• Andy Robson

A Brief History of Policing in England and Wales



From the Middle-Ages, responsibility for maintaining order and upholding the law in a County lay with the Justice of the Peace (JP). These were usually prominent landowners who were unpaid but who performed the role for the prestige it brought. To police the County on a more local level, the JP’s appointed Parish (or Petty) Constables. These were usually local Farmers or Tradesmen who held the post for a year. They were once again unpaid and performed the role in addition to their normal business. All inhabitants of a Parish or Town were expected to come to the assistance of the Constable if required to do so.


There was a strong and ancient tradition in England that a community should have the right to police itself and all thoughts of instituting a regular police force were strongly opposed. Instead, in times of national crisis, or where the local conditions were too hazardous for the Constable to operate effectively – such as the smuggling communities of the south coast – the Army could be deployed to offer support.


The existing system was able to broadly cope as long as the country remained largely rural and the population thinly distributed. Increased urbanisation during the 1600’s and 1700’s, however, led to rising crime levels and increasingly sophisticated criminal gangs. It was therefore gradually accepted that the amateur services of the Constables and Town Watchmen were inadequate to the task. ‘Thief-takers’ were sometimes appointed to supplement their efforts, being paid according to the number of criminals they brought before the Courts or for the stolen goods that they recovered. However, since many of these were criminals themselves this was a far from satisfactory solution.


The so-called ‘Bow Street Runners’ were created in 1749 to help police London’s epidemic crime levels. They were controlled from the city’s Bow Street Magistrates Court – hence the name – and were paid by the same bonus system that applied to the Thief-takers but also from the Court’s central funding. As such, they represented the country’s first professional police force. The Runners were an immediate success but the deeply ingrained prejudices against a regular force meant that the experiment spread only slowly, even in the Capital.


Nevertheless, by the start of the 1800’s support for a professional, centrally funded Force was gaining significant support. A major turning point came in 1829 with the passing of the Metropolitan Police Act which established a centralised police force for the capital. The initiative was introduced by the Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, and the new Metropolitan policemen soon became known as ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’. A follow-up Act in 1839 extended the authority of the Peelers from a radius of 7-miles around the centre of the capital to a radius of 15-miles. In the process it absorbed the existing structure of the Bow Street Runners as well as the River Thames Police. By 1882 there were 11,700 men serving in the Metropolitan Police.





Once the precedent had been set, the creation of professional Forces around the country spread rapidly. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 gave towns outside London the power to create their own Police Forces. This was extended to the area of a County outside of the Municipal towns and cities by the County Police Act of 1839. These measures were permissive, meaning that they could be ignored, but the County and Borough Police Act of 1856 made them compulsory. Now every area of the country had to be covered by one of the new Forces, with one Policeman being appointed for a maximum of every 1,000 inhabitants. Each new Force was created and administered by the local authorities but a centralised body of Inspectors was established to ensure that minimum standards were met; the new Forces being funded in part from centralised funds by way of compensation. This system, with locally funded and administered Forces being supervised by a national body, is the one which is still in existence today.


Similarly, the existing Police ranks structure was largely put in place during the early days of the Met’. Peel was anxious to assure the public that the new Force was not a paramilitary one that could be used to assault civil liberties so deliberately non-Military terms were chosen such as Superintendent, Inspector and Constable; Sergeant being the one exception.


Numerous separate Forces were established in response to the new legislation; over 200 in England and Wales by 1860. Each had its own Chief Constable who reported to local authorities. The only exception was the Metropolitan Police Force (the Met’) which, for historical reasons, reported directly to the Home Secretary. In time many of these Forces combined to pool their resources, while new measures were put in place to meet changing operational circumstances. The first dedicated Detective Department, for example, was established by the Met’ in 1842, the first police-dogs were used by the North Eastern Railway Police in 1908, while the first Woman Police Officer (WPC) was appointed by the wartime Women's Police Service (WPS) in 1915.


A Police Union was formed during the First World War (1914-18) but when the Service went on strike in 1919 the Union was abolished and replaced by the Police Federation of England and Wales. This criminalised further strike action, but also introduced universal police pensions.


In 1931 the Nottingham City Police trialed two-way radios and patrol vehicles. Despite this, all police communications still had to be done by ‘phone, these being mounted in the iconic Police Boxes, until police radios became standard issue in the 1950’s. In 1934 the first national Forensic Science Laboratory was established at the HQ of the Nottingham Force.


The Police Act of 1946 abolished nearly all the non-County Borough Police Forces in England and Wales, leaving ‘just’ 117 Forces still in existence. The Police Act of 1964, while establishing the political independence of the Police, further reduced this figure to 49 Forces, while the Local Government Act of 1972 reduced it to 43.


The Sex Discrimination Act of 1975 finally eliminated all divisions between male and female Officers.



Special Constables


Rising public disorder as a result of religious upheavals led to the first measures for ‘Special Constables’, in 1673. By this, men could be sworn-in to assist the Constables on a short-term basis.


The Special Constables Act of 1831 formalised the financial basis for the Specials. The Met’ had been formed just 2 years before and the new Act effectively made long-term provisions for the recruitment and use of Specials in the new Police Forces. Fear of public protest and rioting remained widespread and it was envisaged that the Specials could be quickly appointed and mobilised to boost Police numbers in times of local or national crisis. A follow-up Act in 1834 defined the Specials as a volunteer organisation though at this time they held full powers of arrest and equality in equipment with their regular counterparts.


Over time the use of Specials declined as the number of paid regular Police Officers increased and the fear of public disorder reduced. However, all this changed with the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. Police numbers were badly affected by recruitment to the Military and the Specials were again called upon to fill the subsequent void. In addition to performing regular policing duties, the Specials were used to guard critical installations, such as water, gas and electricity supplies, against enemy agents and collaborators. The Special Constables Act of 1914 regulated their new role for the duration of the conflict and gave them equality in many areas with their regular equivalents.


Although the number of Specials was greatly reduced with the coming of peace in 1918, their valuable service was not forgotten and the Special Constables Act of 1923 made the provision for their existence as a complement to the regular Police permanent; finally breaking the link with short-term emergencies. Although Specials had existed for a considerable time before 1914, it was from this period that the modern concept of a Special Constable can be considered to have begun.


The Specials were again called upon to serve in large numbers during the Second World War (1939-45). Many were men who were too old to serve in the Military but who often had prior military or Police service. In addition to the duties that they had performed during the Great War, Specials were now called upon to deal with situations that now arose because of the widespread air attacks on Britain. These included helping to rescue those buried in rubble and providing primary medical aid, guarding aircraft crash sites or the location of unexploded bombs, and extinguishing incendiary bombs.