History of law enforcement in the United Kingdom

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Law enforcement
in the United Kingdom
Types of agency
Types of agent

The history of law enforcement in the United Kingdom charts the development of law enforcement in the United Kingdom.[1][2]

Victorian Police Officer with itinerant circa 1900 - recreation.
David Kirkwood being detained by police during the 1919 Battle of George Square.
Eurocopter EC 135 T2 providing law enforcement and medical assistance in the Avon and Somerset Police, and Gloucestershire Police areas, based at Bristol Filton Airport.


Early policing in Britain was based on the process of Hue and cry which relied on citizen volunteers, and later a conscription system known as posse comitatus.

Watchmen and Constables[edit]

Law enforcement and policing during the 1700s, and earlier, were not administrated nationally, instead they were organised by local communities such as town authorities.[3] Within local areas, a constable could be attested by two or more Justices of the Peace, a procedure that some sources say had its roots in an Act of the Parliament of England of 1673.[4] From the 1730s, local improvement Acts made by town authorities often included provision for paid watchmen or constables to patrol towns at night, while rural areas had to rely on more informal arrangements.[3]

In 1737, an Act of Parliament was passed "for better regulating the Night Watch" of the City of London which specified the number of paid constables that should be on duty each night.[5] Henry Fielding established the Bow Street Runners in 1749; between 1754 and 1780, Sir John Fielding reorganised Bow Street like a police station, with a team of efficient, paid constables.[6]

In 1800, some town authorities became more involved in improving local policing. An Act of Parliament in 1800 enabled Glasgow to establish the City of Glasgow Police, which is the first professional police force in Britain. As the population in industrial towns grew, more local Acts were passed to improve policing arrangements in those towns, such as Rochdale in Lancashire in 1825, and Oldham in 1827.[3]

In November 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway set up their own police establishment under legislation going back to 1673. They were to preserve law and order on the construction site and to control movement of railway traffic – by hand signals. This practice spread with the development of railways, and small shelters were erected at these stations, becoming known as police stations. Where there was no police control they were just known as stations. To this day signalmen are known as ‘bobbies’.


London in the early 1800s had a population of nearly a million and a half people but was policed by only 450 constables and 4,500 night watchmen. The idea of professional policing was taken up by Sir Robert Peel when he became Home Secretary in 1822. Peel's Metropolitan Police Act 1829 established a full-time, professional and centrally-organised police force for the greater London area known as the Metropolitan Police. The new Metropolitan Police were responsible for an area of 7 miles in radius from the centre of the city (excluding the City of London), which was later extended to 15 miles. The government intentionally tried to avoid creating any likeness between the police and a military force; in particular the officers of the new police force were not armed and a blue uniform was chosen, dissimilar to that of the army. During this period, the Metropolitan Police was accountable directly to the Home Secretary (whereas today it accountable to the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Authority).[7][8]

The City of London was not included within the remit of the Metropolitan Police because the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London refused to be part of a London-wide force because the City of London had certain liberties dating back to Magna Carta.[7] The London City Police was formed in 1832, later renamed in 1839 to the City of London Police.[9]

Boroughs and Counties[edit]

In the early 1800s, Newcastle had a police force that was accountable to the mayor and council. Liverpool, which was at the time a city of around 250,000 people, had only watchmen and parish constables for policing, with a small police force for the dock area. The establishment of more formal policing in cities started to gain more support among the public as cities grew and society became more prosperous and better organised through understanding of legal rights, education and better informed through the press.[10]

In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed by Parliament which required 178 Royal Boroughs to set up paid police forces.[5] In 1839 the Rural Constabulary Act allowed county areas to establish police forces if they chose to at a local level; Wiltshire was the first county to do this.[8] a further eight county police forces were formed in 1839, twelve in 1840, four in 1841 and another four by 1851.[5]

By 1851 there were around 13,000 policemen in England and Wales, although existing law still did not require local authorities to establish local police forces.[8]

National Policing[edit]

In 1847 two pieces of national legislation were enacted - the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847.[4] Parliament continued to discuss the idea of national policing and, by the early 1850s, the Government was thinking about implementing policing across the nation.[11]

After the County and Borough Police Act in 1856, policing became a requirement throughout England and Wales paid for by central government Treasury department funds distributed to local government. In addition, the Act formed a "central inspectorate of constabulary" that would assess the effectiveness of each constabulary and report regularly to the Home Secretary. Parliament passed a similar Act for Scotland in 1857.[8]

By 1900, England, Wales and Scotland had 46,800 policemen and 243 constabularies.[8]

The Police Act of 1946 led to the merger of a number of smaller town forces and surrounding county forces, leaving 117 constabularies. Further mergers took place following the 1964 Police Act which cut the number of police forces in England and Wales to 47, and Scotland to 20.[8]

Modern Policing[edit]

Since the 1960s, police forces in the United Kingdom have been merged and modernised by several Acts of Parliament.


England and Wales Scotland Ireland/Northern Ireland
1707 At the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, only Edinburgh had any sort of police force - the Edinburgh Town Guard that had been formed in 1682 to police the city and enforce an initiated curfew.
1726 Edinburgh Town Guard gained notoriety when its Captain Porteous became the trigger for the Porteous Riots.
1749 London's Bow Street Runners established - considered the foundation to all modern police forces.
1779 Glasgow Magistrates appoint James Buchanan as the first Inspector of the Glasgow Police, with an establishment of eight police officers, though it was disbanded in 1781 due to a lack of money.
1788 The Glasgow Police re-established, but failure to succeed in getting a Bill before Parliament meant that the force again failed, in 1790.
1798 The Marine Police was established, based in Wapping - a localised force with a limited remit.
1800 The Glasgow Police Act, the first such Act in Britain, was finally passed through the persistence of Glasgow city authorities. This allowed the formation of the City of Glasgow Police, funded by taxation of local citizens, to prevent crime.[12] This was quickly followed by the establishment of similar police forces in other towns.
1812 A committee examined the policing of London, and made several suggestions on their findings to help evolve the existing state of affairs.
1814 The Peace Preservation Act creates the first organised police force in Ireland, becoming the Irish Constabulary in 1822, and was awarded the Royal prefix after putting down the Fenian Rising of 1867.
1817 Edinburgh Town Guard disbanded.
1818, 1821 Further committees examined the policing of London.
1829 Based on the committees' findings, Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, prompting a rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The Metropolitan Police was founded on 29 September 1829.[13] The new constables were nicknamed 'peelers' or 'bobbies' after the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the latter nickname continuing to this day.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Terrill, Richard J. (2015). World Criminal Justice Systems: A Comparative Survey (revised ed.). Routledge. pp. 30–53. ISBN 1317228820. 
  2. ^ Dempsey, John S.; Forst, Linda S. (2015). An Introduction to Policing (8 ed.). Cengage Learning. pp. 6–8. ISBN 1305544684. 
  3. ^ a b c "Watchmen and constables". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  4. ^ a b "Independent Port Constabularies - History" (PDF). Independent Port Constabularies. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  5. ^ a b c "British Police Service". City of London Police. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  6. ^ "Sir John Fielding". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  7. ^ a b "Sir Robert Peel and the new Metropolitan Police". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  8. ^ a b c d e f "Metropolitan Police". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  9. ^ "History of City of London Police Key dates". City of London Police. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  10. ^ "Provincial Police Forces". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  11. ^ "Creating the nation's police force". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  12. ^ "The Glasgow Police Museum". Retrieved 3 January 2015. 
  13. ^ "History". Metropolitan Police Service. Retrieved 3 January 2015.