If villains become heroes, it has been the fate of policemen to become figures of fun. Shakespeare satirised Dogberry, the constable in Much Ado About Nothing, in what was already a long tradition of city humour at the expense of its guardians.
At first “the watch,” as the police forces were called for many centuries, were literally watchers upon the walls of London. In a document of 1312 it is stipulated that “two men of the watch, well and fittingly armed, be at all hours of the day ready at the gate, within or without, down below, to make answer to such persons as shall come on great horses, or with arms, to enter the City.” But what of the enemy within? The “good men” of each ward were by custom responsible for maintaining order, but in 1285 an informal system of mutual protection was supplanted by the establishment of a public “watch” comprising the householders of each precinct under the jurisdiction of a constable. Each householder, when not assuming the offices of beadle, constable or scavenger, had to serve as part of the watch operating under the rules of “hue and cry.” So we hear of unruly apprentices being chased, and “nightwalkers” arrested. There are constant descriptions of roreres—roarers—who drink and gamble and beat people in the streets. These are taken up, locked up, and brought before the city magistrates the following morning.
To act as a member of the watch was considered a public duty, but it became customary for the hard-pressed householder to hire another to take his place. Those who took the job were generally of a low calibre, however; hence the description of the London watch made up of old men “chosen from the dregs of the people; who have no other arms but a lanthorn and a pole; who patrol the streets, crying the hour every time the clock strikes.” We also have the watch organised by Constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: “You are thought here to be the most senseless and fit man for the constable of the watch; therefore bear you the lantern.” In the 1730s a Watch Act was introduced to regularise the situation; a system of payment out of the rates was supposed to encourage the employment of better watchmen, in some cases by hiring disbanded soldiers or sailors rather than the old pensioners of the parish, but it seems to have made little difference. There is a mid-nineteenth-century photograph of William Anthony, one of the last of the London watch, grasping a pole in his right hand and a lantern in his left. He is wearing the peculiar broad-brimmed hat and greatcoat which marked his profession, and his expression hovers somewhere between sternness and imbecility.
They were known as “Charleys,” and were continually mocked. They patrolled certain streets and were supposed to act as guardians of property. “The first time this man goes on his rounds,” César de Saussure remarked in 1725, “he pushes the doors of the shops and houses with his stick to ascertain whether they are properly fastened, and if they are not he warns the proprietors.” He also awakened early any citizens “who have any journey to perform.” But the Charleys were not necessarily reliable. The report of one high constable, who made an unannounced visit to their various lock-ups and boxes, included remarks such as “called out ‘Watch!’ but could get no assistance … No constable on duty, found a watchman there at a great distance from his beat; from thence went to the night-cellar … and there found four of St. Clement’s watchmen drinking.” In the sixteenth century they were well known for “coming very late to the watch, sitting down in some common place of watching, wherein some falleth on sleep by reason of labour or much drinking before, or else nature requireth a rest in the night.” Three hundred years later they were still being reviled as old codgers “whose speed will keep pace with a snail, and the strength of whose arm would not be able to arrest an old washerwoman of fourscore returned from a hard day’s fag at the washtub.” The watchmen were in turn the targets of rowdy or drunken “bloods” or “bucks.” It was reported that a “watchman found dozing in his box in the intervals of going his rounds to utter his monotonous cry was apt to be overturned, box and all, and left to kick and struggle helplessly, like a turtle on its back, until assistance arrived.” The Charley was often assaulted by roarers, as he made his way through the dark streets.
It is unlikely, therefore, that London was well policed through the fourteenth to eighteenth centuries. The evidence suggests that the medieval concept of co-operation within ward and precinct prevailed for many hundreds of years; the citizens of London themselves ensured that their city was at least relatively safe, and an informal system of local justice prevailed. Pickpockets and prostitutes were ducked, as were fraudulent doctors or merchants. A cuckolded husband was given a “charivari” or scornful music of “tin cans, kettles and marrow bones.” It was a system of self-policing which must have been effective, if only because the calls for a city police force were so long rejected.
But the growth of London demanded more effective measures of control. In the 1750s Henry Fielding almost single-handedly established at Bow Street a police office which acted as a kind of headquarters for the suppression of London crime. His “thief takers” or “runners” were known as “Robin Redbreasts” or “Raw Lobsters” because of their red vests. Their numbers increased from six to seventy by the end of the century, while in 1792 seven other “police offices” were set up in various parts of the capital. The old City of London, protecting its medieval identity, had already established its own regular police patrols—the Day Police were formed in 1784, and were immediately identified with the blue greatcoat which they wore, according to Donald Rumbelow in The Triple Tree, to “lend them an air of distinction when they provided the prisoner’s escort on execution day.” From such unhappy origins did the conventional police uniform emerge. In 1798 the Thames Police Office was instituted to protect quays and warehouses as well as the newly built docks along the river; it was outside the usual system of ward and precinct. Seven years later a horse patrol was established to deter highwaymen.
There is a painting, dating from 1835, of a watch house. It is a two-storeyed building of early eighteenth-century construction, with shuttered windows on the ground floor. It is situated on the west side of the piazza, just beside the church of St. Paul’s, Covent Garden, and shows several blue-coated and black-hatted policemen milling about its iron gateway. There are potted plants on the top window ledge, and the words “Watch House” vividly painted on to the white brick façade. The impression is that of an establishment nicely suited to its surroundings, with the potted plants as a picturesque emblem of Covent Garden. But the appearance is, perhaps, deceptive. There are underground dungeons behind the Queen Anne façade, and the painting was completed some six years after the passing of a Metropolitan Police Act which profoundly altered the face of “law and order” in London.
The problem had been one of corruption. As so often happens in the city, those who were supposed to regulate criminal activity eventually began to condone or even encourage it. The Bow Street Runners were found to be receiving money and goods, while congregating with “villains” in taverns. This is illustrative of the city’s demotic as well as commercial spirit. It was with great difficulty, therefore, that Robert Peel was able to enforce proposals to establish an organised and centralised police force for London. It was considered by some to be a direct threat to the city’s liberty and, according to The Times, “an engine … invented by despotism.” Yet by excluding the old city police from his ministrations, and by regaling a Select Committee with episodes of street crime and statistics of vagrancy, he ensured the success of his proposals.
In 1829 the office of the “New Police” was established in a small Whitehall courtyard known as Great Scotland Yard, with a force of some three thousand men organised into seventeen divisions. These are the officers to be seen in the painting of the Covent Garden watch house, with their black top hats and blue “swallow-tail” coats. Not popular in the streets of London, they were known as “Blue Devils” or “Real Blue Collarers,” the latter an allusion to the depredations of cholera in the 1830s. When in 1832 an unarmed police constable was stabbed to death near Clerkenwell Green, the coroner’s jury recorded a verdict of “Justifiable Homicide.”
The police came from the same class and neighbourhoods as the policed; they were in that sense considered to be attempting to control and to arrest their own people. Like the “runner” before them they were also open to the charges of drunkenness and immorality. But such offences were punished with summary dismissal, with the result that, according to the London Encyclopaedia, “within four years fewer than one sixth of the original 3000 remained.” Those who survived were known as “crushers” or “coppers,” with the less vivid terms of “peelers” and “bobbies” coming from their association with Robert Peel. Those terms have been transmogrified into the modern “old Bill” which in turn seems to share some of the derogatory tone of the previous “Charleys.” There is in fact a continuity in these forms of address. In the middle of the twentieth century a policeman was often known as a “bluebottle” which is precisely the term that Doll Tearsheet hurls at a beadle in the second part of Henry IV—“I will have you as soundly swindg’d for this, you blew bottle Rogue.” Over more recent years they have also been known as “bogeys” or “rozzers,” “slops” or “narks,” “fuzz” or “pigs,” “creepers” or “flatties.” Yet historians of the London police have noted that within two or three decades Robert Peel’s force had acquired some degree of authority, and success, in its pursuit of crime.
Allusions to the demeanour and appearance of the individual police officer are often made in this context. “The habitual state of mind towards the police of those who live by crime is not so much dislike as unmitigated slavish terror,” one observer wrote. It was a way of suggesting that the darkness of London had been effectively dispelled by the “bull’s-eye” lamp of the constables on the beat. In 1853 a foreign traveller, Ventura de la Vega, noted their quasi-military uniform, with their blue coats “closed in the front with a straight collar on which a white number is embroidered” and their hats lined with steel. When necessary, he goes on, “they take from the back pocket of their coat a stick a half a yard long in the shape of a scepter, which has an iron ball on the tip.” It is never used, however, since “on hearing a policeman’s voice nobody answers and everybody obeys like a lamb.” So against the records of the violence and energy of the London crowd, we must place this evidence of almost instinctive obedience. Of course this is not to claim that every costermonger or street trader cowered in fright at the advancing uniform. The statistics of attacks upon the police, then and now, are testimony to that. But the observers are correct in one general respect. There does seem to be a critical point or mass at which the city somehow calms itself down and does not consume itself in general riot or insurrection. A level of instability is reached, only to retreat.
Other shapes emerge to touch upon the very nature of London even in the twenty-first century. It might be suggested, for example, that the “Fenian” explosion at Clerkenwell prison in 1867 was part of a pattern which manifested itself at the Canary Wharf explosion by the IRA in 1996. The Trafalgar Square riots of 1887 occupied the same space as the poll tax riots of March 1990. Complaints about police incompetence and corruption are as old as the police force itself. In 1998 an official investigation into the murder of a black teenager, Stephen Lawrence, revealed many instances of bad judgement and mismanagement; it also suggested implicit racial prejudice within the police force which has indeed been bedevilled by that charge for fifty years. Ever since the first “peeler” put on his blue “swallow-tail” coat, the London police have been the object of derision and suspicion. Yet those officers lingering outside the Covent Garden watch house would no doubt have been surprised to learn that their arm of investigation would be extended to almost eight hundred square miles with the number of offences, according to the latest statistical survey, rising to over 800,000. They would not have been quite so surprised to learn, however, that the “clear-up” rate was only 25 per cent.