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The Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces

March 1839

The report was produced by Charles Shaw Lefevre, Charles Rowan and Edwin Chadwick and argued for the establishment of a national police force. Lefevre and Chadwick had both been involved with the framing and implementation of the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act. Rowan was one of the first two men appointed as Commissioners of the Metropolitan Police, along with Richard Mayne.

This lengthy extract from the Report sets out their findings and makes recommendations for the future of the police in Britain.

We now beg leave to recapitulate the chief conclusions which we have endeavoured to set forth in this our Report.

  1. Having, with a view to judge of the extent of any requisite remedy by means of a paid constabulary force, made a general investigation as well as to the state of crime as to the present state of the unpaid constabulary, we find in respect to the state of crime:
    1. That the public information as to the number of crimes committed, inferred from the extent of crimes judicially pursued and punished, is widely erroneous.
    2. That there is an average of upwards of 100,000 commitments annually to the gaols of the able-bodied population of England and Wales for Criminal offences.
    3. That there are from 11,000 to 20,000 persons constantly in the criminal gaols; of which a large proportion are persons known as living wholly by habitual depredation; and from inquiries made in a large number of the individual cases of prisoners for thefts in these gaols , we find that on the average such prisoners in rural districts, where there is no trained constabulary, have been at large living by depredation during average periods upwards of five years; and that the criminal prisoners in the gaols in the towns, where there is a paid and trained force, have not been able to pursue their depredations more than half that time. But that nevertheless in either districts, prisoners are liberated with the prospect and the temptation of a career of unknown but long duration for the future, before permanent removal by process of law or by natural causes.
    4. That with relation to the particular crimes committed by such habitual depredators, no information is possessed by the unpaid constables.
    5. That it results from a special investigation of the habits of the classes of habitual depredators; that a large proportion of them are migratory; that they migrate from town to town, and from the towns where they harbour, and where there are distinct houses maintained for their accommodation, they issue forth and commit depredations upon the surrounding rural districts; the metropolis being the chief centre from which they migrate: and that they harbour in provincial towns in proportion to their magnitude, and in proportion to the facilities for plunder or to the absence of protection in the surrounding districts.
    6. That judging from particular cases in which we have made inquiries, a large proportion, if not always the majority, of prisoners in the county gaols for offences committed within the rural districts, are persons who have migrated from the towns to the rural districts.
    7. That from the impunity enjoyed by the classes of depredators, migrant or resident, property is rendered insecure; in some places so much so on the part of the labouring classes as greatly to impair the value of property to them, and their motives to industry and frugality.
    8. That in the rural districts agricultural produce is subjected to extensive depredation which often interferes with the most advantageous cc course of production.
    9. That a large proportion of the highways are left without any protection whatsoever from any constabulary or other civil force.
    10. That on the highways of a large part of the country, commercial travellers and strangers who travel singly, otherwise than by public conveyances, and carry money about them, abstain from travelling after dark, from fear of robbery and violence; and that farmers return from market in company, from the like fear, after dark.
    11. That the products of commercial industry in transitu on the highways being almost entirely without protection from any civil force, are subject to extensive and systematic depredation.
    12. That in the absence of due protection, property carried by sea in ships which are wrecked on those parts of the coast where shipwrecks occasionally or frequently occur, is subject to extensive habitual depredation, and life is endangered or lost, under circumstances of barbarity disgraceful to a civilised nation.
  2. Having investigated the general causes of depredation, of vagrancy, and mendicancy, as developed by examinations of the previous lives of criminals or vagrants in the gaols, we find that in scarcely any cases is it ascribable to the pressure of unavoidable want or destitution; and that in the great mass of cases it arises from the temptation of obtaining property with a less degree of labour than by regular industry, which they are enabled to do by the impunity occasioned by the absence of the proper constitutional protection to the subject.
  3. Having specially examined the state of public security against breaches of the peace in the manufacturing districts, we find,
    1. That the free investment of capital and employment of labourers, and the progress of manufacturing industry is impeded and endangered, and combinations carried on by violent and unlawful means; that murder has been resorted to, and that threats of murder, and arson, and personal violence are resorted to by such combiners as means to effect their objects.
    2. That for the prevention of the disturbances peculiar to such districts, as well as for the prevention of the more ordinary breaches of the peace, amidst the new and increasing population, no other efficient force than a military force is provided.
    3. That such force is inadequate for the purpose of the prevention of disorders, and that from the reluctance which is felt in having recourse to it for the purpose of repression, it is rarely used until considerable evil has been occasioned.
    4. And we further find that from the want of an efficient preventive force, the peace and manufacturing prosperity of the country are exposed to considerable danger.
  4. Having specially investigated the state of the constabulary force, and the execution of the constitutional principles of penal administration connected with that force, we find
    1. that the early constitutional principles of local responsibility for offences committed, by compensation to the sufferers, or by amercements to the Crown, has been impaired; and that there does not exist an adequate local interest to ensure the adoption of efficient means for the prevention of crimes, especially of crimes committed against the persons of strangers, travellers, or wayfarers.
    2. That in the majority of instances, the courts leet, or other functionaries charged with the duty of appointing fit and proper persons to act as constables, do not appoint persons who possess the requisite legal qualifications in respect of intelligence, substance, character, and connections.
    3. That the modes of carrying out the early constitutional principles of action of a constabulary force, of seeking information of offences, felonies, or misdemeanours committed, and of instituting quick and fresh pursuit for the apprehension of the offenders, have fallen into desuetude, and that no new modes adapted to the present circumstances of society have been introduced.
    4. That offenders, after having committed extensive depredation, in one district, have recourse to another; the people in which, having received no warning, are enabled to take no measures of prevention; and that until detected and pursued by some private individuals, usually at their own private cost, the depredators proceed without interruption by any public officers from district to district.
    5. That the criminal law is often extensively dispensed with, and its execution left to the discretion of private and unauthorised individuals.
    6. That in consequence of the extensive dereliction of the constitutional principles of penal administration, self-protection is extensively resorted to by private individuals separately, as well as by individuals associating together for mutual protection.
    7. That there are upwards of 500 private or voluntary associations for self-protection in different parts of the country, by the payment of rewards for the apprehension of felons and the expenses of their prosecution, independently of a large number of associations for self-protection by subscription for the maintenance of private watchmen; and of other private associations for the removal of various evils, such as the suppression of vagrancy and mendicancy, which it is the business of the Government to prevent or repress.
    8. That the protection obtained by such associations is in proportion to the cost extremely inadequate, and that the practice of investing private hands with public powers for their own use, is fraught with much inconvenience, and some danger of mischief to the public by large associations.
    9. That the proper performance of the legal duties of constables in the present state of the law and circumstances of the community would require from persons otherwise properly qualified in respect to substance and character, a sacrifice of time and labour which would render the compulsory service of the office grievously burthensome, and that within the time allowed for such service the requisite information and experience for its proper performance could not ordinarily be obtained.
    10. That it is essential to the proper performance of the duties in question that they should be performed by an agency specially trained, paid, and appointed, during good behaviour, for the purpose, and subjected to the control of superior and trained officers, who are themselves specially qualified and subjected to effective responsibility.
  5. Having specially investigated the cases of the trial of paid constables, we find in the case of the trial of a paid constabulary force appointed and controlled, according to an Act of Parliament for the county of Chester, by the magistrates at quarter and petty sessions, we find
      1. That the appointment and management of a paid constabulary force in separate divisions, separately managed at the discretion of the justices at the petty sessions of those divisions, is an arrangement of itself incompatible with any efficient and economical system for the prevention of crime.
      2. That such a mode of appointment and separate management in separate divisions does not comprehend any adequate local interest or proper security for the due protection of property or persons unconnected with the vicinity on the Queen's highways, or the constitutional responsibilities in that behalf to the sovereign authority.
      3. That any less scale of administration of a paid constabulary than for a whole county, does not comprehend a sufficiently wide basis for ultimate and complete efficiency and economy, either as to the county regarded separately, or in its general relation to the rest of the kingdom.
      4. That the appointment and executive control of any paid constabulary force for the conservation of the peace are proved to be incompatible with the due and impartial discharge of the functions of the justice of the peace, with the maintenance of proper respect for the office, or the efficient direction and control of the force itself or the avoidance of party or local animosities, or the jealousies arising on the part of the labouring classes from the relation of employer and workmen.
  6. Having examined the effects and tendencies of the other paid constabulary forces separately organised and directed in towns, we find:
    1. That whilst the paid forces which have been instituted on the model of the Metropolitan Police force, in many of the municipal towns, have rendered considerable benefits to the inhabitants of those towns, they have not gained these benefits by preventing or suppressing the whole of the evils from which they are freed. but by shifting a portion of it, or driving depredators into adjacent districts.
    2. That a considerable proportion of the habitual depredators in the rural districts harbour in the towns, where since they do not, unless under safe opportunities, pursue their practices, they receive no molestation.
    3. That, in consequence of the absence of a proper constabulary force and the want of due protection in the rural districts, the towns are subject to the occasional escapes of delinquents, and are obliged to maintain a stronger or more expensive constabulary force than would otherwise be necessary to guard against criminals who subsist chiefly by depredations in the surrounding country.
    4. That the like results must be produced by separate or uncombined arrangement for the prevention of crime.
  7. Having investigated the most favourable instances of the trial of a paid and well-appointed constabulary force in the rural districts, we find:
    1. That by means of such force the habitual depredations of resident delinquent have been prevented, and that they have been reformed or constrained to courses of honest industry.
    2. That the districts in which such force has acted have been kept free from vagrants and mendicants, and from migratory depredators; and that habitual depredations on agricultural produce and crimes in general against property have been
    3. That the disorders in beer-shops and ill-regulated houses of public resort and other sources of temptation and causes of domestic distress and immorality have been repressed.
    4. That for a time, and during the continuance of the full efficiency of the force the public peace, the efficiency of the laws, and the authority of the magistrates have been restored or increased as regards riotous or individual infractions, and a state of order produced, such as to leave but little immediate anxiety in the minds of the peaceable and well-disposed of the population for further amendment.
  8. Having inquired into the services other than in the prevention or repression of crime which a paid and well-appointed constabulary force may render, we find:
    1. That they may render extensive public service in the prevention of the loss of life, and destruction of property, and in the diminution of the feelings of alarm arising from calamities by fire or other causes.
    2. That they may render various local, civil, and administrative services, as in reporting on the state of the roads, and in maintaining the free transit of persons and goods.
    3. That they may aid the public service of administrative departments of the Government; and especially that they may to an important extent prevent the infraction of the laws of the Excise and Customs, and thereby increase the revenue.
  9. Having inquired as to the mode in which such a force should be appointed, and the probable expense, we find:
    1. That it is essential for the efficiency and attainment of all compatible services from a constabulary force, - first, that the constables should be trained, or appointed from a trained force, secondly, that neither by appointment nor otherwise should they be privately connected with the district in which they act, thirdly, that they should at periods be changed from district to district, fourthly, that whilst they should act under local direction for the performance of various local and administrative duties, for the repression of the practices of migratory depredators, vagrancy, and offences which concern the community at large more than the particular locality, they must act under general rules and principles, and in subordination to general directions from one general and responsible executive authority.
    2. That such a trained and moveable force, under general and responsible direction, will produce greater advantages than at least double the number of untrained, irremoveable constables, acting more expensively under separate, independent, and voluntary, or untrained and irresponsible direction.
    3. That the expense of a general and uniform force, which we believe would be adequate to the attainment of these objects, would be under half a million sterling per annum.
    4. That the saving from the services of such a force would be considerable; that, independently of the saving to individuals of the greater proportion of the money or produce now taken by habitual depredators, there would be much saving effected, on upwards of two millions of money, now expended chiefly in the cost of repression and of punishment in various ways, amongst others in the maintenance of delinquents in gaols, in transports, and in the penal colonies, as well as in the prevention of frauds upon the revenue.
    5. That much time, which we cannot accurately determine, would be required to obtain proper persons and fit them by training for the proper discharge of their duties, and to organise an efficient trained force.
    6. That the only available district or trained force that can at present be obtained is the new Metropolitan Police force.
    7. That the great majority of instances, or nearly all, of the successful trial of a paid constabulary force, have been instances where trained men have been obtained from the Metropolitan Police force, comprehending about 200 instances in towns and rural districts.

We therefore propose -

  1. That as a primary remedy for the evils set forth, a paid constabulary force should be trained, appointed, and organised on the principles of management recognised by the legislature in the appointment of the new metropolitan police force.
  2. That for this purpose on application in writing, under the hands and seals of a majority of the justices assembled at any quarter sessions of the peace for the county, setting forth the insecurity of person and property, and the want of paid constables, the commissioners of police shall, with the approbation of the Secretary of State for the Home Department, direct a sufficient number of constables and such officers as may, upon such examination as the said commissioners shall make or direct, be by them deemed adequate for the due protection of life or protection of life or property within the county.
  3. That force shall be paid one-fourth from the consolidated fund and three-fourths from the county rates, as a part of the general expenses of the whole county.
  4. That the constables so appointed shall report their proceedings to the magistrates of the quarter and petty sessions where they are stationed.
  5. That the superintendents shall be subject to dismissal upon the representation of the justices of the peace in quarter sessions, and that the sergeants and constables shall be subject to dismissal upon the representation of the justices of the peace in petty sessions.
  6. That the magistrates shall frame rules and regulations for the service of process and attendance at petty or quarter sessions of such force, which rules shall be submitted to the Secretary of State, and, if approved by him, shall be binding.
  7. That the commissioners shall frame rules and regulations for the general management of the police, which rules shall, on the approbation of the Secretary of State, be binding.

The principles embodied in our recommendations being based on extensive experience, we feel confident that however they may for a time be impeded by adverse interests, these interests and the prejudices engendered by them will yield before the light of future experience which will lead to the ultimate adoption of measures on the principles of those we propose. If one uniform and trained force be efficiently directed to the prevention or repression of crime we cannot doubt of success.

We can fund no solid grounds for the supposition often entertained that a large amount of crime is a necessary evil incidental to the present condition of society, and that the most ignorant and base of the community may defeat the exertions of a well appointed agency instituted for the repression of their crimes.

The appointment of a proper force for the prevention or repression of crimes has sometimes been viewed with apprehension on the supposition that such a force might be used to impair the political liberty of the subject.

If we were to admit that a diminution instead of an increase of the political liberty of the subject were the probable consequence of the establishment of an efficient constabulary force, we should nevertheless be prepared to show that the evils we have found in existence in some districts and the abject subjection of the population to fears which may be termed a state of slavery, which the objectors would endure from a groundless fear of loss of liberty, form a condition much worse in all respects than any condition that could be imposed by any government that could exist in the present state of society in this country. We do not believe that in this country any government could possibly exist which subjected the people to domiciliary attacks and to have their houses broken open and plundered, and their lives endangered at night, or which caused a large proportion of the population to abstain from travelling singly after dark for fear of being put in danger of their lives and stripped of their property by armed men, - which allowed its agents to pillage or maltreat the unfortunate people wrecked on the coasts, or which generally inflicted such evils as are now inflicted by upwards of 40,000 thieves, robbers, or marauding hordes of various descriptions, against whom the honest in almost every part of the country have been driven to associate for self-defence. Neither do we see any motives which could induce any government in these times to impose political restraints so oppressive or mischievous on any industrious community as we find imposed by illegal means on the manufacturing population of the city of Norwich and other parts of the kingdom; nor do we believe that by any form of the abuse of the powers of a government it could use any agency such as secret committees have employed in the manufacturing districts to coerce the honest and industrious, but peaceable, to purposes injurious to them, by actual murder or the fear of life or maiming, or the threats of such fire and pillage as were displayed in the burning of the city of Bristol.

The apprehensions expressed of danger to the liberty of the subject from the institution of a preventive police are usually supported by reference to institutions having that name on the continent; but we believe it will be found that the notions prevalent as to the state and operations of such institutions are even more erroneous than those we have found prevalent on the state of the penal administration in this country. We believe it will be found that the police force in a neighbouring country, which has been referred to as a preventive police, is in no proper sense in sound theory or in actual practice preventive; and that it has had none of the chief effects popularly attributed to its Although organised for political purposes, to the neglect, as we believe, of the. main purposes of a preventive police - the protection of private individuals in the enjoyment of their rights against infractions by depredators or others, - it has not saved the various governments which have depended on it, if any have; and in all large movements by the whole of the community it has been disregarded or thrown aside as of no serious account. The trained force which we propose is of little more than one constable to 2,000 inhabitants; - a force three or four times more numerous than that we propose were absurd as a means of constraining the whole community to any course which they felt to be inimical to them. What such a force might do with the tacit consent of the community, and what we believe to be most important for the liberty of the subject it should do, is to enforce the laws for the suppression of conspiracies, riots, or dangerous violences, by which ignorant or fanatical, or rapacious minorities may seek their ends. Without the assent or aid of the community, that is to say, without information from the people, a police or constabulary force cannot perform properly even its ordinary duties,

The safe course for maintaining the freedom of the subject appears to us to be, not to render the authorities impotent, but to make them strictly responsible for the use of the power with which they may be invested for the public service. The securities respecting which the greatest anxiety should be manifested, are the securities that the power which the Legislature may confer for the general advantage shall be fully used. The great mass of evil indicated in our Report is ascribable not to the abuse, but to the neglect and disuse of beneficial powers. The chief and proper objection, as we conceive, to the police forces abroad are, that they act on powers which are arbitrary: the force which we propose could only act on powers which are legal, and for which they would be responsible to the courts of law, and ultimately to the Parliament.

What has been done partially in particular places, may be done generally and more completely throughout the country, by the more efficient application of the like means. If a constabulary force were well appointed and trained on a uniform system, and were placed under trained and responsible direction for the whole county, it would, we are assured, soon enable Your Majesty's subjects to sleep under a feeling of security from midnight plunder and violence; it would give protection to the industrious classes in the enjoyment of property, and by enhancing its value create additional motives to industry and frugality; it would give freedom and security to travellers on the roads, and humane succour to natives, and hospitality to strangers thrown by shipwreck on our coasts; it would free the country from mendicancy and vagrancy, and the various evils that follow in their course; it would free the industry of the manufacturing labourers and increase the inducements to the investment of capital by protecting them from lawless violence; it would tend to secure the people from the alarms and dangers of riotous disturbances of the peace, by affording a powerful means of repressing them without the risk of military execution and bloodshed, without putting hostile parties in array against each other, without endangering animosities by arming neighbour to conflict with neighbour, and master with servant; all this, and much more beneficent service it might be made to render at an immediate expense of less than one-fourth of the sum recently saved by one amendment in local administration; or, as we feel confident, all these great objects may be accomplished with an ultimate saving of the whole expense from upwards of two millions of money, now chiefly expended on what have been proved before Committees of both Houses of Parliament, and pronounced by them to be, ineffective or demoralising systems of punishment.

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