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.