My article No.9 – Introduction of a modern police force into northern England in the 19th century


The need for an organised “lever of discpline” in the industrial districts of England came about because of industrialisation. (Storch: 61) Prior to the Industrial Revolution most of England was rural with the majority of people living in agricultural and feudal-based communities. While still living in such communities people were often bound to the land and to the lord who owned that land. The peasants had to meet reponsibilities and duties set down by the lord and their entire existence depended upon him.

This created absolute power and the people under that power would largely be unable to resist or defy it in any way. If they did, the lord was usually also the magistrate or Justice of the Peace and would have the power to dispense justice in his locality. Crime did, of course, exist prior to professional police forces but most crime was not perceived by the upper classes as subversive or dangerous to society:

“Provided that the ruler did his duty, the populace was prepared to defend him with enthusiasm. But if he did not, it rioted until he did. This mechanism was perfectly understood by both sides, and caused no political problems beyond a little occasional destruction of property … Since the riots were not directed against the social system, public order could remain surprisingly lax by modern standards.” (Hobsbawm, 1965: 116)

The most common riot would be the food riot, in which people would protest against rising prices, corrupt dealers or simply because they were hungry. However, E.P. Thompson says that those rioting would be doing so in the firm belief that they were defending traditional rights. In general the community would support the rioters’ actions. The crowd’s passionate belief that what they were doing was morally justified “was so strong that it overrode motives of fear or deference.” (Thompson, 1993: 188)  It would also sometimes be the case that the magistrates would support the rioters, perhaps issuing orders that stored wheat should be sent to market.

Before the start of the Industrial Revolution, most food riots would be peaceful, simply aimed at securing a fair price for the wheat, even if this meant taking the wheat and selling it themselves before returning the money to the wheat’s owner. The concept that  a riot could be seen as morally right had no place in industrial England. Society was changing rapidly and the old ideas of the moral economy and the traditional rights and customs of the labouring classes quickly fell by the wayside. Magistrates became more hostile towards rioters, partly because the magistrates no longer lived within a society were those rights and customs had a significant role.

Disorder was controlled in many ways, including the “mobilisation of charity, conciliation where possible, and the exercise of selective terror where repression became necessary.” (Stevenson, 1993: 328) An example of a method of repression were the rural-based Swing riots of the 1830s, which were severely dealth with. The scale of repression used demonstrated the ruling classes growing concern over the actions and motives of the protestors.

Riots which did get of out control, or had been seen as threatening by the authorities, had always been dealt with using specials or the military – there was no organised police force to deal with them. However, the ad hoc forms of control generally sufficed. The use of the army created many problems, not least the resentment it bred among the population. It was also possible that troops would refuse to fire upon protesters. Many of the soldiers were drawn from the same class as the demonstrators, as would many of the professional police who were to follow.

The ruling class, as industrialisation progressed, becamse suspicious of the activities of the developing working class, especially what they were doing after working hours. They also realised that the army could not be used to protect them from whatever the working class might be doing. They feared secret societies and believed that the lower classes were attempting to destabilise society itself. The ruling class looked at revolution in France, and later throughout Europe, with fear that revolution was about to  happen in England.

This suspicion towards the working class rose from the separation that developed between the classes during the Industrial Revolution. The urban worker was not like the agricultural worker. He did not live and work within sight of his master’s home – or even on his land – anymore. Increasingly, the wealthy were not living in the towns themselves and near to their employees, but on the outskirts or in secluded mansions far away. New industrial wealth had the effect of separating the classes more than ever. (Bunyan, 1983: 63)


The ruling classes realised there was a problem with the policing system, but at first they only tried to reform the existing system.  These attempts at reform included increasing the number of capital offences, using the army or militia to control the mob, encouraging informers by offering rewards for information, and the formation of middle class protection societies. Despite these reforms the only part of the country with anything like an adequate police force at the start of the nineteenth century was the City of London which, under the magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, was pioneering the use of professional police in its docks – through which half the world’s trade passed. (Bunyan, 1983: 60)

Colquhoun realised that most crime in the docks was not by petty criminals but by people who worked there. These people were often paid in kind and not with money. Workers often preferred this method of payment as it allowed them to pilfer from the docks more than they could ever hope to buy with a fixed wage. The most significant effect of the River Police in London was to erode this system of payment in kind and create a money wage in the docks, thus ending a long-standing and traditional means of survival by the working class. This effect also shows that the implementation of the police in London’s docks was not impartial. “They were created to preserve for a colonial merchant and an industrial class the collective product of West Indian slavery and London wage labour.” (MacDonald, 1973: 61)

The ruling class feared that crime amongst the lower classes was some sort of organised threat to society. Despite this, most crime was performed by individuals and mostly against the propertied classes, “such as stealing from factories, pick-pocketing, assault and robbery.” (Bunyan, 1983: 61) In response, however, the authorities resorted to disproportionate violence, through the use of the army, militia and yeomanry – as the massacre at Peterloo vividly demonstrated.

The propertied classes naturally wanted protection for both themselves and their property. They saw crime as inextricably tied in with poverty, particularly amongst the urban poor. They began to realise that they could not keep turning to the strong tactics of the army and that they would need an independent and organised law enforcement body to tackle crime.

In 1829 the Police Act set up London’s Metropolitan Force after proposals by the Home Secretary Robert Peel. Even one of England’s most famous soldiers, the Duke of Wellington, argued in favour of such a force. He was beginning to see that the army could not be used as an effective first line weapon against crime. Sir Charles Napier who had the responsibility for the army in the North of England during the Chartist period later said that “an organised body of police should be the first line of defence and the army the last.” (Bunyan, 1983: 62)

By the time of the formation of the Metropolitan Police the first phase of the Industrial Revolution was already coming to an end. Terrible depression was shortly to hit many urban districts in England. Conditions in urban towns and cities for the poor was already generating the impetus towards class consciousness. Previously unorganised and local movements of protests – such as early trade societies and Luddism – were to be overtaken by a newforce – Chartism. The danger of Chartism, as perceived by the ruling classes, was that it was organised nationally and that its demands, if met, would probably destroy society as they knew it.

By the mid 1830s Chartism was already so much of a problem that new Acts of Parliament were being rushed through, starting with the Municipal Corporations Act in 1835. This Act compelled the borough councils to appoint Watch Committees who would maintain local police forces. However, as the costs had to be met by the councils themselves, few responded. In 1839 the County Police Act “was rushed through Parliament as one means of combatting Chartism.” (Bunyan, 1983: 64). This allowed the counties to also form police forces – if they wished.

By 1856 the use of the Police Act had made the setting up of police forces obligatory. The ruling and propertied classes were also beginning to see the value of organised police forces. Another factor in giving the forces credibility with these classes was the ending of transportation of criminals of all descriptions. Once Australia became hostile to transportation alternative punishments had to be found in this country. It was realised that these prisoners would eventually be released and therefore a nation-wide police force was essential to control them. The Treasury also used the end of transportation, and the huge costs saved, as incentive to provincial areas to set up forces by offering them grants towards the initial costs.

Liverpool was one of the first Boroughs to set up a Watch Committee and organise a police force after the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835. The sense of moral outrage at the activities of sections of the community in the city is demonstrated by a Liverpool Watch Committe report in March 1836. It talks of keeping vigilance in watching for those who facilitate crime such as “keepers of brothels, and of public houses, taps, and beer-shops of a disorderly description.” (Holmes, 1836)

The separation of the classes which took place most dramatically during the first phase of the Industrial Revolution not only created the ruling class’s ignorance of the actions of the lower classes, but was also now creating “official morality” in the shape of the new police. (Storch: 61)

The working class suspected that a new professional force would simply be there to invade their privacy and spy on their everyday activities. This is borne out in Liverpool when John Holmes, writing the comments for the Watch Committee report cited above, said that “under the constant observation of a well-regulated Police, with a Magistracy determined to enforce the laws; their mode of life would become so dangerous, difficult, and determined that it may be fairly calculated the great majority of them would abandon it.” (Holmes, 1836) 

Holmes is talking specifically about receivers of stolen property. To catch such people, however, it would have to be necessary to have plain clothes police in every pub, outside every beer-shop and brothel, creating an atmosphere of permanent friction between the watchers and watched. An example of this over-zealous morality can be seen with the numbers of persons brought before the magistrates in Liverpool on a Monday morning after drinking all day Sunday, with Holmes talking of “disgusting scenes” desecrating the Sabbath. (Holmes, 1836)

Despite the enabling Acts of Parliament the financial incentives of the Government and the general concerns of the propertied classes, the spread of the new police forces was very slow. “Boroughs and counties were only gradually brought within the orbit of professional policing in the years between 1835 and 1856 and even in the late Victorian period many towns had pathetically small forces of professional constables.” (Stevenson, 1992: 329). Hostility between the police and the populace they were set up to control would ensure that for many decades to come. The establishment of a professionally organised police force would have many problems before it became accepted as the norm.



Bunyan, T. (1983), The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, London.

Hobsbawm, E. J. (1965), Primitive Rebels, New York.

Holmes, J. (1836), “Report for the Watch Committee of Liverpool,” March.

MacDonald, I. (1973), a paper to the “Towards Racial Justice Conference”, in Bunyan, T. (1983), The History and Practice of the Political Police in Britain, London.

Stevenon, J. (1992), Popular Disturbances in England 1700-1832, second edition, London.

Storch, R. D., The Plague of the Blue Locusts.

Thompson, E. P. (1993), Customs in Common, London.