The Peel Web

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The Police and Prisons

Prior to 1857 there were few reliable statistics to highlight either

  1. the efficiency of the police or
  2. the question of migration of criminals to the provinces following Peel's 1829 Metropolitan Police Act

The Maintenance of Law and Order before 1829

  1. Authorities had few resources to cope with riot, crime and disorder.
  2. Country parishes and smaller market towns had constables and the local watch and ward. This was the old Tudor system.
  3. In London, the Bow Street Runners were set up in 1742.
  4. Troops were used to keep order.
  5. Local militias were used for local problems.
  6. Spies were used to track down those who were suspected of disaffection.

The industrial revolution put new pressures on society, leading to violence. Collective living led to collective organisation, which helped to create social disorder on a larger scale. The Penal Code was severe with almost two hundred capital offences and other punishments including transportation. This actually encouraged more serious crime as evidenced by the idiom, "I might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb". One of the key campaigners for an overhaul of the penal code was Sir Samuel Romilly but he fought a losing battle, as his diary shows:

17 Jan, 1813: In the House of Commons I moved for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal so much of the Act of King William as punishes with death the offence of stealing privately in a shop, warehouse or stable, goods of the value of 55... I omitted the Bills formerly brought in to take away capital punishments in the cases of stealing in dwelling-houses and on board vessels, because those Bills had excited much more opposition than that relating to shops...

26 March 1813. The Bill ... was read a third time in the Commons and passed. On the division, the numbers were, Ayes 72, Noes 34...

2 April 1813. The Bill was thrown out in the Lords today upon the second reading by a majority of 26 to 15...

After Romilly's death in 1818, his work was taken over by Sir James Mackintosh who supported Romilly's proposals for reducing the severity of the criminal law. Mackintosh took charge of similar measures. On 2 March 1819 he carried a motion against the government for a committee to consider capital punishment, by a majority of nineteen. In 1820, he introduced six bills embodying the recommendations of the committee, only three of which became law. Lord Eldon - the Lord Chancellor in Liverpool's ministry - secured an amendment to keep the death penalty for stealing to the value of more than £10, and spoke against the Bill: in his speech, Eldon said

While it appeared a harsh thing to condemn a man to death for stealing privately in a shop to the amount of 5s., the present bill did not provide sufficiently against the loss of property to an amount which, though it could not distress some, might effectually ruin many shopkeepers... The apprehension of the capital punishment had deterred many from the commission of this offence... If hereafter it should be found, that shoplifting became universal, and that many persons were reduced to misery by this crime, he hoped it would be remembered that he had suggested the consideration, whether this law which had so long existed was not wise and politic. (Parliamentary Debates, 2nd Series, vol.2, (1820) col.493)

On 21 May 1823 Mackintosh proposed nine resolutions to the house for abolishing the punishment of death in many cases. Peel opposed Mackintosh but promised to introduce some measures of the same kind. Peel opposed Mckingtosh's efforts to end the death penalty for forgery and in 1830 justified his work on penal reform while he had been Home Secretary:

When he came into office seven years before the present period, the criminal law of Great Britain exceeded in severity the criminal codes of every other part of Europe, and he had then thought it ought to be meliorated. He made it, since he had been in office, the great object of his ambition, not to set the example of meliorating this code but to follow the example set by others. He had found, however, that the habits and usages of the country were adapted to and formed on the severity of our code, and he found it necessary to proceed in the mitigation of this severity with great caution. He thought it advantageous to continue the severity of the law in its letter, but gradually to meliorate its practical application.(The Speeches of Sir Robert Peel, vol.2. Routledge, 1853 p.162)

However, prisons were still dens of iniquity, even after Peel's reforms of the 1820s. As Home Secretary, he undertook an overhaul of the prisons and also a large-scale reform of the penal code. Eventually prisons did improve although much of the pioneering work was done by people such as Sir Samuel Romily and Elizabeth Fry. In 1827, as he resigned when Canning formed his ministry, Peel summarised his work at the Home Office during the previous five years:

When I first entered upon the duties of the Home Department, there were laws in existence which imposed upon the subjects of this realm unusual and extraordinary restrictions; the fact is undeniable, that those laws have been effaced. Tory as I am, I have the further satisfaction of knowing, that there is not a single law connected with my name which has not had for its object some mitigation of the severity of the criminal law; some prevention of abuse in the exercise of it; or some security for its impartial administration. I may also recollect with pleasure, that during the severest trials to which the manufacturing interests have been exposed, during the winter of the last two years, I have preserved internal tranquillity, without applying to the House for measures of extraordinary severity. (taken, with the kind permission of the author, from Norman Gash, Mr. Secretary Peel, Longmans, 1961 p.437)

Many of the new prisons, such as Pentonville Gaol, were built and conducted along the lines suggested by Jeremy Bentham. In 1835 a Select Committee of the House of Lords produced a report in which they made a number of recommendations for the establishment of a 'separate system' of prisons. In 1836 Bisset Hawkins, a prison inspector, reported his findings on prisons in the southern and western counties to the Home Secretary, Lord John Russell.

The Metropolitan Police

Debate about the creation of a standing police force in England raged during the early part of the 19th century. Confronted with political objections and fears of potential abuse Robert Peel (later Sir Robert Peel) sponsored the first successful bill creating a bureaucratic police force in England. He had persuaded colleagues of the value of the new police force prior to the legislation being put to parliament, as his correspondence shows. He then set about persuading MPs that a police force was needed by describing the ineffectiveness of the present system in a speech in the House of Commons.


In 1829 Peel's Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Wellington's government as a political compromise, the Act applying only to parts of London. The jurisdiction of the legislation was limited to the Metropolitan London area, excluding the City of London and provinces.

On 5 November 1829 Peel wrote to Wellington about the effectiveness of the new force but expressing some concerns about the opposition that his police were meeting.

I am very glad indeed to hear that you think well of the Police. It has given me from first to last more trouble than anything I ever undertook. But the men are gaining a knowledge of their duties so rapidly that I am very sanguine of the ultimate result.

I want to teach people that liberty does not consist in having your house robbed by organised gangs of thieves, and in leaving the principal streets of London in the nightly possession of drunken women and vagabonds.

The chief danger of the failure of the new system will be, if it is made a job, if gentlemen's servants and so forth are placed in the higher offices. I must frame regulations to guard against this as effectually as I can.

Crime and disorder were to be controlled by preventive patrols and no stipends were permitted for successful solutions of crimes or the recovery of stolen property. Crime prevention was not the only business of the new police force: they inherited many functions of the watchmen such as

"Bobbies" or "Peelers" were not immediately popular, as contemporary accounts show. Most citizens viewed constables as an infringement on English social and political life, and people often jeered the police. The preventive tactics of the early Metropolitan police were successful, and crime and disorder declined. Their pitched battles with (and ultimate street victory over) the Chartists in Birmingham and London proved the ability of the police to deal with major disorders and street riots. Despite the early successes of the Metropolitan police, the expansion of police forces to rural areas was gradual. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 ordered all incorporated boroughs to set up police forces under the control of a watch committee and in 1839 the Rural Constabularies Act was passed. It was not until 1856 that Parliament mandated that provinces establish police forces.

The Metropolitan Police Act established the principles that shaped modern English policing. First, the primary means of policing was conspicuous patrolling by uniformed police officers. Second, command and control were to be maintained through a centralised, pseudo-military organisational structure. The first Commissioners were Charles Rowan (an ex-Colonel) and Richard Mayne (a Barrister). They insisted that the prevention of crime was the first object of the police force. Third, police were to be patient, impersonal, and professional. Finally, the authority of the English constable derived from three official sources - the crown, the law, and the consent and co-operation of the citizenry.  Peel established nine principles for his policing, which are still followed today.

It has been suggested that as London's crime-rate fell, that of nearby areas increased. The number of offences did seem to increase in areas of London where the police were not allowed to go: Wandsworth became known as "black" Wandsworth because of the number of criminals who lived there. As the 1839 Royal Commission pointed out:

... criminals 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

The 1835 Municipal Corporations Act helped older boroughs to sort out their administrative structure and allowed new towns to become incorporated. Towns which were incorporated were obliged to set up their own police force but few of them seemed eager to implement the law:

This was in spite of the fact that the number of crimes committed in London fell and the number of detected crimes appears to have increased after the establishment of the Metropolitan Police, as statistics show.

Municipal forces were about half the size of London, proportionate to population. Most boroughs were slow to take advantage of the 1835 Act and remained grossly inadequate until after 1856.  

The Detective Department of the Metropolitan Police was set up in 1842. Extensive changes were made in the 1880s, when the detective force was expanded in response to terrorism scares. 

Police statistics



1 policeman per



450- 500 inhabitants



460 inhabitants



610 inhabitants



840 inhabitants



900 inhabitants

11 provincial boroughs


940-1500 inhabitants

6 provincial boroughs


1500 inhabitants

The 1839 Rural Constabulary Act

This came as a direct result of the Royal Commission on Constabulary Forces of the same year, caused some boroughs to panic and to reorganise their own police forces to avoid the high expense of being involved with county forces. The Act did not meet the Report's demands for a national police force, with the Metropolitan Police as the controlling power. The Act permitted JPs to appoint Chief Constables for the direction of the police in their areas and allowed for one policeman per 1,000 population. Response was poor. By 1853 only 22 counties of 52 had police forces. Yorkshire was the poorest served. One division of the East Riding had only nine policemen. By about 1855 there were only 12,000 policemen in England and Wales.

The provinces were slow to implement the 1839 Act because

The link between the fear of Chartism and mob violence, and reform of the police, is difficult to trace. Troops and special constables (including Gladstone and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte - soon to become the Emperor Napoleon III of France) were still used in the Chartist era such as at Kennington Common in 1848.

The 1856 Police Act

This piece of legislation

  1. obliged the counties to organise police forces, subject to government control
  2. devised a system of inspection already in use in factories, workhouses and education
  3. made grants dependent on efficiency (half were not efficient)
  4. shifted the emphasis from the prevention of crime to its detection

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Last modified 4 March, 2016

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