messages for him if he was out. But that was respectable, because she didn’t get paid.

In some forces a wife might get away with a bit of dressmaking or domestic service. If, of course, it didn’t interfere with her wifely duties at home. 

So the wives didn’t work for the police forces but had to live by their rules anyway. 

If the low pay and the insistence on a couple having only one income sounds like a perfect formula for corruption, it was. Whee.

It also led to police forming unions. During World War I, the police went on strike twice, and it’s an interesting tale but too long to wedge in here. I’ll get to it soon.


Chief constables

In the tradition of Britain’s class hierarchy, the chief constable in cities and in some counties would be someone who could mix comfortably with the elite. He would often have a military background and be used to commanding others. 

It wasn’t until after World War I that it occurred to anyone in power that it might be useful for him to know something about police work. That probably speaks to how much systematic thought was given to policing.

Only in smaller forces was the chief constable likely to be someone who’d risen up through the ranks–which is to say, someone from the working class and someone who knew what was involved in the job.


The police forces open up–however reluctantly

Women didn’t join police forces until World War I, when they were recruited to (and I’m quoting History Extra here) “supervise young women who either worked in munitions factories or were feared to be ‘pursuing’ young men in uniform.”

If I’d made that up, I’d scold myself for being too heavy handed and I’d tone it down. But yes, they were recruited to keep an eye on those shameless hussies who worked in the factories. We’re coming out of an era, remember, when a hefty percent of the women who worked outside the home were in domestic service–in other words, in the houses of people who had more money than them and who would, the world assumed, police their sexuality. 

Or that was the theory. In practice, they might be sexually assaulted or seduced at work, then fired if they got pregnant. It was common enough to have become a cliche, but saying that it’s a cliche doesn’t make it untrue.

World War I, though, offered women jobs outside the domestic sphere, and that made some folks nervous. 

With the end of the war, though, the police forces didn’t need the women they’re recruited anymore. Let’s quote History Extra again: “Many chief constables were delighted to be able to get rid of women at the war’s end in 1919, and regretted having to recruit them again in 1939 [that’d be World War II in case you’ve lost track]. Chief constables did their best to limit women’s activities to typing, filing and making tea.

“The women officers who remained or who joined after the Second World War were largely limited to looking after women and children until the equality legislation of the 1970s, which made their role legally and practically the same as their male colleagues.” 

Well, legally anyway. I doubt I can tell you anything you don’t already know about what that was like in practice. 

It was in the 1970s that the police forces also opened up to Black and Asian recruits, and they were about as welcome as the women were. 


50 thoughts on “The nineteenth-century English cop

  1. A nice summary Ellen, thanks. I didn’t know about the rules governing the policeman’s wife. There are two great BBC TV dramas that sum up times when women were not on the force as in the brilliantly written “Ripper Street” and a time when they were and as you say were looked on as nothing more than tea making paper shufflers in “Life on Mars”, I think at the time they were referred to as “Plonks”. Both are worth watching if you’re not already familiar with them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • “Ripper Street” I missed. “Life on Mars,” though, I did watch. It was good–and not easy to watch. No honest treatment of that period is, at least for me. In spite of which, I’ll keep an eye out for “Ripper Street.”


  2. Have you seen Ashes to Ashes, the TV sequel to Life on Mars? In it a female police officer gets transported back to the 1980s and has to deal with “Sweeney” era policing and chauvinism. I remember that time and its quite surprising to see how things have moved on. The first “”Prime Suspect” with Helen Mirren is also worth a watch. All good TV Cop shows. “you’ve been nicked, sunshine!”

    Liked by 2 people

    • They haven’t nicked me yet, but they’re welcome to keep trying. Sunshine.

      I haven’t seen “Ashes to Ashes.” Or heard of it. It sounds–okay, it sounds like it would be painful to watch. The progress that’s been made is (a) indisputable and (b) incomplete. I’ll leave it there. The issue’s too complicated and too important to just toss off a couple of wise-ass comments–tempted as I always am.


    • I wish I could agree with you, but it was a woman cop in Brooklyn Center, Minnesota (that’s a suburb of Minneapolis, where George Floyd was killed by a policeman), who very recently shot a Black driver in what should have been a very simple traffic stop. He had an air freshener dangling from his rearview mirror, which is (apparently) illegal, although people put them there all the time. It escalated to the point where she shot him while he was handcuffed to the car.

      I’m very much in favor of women being part of the police force, but if they join a system that treats policing as an exercise in repression, they will be repressive or they will quit. They’ll have no other choices.

      I realize, as I type this, that my answer is heavily colored by my experience in the U.S., where the police have so a deep history of racism and violence.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Back in the 1960s two policemen knocked on our door. They had found my dad’s library ticket on the ground and kindly brought it back. My mum took one look at them and thought Dad had died in a road accident on his motorbike!

    Liked by 2 people

  4. I think that is a certain class of citizen who are disappointed that bobbies still dont have to walk a “beat”. I remember reading somewhere that very early bobbies had reinforced top hats so they could stand on them to look over walls! I don’t think the rounded one were as good for standing on but probably were better protection for the wearer.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I always heard the reinforcement was so they could get hit on the head and come out in one piece. In my case, it would take more than a hat to help me see over a wall, but then I wasn’t what they were looking for anyway.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Yes, I am sure that protection was the primary purpose of the reinforcement. I hate to break it to you but I think they used to have a minimum height requirement. I was surprised to discover that there is no longer a minimum or maximum height requirement, anti-discrimination I suppose.

        Liked by 1 person

        • I’m not surprised that they used to have a minimum height. When people imagine a physically imposing figure, I’m not (oddly enough) what comes to mind. Some fire department or other used to have some tests that involved being able to carry someone, that sort of thing. I expect you could set some physical standards that would allow for a 4’6″ black belt to be hired by not my own 73-year-old self.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. And so if you were a woman, you couldn’t be a police person until all the men went to war somewhere. And then when the men returned, although somewhat in an altered state, you were fired to make way for the men.
    Hm. Let’s see. Where does that all go wrong? On so many levels?
    P.S. Loved this post, btw. Have a wonderful weekend!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. It was so interesting to read that back in the day, a policeman’s wife had to help him with his duties in the background. Here in Australia, the police field is male dominated too. There are more diverse faces in the field these days but the gender disparity is still apparent. I have been down to the city here in Melbourne quite a few times over the last few months. There are always the police in uniform around, either making sure the protest on the street doesn’t get out of control (they also get on horses to patrol these gatherings) or a group of policemen rounding up someone up to no good.

    Liked by 2 people

    • The New York City police used to use horses against demonstrations too. And reflecting the corruption of the New York police department, I knew people who’d look at them and say, “There goes New York’s finest,” which is what the police department liked to call itself, and then they’d add, “And there’s a cop on it.”

      I can’t remember being anyplace where the gender disparity wasn’t striking. In fact, I didn’t realize until I read your comment that I take that for granted and barely notice it. Thanks for reminding me that it’s not the natural order of things.


    • Hmm. Yes. Witchcraft? Sex? Some combination of the two? Maybe they’re the same thing? I’ve never been any good at witchcraft and prefer to keep work and sex separate, so it must be my fearsome reputation. (You have to know how short–not to mention old–I am to fully appreciate the absurdity there.)

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: The London police strikes of 1918 and 1919 | Notes from the U.K.

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