In 1829, the Metropolitan Police – England’s first professional ‘Peelian’ police force – was established. Initially, the force was responsible only for the area within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross, but this was soon to change, marking a radical new and organised approach to law and order.
Before the advent of the Police, responsibility for law and order in each county lay with the Justice of the Peace, who led the parish Constables and town Watchmen tasked with patrolling the streets and keeping order. Occasionally, local armed forces were also brought in – as with the Gordon riots in 1780, and the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. By the 1800s, with crime rates rising – particularly in new urban areas, and corruption rife, it was clear that this long-standing system had become ineffectual.
In the late 1700s, Henry Fielding set up the Bow Street Runners – a force of paid constables who patrolled London and were funded by an annual government grant of £600. The organised approach and a focus on preventing crimes (rather than simply reacting to them) proved successful, and was supported by the Government. From 1792, the new Home Department took responsibility for law and order, partly in response to riots and upheavals linked to the American Revolution.
By the 1800s, there was growing support for organised city- and county-wide police forces with funding from central government. However, many were opposed to the idea, believing the police would be used to force people to do what the Government wanted. Others were unhappy about the proposed increases in their taxes to pay for it. In 1829, Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act was passed. By 1856, a full-time, organised, paid police force had become compulsory in all towns and counties – with over 14,000 policemen in around 200 forces nationwide.
The first official uniform of the Metropolitan police was navy blue – to distinguish officers from the red uniforms favoured by the Army. It included a swallow-tailed coat with a raised collar, trousers and a reinforced top hat, which also set them apart from the military while providing some protection from a blow to the head. This uniform remained in use until 1865. During the 1860s ‘Garotting Panic’, officers began to fear being strangled and so thick leather was added within the collar. Officers carried a truncheon and a rattle to call for assistance, which was later replaced by a whistle.
Initially, all British police officers were men. Edith Smith in Grantham became the first British woman given power of arrest in 1915, with wartime volunteer patrols giving way to professional women officers from 1919 onwards.
Did you know..?
The Metropolitan police became known as ‘Peelers’, after their founder, Robert Peel. Unpopular with some members of the public, they also gained the nicknames Blue devils, Peel’s bloody gang and Raw lobsters (which are blue, and only turn red when boiled!).
Sources & acknowledgements
This object description and its related educational resources were researched and written by our team of historians and education specialists. For further information see the item’s home museum, gallery or archive, listed above.