When was the modern police force invented?

Wooden statue of a policeman, 1979. Maker unknown

Starting with the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the nineteenth-century saw the establishment of ‘modern’ police forces across the country. These were uniformed, salaried men, who would be roughly recognisable as policemen to us today.

Before the Metropolitan Police

Before 1829, England was policed by a variety of constables, watchmen, and some more specialised forces in the larger towns and cities. These were often unpaid positions, and these policemen often made money from rewards for successful prosecutions.

Traditionally, historians viewed these former policing agents as largely ineffective and often corrupt, but recently more continuities between them and the later police forces have been recognised; both were seen as well-suited to the communities they served.

The Metropolitan Police

Officers who joined the Metropolitan Police were expected to adhere to strict standards of behaviour, and were not permitted to accept bribes or rewards for their work.

The instructions issued to Metropolitan Police constables show that they were supposed to be a preventative police force. It was expected that the very presence of a uniformed police force would be a deterrent to potential criminals.

Regional police forces

In 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act was passed. This required 178 Royal Boroughs to set up paid police forces, and from 1839, rural areas were also permitted to establish police forces.

Police in the community

Victorian Police Constables patrolled set ‘beats’ in shifts: these were normally a small group of streets that they could walk up and down in ten to fifteen minutes.

In theory, there were clear stipulations about who police officers were to arrest; in practice, these officers were drawn from among their communities, and used their discretion in choosing when to make an arrest, and when to turn a blind eye to compromise with the community.

Policing today

Policing practice remains an area of public debate in today’s society, with concerns that the police target particular groups and communities unfairly. These tensions are not new; policing forces throughout history have faced challenges in negotiating their relationships with the communities they police.