Law and order

24th September 2004 at 01:00
Kevlar jackets may have replaced tailcoats and rattles, but life on the streets has always been tough for the police, writes Simon Dell

When Robert Peel's first policemen went out on patrol in the London of 1829, they wore a four-inch leather stock inside their collar, literally to save their necks. The risk of strangulation was a real one.

The police had to fight hard for acceptance by a public which was used to be being kept in order by soldiers. Crime was investigated in London by the Bow Street Runners, closer to today's detectives, and working under the direction of magistrates, or in the country by parish constables who had the unpaid and onerous duty of putting wrongdoers in the stocks even if it interfered with their paid employment. Public order was a military matter.

However, there were calls for a rethink after the Gordon Riots in London in 1780. More than 200 people died in the quelling of protests against the granting of civil rights to Roman Catholics. Nearly 40 years later in 1829 in Manchester, the Peterloo massacre saw 11 die and several hundred injured when soldiers were called in to control early protests in favour of trades unionism. The case for a civilian police force seemed unasnwerable.

Which is why 10 years later Constable Cavanagh signed up for the Peelers, named after the Home Secretary who introduced the force. He describes his uniform thus: "I had to put on a swallow tailcoat and a rabbitskin top hat, coveded with leather, weighing 18oz, a paid of Wellington boots, the leather of which must have been at least a 16th in deep... My hat was slipping over my head. My boots, which were two sizes too large, were rubbing the skins off my heels and the stock was a thick leather one and 4in deep was nearly choking me."

They were issued with batons, lanterns, handcuffs and a small number of cutlasses which they were not encouraged to use since the force was supposed to be unarmed.

The rattles with which they were issued to communicate with one another on the narrow, crowded streets - whistles didn't come in until 1884 - also served another purpose: they were carried in the breast pocket to protect the heart against knife attacks.

Sadly, that was not enough to save Constable Robert Culley who was killed by an angry mob at Coldbath Fields, near today's Mount Pleasant sorting office. Public opinion sided with the unarmed officer and the police force came to be accepted.

Peel's Metropolitan Police Act applied to London only and the expansion of forces to rural areas was very slow: they retained their old Parish Constables well into the 19th century.

The next significant piece of legislation was The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835, which ordered all boroughs to set up police forces under the control of a watch committee, but it was not until 1856 that Parliament insisted that counties also establish forces.

By the 1860s, all counties had their own forces and these evolved into the service of today.

By looking back at how our law enforcement and policing systems have evolved we can understand how we have arrived at today's system so that we can tackle not only the problems that young people find themselves caught up in, but to attempt to reduce opportunities and the need for offending by young people.

There are various police museums dotted around the country. Most have staff well versed in the requirements of the national curriculum and the principles of citizenship.

One of the best is the Greater Manchester Police Museum, housed in a former Victorian police station, it offers visitors a fascinating glimpse into the city's criminal past. There is a team of 12 retired police officers dressed in period uniforms who conduct interesting and informative tours. The space includes a garage full of preserved police vehicles, as well as a courtroom, which can be used for mock court cases.

There is also a room dedicated to criminal investigation and the more grisly side of police work, but this can be easily missed out for the more sensitive and younger visitor. You can also see the fully restored Victorian Police charge room and cell complex.

A similar, but slightly smaller, museum is run by the West Midlands Police at Sparkhill police station in Birmingham. The curator, Dave Cross, is a former officer who has developed numerous worksheets and books tying in closely with the requirements of key stages 2 and 3 of the national curriculum aspects of the citizenship programme.

Another with facilities for school visits is the Tetbury Police Museum, Gloucestershire. Of particular interest are the old cells as well as a visual history and exhibits relating to one of the oldest county police forces.

In the North, there is the Ripon Police Museum in North Yorkshire. The Victorian cells contain displays of crime and punishment, imprisonment and law enforcement over recent centuries as well as illustrations of early punishments such as confinement in sticks and pillory, public whipping and transportation.

Simon Dell is author of The Victorian Policeman, Shire Books, pound;3.50.


Manchester. Newton Street. Tel: 0161 856 3287. Free of charge and available on weekdays for pre-arranged school visits. Parking is available only a 10-minute walk away from the nearby Piccadilly Bus Station.

Birmingham, Sparkhill. Tel: 0845 113 5000. Parking is available nearby for coaches and admission is free.

Tetbury Gloucestershire Tel: 01666 504670. Open weekdays.

Ripon Open daily between 1pm and 4pm. Tel: 01765 690799.

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