The police are a part of everyday life and it would be almost unimaginable to think of a world where they don’t exist, but it may surprise you to learn that police as we know them weren’t around until the Victorian era!
Nowadays, children up and down the country list being a police person as one of their dream jobs, but for children pre-Victorian era, that wasn’t an option because there were no police.
When the police force did eventually come to be, they operated very differently to how they do now. It’s no secret life was harder in the Victorian era and punishment for crime was – by and large – much harsher than it is now.
But what about the police? Just how different were they? To answer that question, we need to go right back to the start.
Robert Peel, former Home Secretary, is who we have to thank for introducing us to the police as we know them in England. In 1929, he established the Metropolitan Police in London following the passing of the Metropolitan Act of 1829 which was designed to correct poor public behaviour and law. It was the first time any such sense of law and order was being enforced outside of Parish constables who – for the most part – were regular people policing their local area. Essentially, prior to the Metropolitan Act, local people policed themselves, and as a result, crime was rising, hence the need for action.
There wasn’t a huge number of people who wanted to join the police force, and many flirted with the idea for all but a matter of days. It is thought that of the 2,800 first policemen, less than a quarter actually stayed on. The rest either left or were fired, and those who did stay were far from the pinnacle of public protection we see today.
Nowadays, we think of the police of being upstanding members of society, well presented and committed to their jobs, but this was far from the case for those who joined the police force in Victorian times.
Often, those who signed up to join the police were scruffy, unfit, unintelligent and not committed to their role. In fact, it is said that the first-ever man inducted as a police officer was fired after four hours because he was drunk whilst on the job! This did the Metropolitan Police no favours when it came to getting the public to trust them, and so a new criterion was later put in place specifying that to join the police, you had to be:
The high turnover of the first policemen could well have been down to the fact their lives were so tightly controlled. The public thought the police were spying on them, so to try and combat this, policemen were forced to wear their uniforms both on and off duty so people could identify them.
They had to work seven days a week and were only allowed five (unpaid) days off every year. They had to request permission to marry or even go to lunch with a member of the public, and they were not allowed to vote in elections. This was so they could abate the perception that they were government informants.
Victorian police looked much unlike officers today, although there are definite similarities between the two. For example, modern-day police wear hats, as did those in the Victorian times, although Victorian police wore long, solid hats that served both to protect their heads and act as impromptu stepping stools when needed.
They also donned long coats known as ‘Peeler coats’. The name ‘Peeler’ denotes from the fact police in the 1800s were often called ‘Peelers’ or ‘Bobbies’ – both words being an ode to their creator, Robert Peel. Many Londoners still call police people ‘Bobbies’ today.
The Peeler coat was comparable to a tunic – relatively long in length, dark blue or black, and with little to no detail besides the front buttons. It was designed not to startle the public and to make the police blend in with everyone else as much as possible.
The weapons carried by the Victorian police have largely remained unchanged. Truncheons were the primary weapon, and they generally still are. The Metropolitan Police opted for truncheons over firearms because they wanted to appear non-threatening and non-combative in order to gain the public’s trust.
The police in the Victorian times were not quite as thorough as they are now, as exampled by the fact Jack the Ripper was never caught. That being said, it was hard for Victorians to solve crimes given many crimes happened at night and street lighting was poor, they had no access to DNA evidence or CCTV, and though people recognised them as peace-keepers, no one wanted to be seen as being a ‘grass’, so witnesses were hard to come by.
Paperwork and keeping records was not a priority for the Victorian police force, and as such, many crimes went unsolved. In some cases, the police didn’t even bother to investigate. That being said, if you were found guilty, you could expect to face a grim sentence as Victorian punishments for crime were severe, to say the least.
In the beginning, police in Victorian England was deeply mistrusted and many people disliked them heavily. The Victorians thought that by introducing a police force, the government were trying to hamper their right to free speech and arrest anyone who disagreed with them. Though their goal was in fact the opposite, the Victorian police force scarcely managed to sway the public in their favour.
It wasn’t a legal requirement for counties across England to have a police force, and so entrenched was the public’s distaste for them that it wasn’t until the Police Act of 1856 that saw every county in England forced to set up a police force.
After this, the reputation of the police slowly bettered as a result of their prominence, though it still took quite some time for people to warm to the idea that their taxes were being spent on such a thing. Eventually, when it became clear the police were indeed having an effect on the levels of crime, they became less of a target for violent attacks and the Victorian police lamp soon enough became associated with safety and protection, as it is today.
Interested in what life was like in Victorian London, specifically relating to crimes such as those of Jack the Ripper? If so, book a place on a tour and learn all about it and have all your questions answered by one of our guides.