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Last Updated: Wednesday, 29 September, 2004, 17:04 GMT 18:04 UK
Met celebrates 175 years on the beat
Sir John Stevens and officer in 1829 uniform
Commissioner Sir John Stevens with an officer in the 1829 uniform
With only a truncheon and a rattle for protection, the first Metropolitan Police constables took to London's streets 175 years ago on Tuesday 29 September 1829.

Named after Home Secretary Robert Peel, the original "Peelers" - later Bobbies - based at 4 Whitehall Place had a tough job.

For three shillings a day, new constables could expect 12-hour night shifts and no days off.

They faced a hostile press and public - some reports say the first traffic police risked being run down and horse-whipped by irate coachmen.

High-necked tunics protected officers from strangulation and top hats were reinforced as Peelers were likely to be attacked in the street - and penalties for violent crime were more lenient.

After Pc Robert Culley was stabbed to death at a riot in Holborn in 1833 a coroner's jury returned a verdict of "justifiable homicide".

'Working class traitors'

But still the new force managed to recruit about 1,000 constables who had to be "of good character", able to read and write and be physically fit.

"They were known as working class traitors, the working classes thought they would be sneering at them and the upper classes and businessmen didn't want them poking their noses in," said Met officer Maggie Bird, who works in the force's archives office.

"There were committees set up to disband the new police and there were riots in the streets."

It was a tough life, but a steady job
Maggie Bird, Met archives
"But I suppose it was a steady job, if you kept your nose clean, you got a regular wage, a uniform, accommodation at police stations - it was a tough life, but a steady job."

Few recruits came from London. As agriculture declined, people flocked from the countryside, particularly East Anglia and the West Country, to join the Met.

Reinforced top hats

But many wanted to keep local control of law and order and felt the old system worked better.

"The people who set the Met up were very careful to pronounce that before they arrived there was terror, chaos and death on the streets of London, " said Dr Chris Williams, a history lecturer at the Open University.

"But there has been lots of research and the persistent answer is that is not the case."

"[Policing] was patchy and locally controlled - the Met was about centralising, a 'one size fits all' force across London. In some places it [policing] got better, in some places it got worse."

Since 1829 one of the things police have done is fill in forms, and they've always complained about it
Dr Chris Williams, Open University
But despite the initial hostility, the Met was there to stay.

By the 1840s the old detective-style units formerly run by magistrates, the most famous of which was the Bow Street Runners, had been absorbed, as had the marine unit, although the City of London retains its own police force today.

By 1890 there was a police pension and within the next forty years the force would start to incorporate radios, patrol cars, early versions of 999 and women officers.

The first 1,000 Peelers covered a seven-mile circle around Charing Cross and a population of less than 2m and their duties were largely limited to patrols.

Today the Met has 30,000 officers, covers 620 square miles and 7.2m people and handles everything from traffic offences to international terrorism.

But some things, apparently, do not change.

"Since 1829 one of the things police have done is fill in forms - and they have always complained about it as well," said Dr Williams.

"The unique selling point of the Met was its bureaucracy, there were some efficient parish-based watches [beforehand], what the Met did was process information."

A female-friendly thin blue line?
29 Oct 03  |  Magazine
Sir Robert Peel remembered
13 Sep 02  |  England


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