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The History of Policing and Its Milestones in The UK

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Table of contents

  1. Introduction
  2. The coming of the new police
  3. Public perception of the police
  4. The first women in Uniform
  5. First black man in the Met
  6. Conclusion
  7. References


Since being established in 1829, starting with the metropolitan police, ‘Modern’ policing has continued to grow and evolve over the years from a single force in London to 43 forces across England and Wales, each covering a number of cities and counties.

Each police force usually consists of a number of dedicated teams such as community policing, Response and criminal investigations units as well as a number of specialist departments such as Crime scene investigators (CSI) and the dogs and mounted sections, and the specialised policing equipment and vehicles available to all forces.

In today’s modern world it is difficult to imagine there being no police force in place, in this essay we will look at the beginning of the establishment of the Police force’s in England and Wales and read further into some of the milestones in Policing and also how some aspects have stayed the same yet have evolved such as the police uniform and equipment and the constables themselves.

One of the earlier forms of policing was the Parish Constables (also known as a petty constable) whom were generally unarmed and unpaid part-time workers and starting in 1617, they were appointed by the local justice of the police. Historian Stephen Inwood described parish constables “of variable quality and commitment” whose effectiveness ranged from inadequate to non-existent. (Inwood Stephen, 1998:591).

Within the city of London, there emerged another group whose activities drew attention and these were the Bow street runners, named for the street from which they operated from. Whilst they were nick named ‘runners’ they investigated offences and located offenders, they did this in return for fees and their expenses. The group was set up by magistrate Henry Fielding in 1749 but was eventually disbanded in favour of the Metropolitan Police.

The coming of the new police

When Sir Robert Peel became home secretary in 1822, he was determined to deal with the policing problems London was facing at the time and so set about establishing a police force that would replace the disorganised system of parish constables and the watchman.

The Metropolitan Police Bill was introduced by Sir Robert Peel on 15 April 1829 and passed through all its stages within two months: the first policeman appeared on the streets of London on 29th September 1829.

Because of the publics fear that the ‘new’ style of policing was for spying and would be regarded as a standing army for the government, efforts were made to ensure that the new police did not look like soldiers. To have an air of authority, they were given top hats which were strengthened with an iron ring at the crown, non-military blue uniforms and swallow-tail coats with minimum decoration. Every new constable also had his personal number on his collar and also the letter of his division, these made him identifiable to the public.

The constables tools were limited to a rattle, handcuffs and a wooden truncheon which were carried on a heavy leather belt. Cutlasses were available for patrolling dangerous areas and for emergencies and inspectors were issued with a pocket pistol. (Clive Emsley, 2012:26)

Constables had to walk a regular route at a measured steady pace of approximately 2.5 miles per hour and the areas they patrolled were usually small so in keeping of the Peelian principles, they’d become familiar locally and members of the public wouldn’t have to look far for a police officer. The presence of an officer in one area would also help deter crimes being committed. Unlike the Parish constables and watchmen, Police constables were not allowed to enter pubs whilst on duty, nor were they permitted to congregate in groups and gossip with the public.

Many of the new constables struggled to adjust to the strict discipline nature of the police and many resigned after a few days. Dismissals were often quite high and that of the 2800 constables in May 1830, only 562 remained in service. The new image for the police was one that was to be of an high standard and the Commissioners would crack down on any that would tarnish that image or reputation on the police.

Public perception of the police

Despite the high standards that were expected and strict discipline of the new police force, there were still many critics whom rejected the new organisation for various reasons. Some still thought they resembled too much like a military group and felt threatened by this new uniformed force while others criticised them believing they were the government spies. Many also resented the intervention that the new force represented as shown by the murder of Robert Culley.

It took many years for the new Police force to be accepted by the general public, during these years there were many challenges for the Police such as the protest at Coldbath fields in May 1833, in which the police were criticized for their heavy handed handling of the large crowd which turned to violence and unfortunately Constable Robert Culley was killed by a member of the crowd.

Though it is still unclear if it was the Police or the protest group that instigated the violence, the aftermath largely points the finger of blame to the Police, with a jury returning a Justifiable homicide verdict regarding the murder of Constable Culley, the Jury argued that the Police actions provoked the crowd into violence. The Court of Kings Bench overturned the Jury’s verdict but stopped short of ordering a new inquest. Afterwards the jurors were celebrated by large crowds of the public, with crowds lining the river bank to cheer them as the jurors involved made their way up the river to Twickenham.

While this seems as a very anti police attitude from the public at the time, it is important to show that the public attitude has dramatically changed for the better. Taking into account the tragic death of PC Andrew Harper, who was a Police constable for Thames Valley Police. PC Harper was killed in the line of duty responding to a burglary-in-progress in August 2019.

There was wide condemnation across the whole of the UK of his death and his killers who were found guilty in court by a jury.

Hundreds of people lined the street for PC Harpers funeral procession, and there was numerous tributes left for him by the public. (BBC, 2019)

Both were tragic deaths of Police constables but you can see the two completely different reactions from the public to their deaths, it shows that the public are more accepting of the Police now than when they first started patrolling the streets.

The first women in Uniform

The idea of women Police constables were often outright rejected but with the outbreak of the first world war, the number of male recruits for the police dwindled and as the war dragged on so did the police numbers thin and the workload increase for the remaining officers.

In response to this, Woman filled in the gaps left in many professions and trades. Woman served as police during this time but their duties were largely limited to matters involving woman and children, most of them were never sworn in and thus had no powers of arrest. Before the outbreak of the war, women were generally employed as Police Matrons to supervise and search females that had been arrested.

In 1907 The metropolitan Police commissioner Edward Henry employed a woman to take statements of girls involved in sexual assaults, she was paid money from the Police Fund and various charities. But regardless of the work these women were doing, proposals for Woman Police constables for these roles were regularly rejected.

During this time, a group named the ‘Women’s Police Service (WPS)’ whose aim was to get women on an equal footing with men and get woman involved in regular policing. They helped train over a 1000 woman as volunteer officers between 1914 and 1920 as part of this goal.

Thanks to the continued determination and efforts of the WPS, Edith Smith born 21st November 1876, would go on to became the first appointed woman police constable In England with full powers of arrest in 1915. (Clive Emsley 2009:180)

Smith would go on to be posted to Grantham, where she spent most of her career dealing with prostitution that was on the rise thanks to the nearby army base Belton Camp. One report Smith wrote read: ‘Forty foolish girls warned, 20 prostitutes sent out of Grantham, two fallen girls helped, five bad women cautioned.’ (Edith Smith: Blue plaque for WW1 woman police officer, 2011)

Smith retired from her constable role citing tiredness, and while her policing career only lasted 3 years, thanks to her determination and success in policing the girls in Grantham she proved that women can be just as competent Police constables as men.

First black man in the Met

Another milestone in the history of modern policing was the appointment of Norwell Roberts, who on the 3rd of April 1967 became the Metropolitan Police force’s first black police officer.

Whilst this has been seen as a milestone and as a positive change in modern policing, at the time of his appointment, before and during, he met racial discrimination from nearly every angle including from within the metropolitan Police itself. To help understand how big a turning point this was, we have to briefly look at the racial tensions at the time in the 1960’s to understand the difficulties that a Police applicant from an immigrant background would face.

After world war two, The 1948 British nationality act said that all commonwealth citizens could have British passports and work in the UK. The reasons for people to emigrate to England are but not limited to; a severe labour shortage in the UK after the war, high levels of unemployment in their home countries and the newly created national health service.

Immigrants to the UK were harshly welcomed as some British people believed their jobs and houses were being stolen by the immigrants and it was the norm for them to be treated like second class citizens, being barred from certain businesses or employment. (BBC Revision)

In December 1963, the Met’s stance on recruitment of black members of the public was set out in an internal memo that read in a predominantly white population, black police officers would be at a serious disadvantage and it would be unreasonable to expect them to perform the duties effectively.

They were also of the belief that ethnic groups were well aware that the police did not recruit men from ethnic backgrounds but an occasional one is encouraged to apply as a kind of goodwill gesture. It should be noted that in the same memo states: ‘…the time may not be so distant when we shall be unable to turn down well-qualified men who have been born and educated in this country.’ Which whilst negative did give some hope for positive change. (James Whitefield, 2004:118)

When the president of a police selection board was confronted by a black applicant, he would highlight the drawbacks of being a Police officer rather than the benefits. One of the possibilities was the potential for racial conflict that would stem from an altercation between a black police officer and a white member of the public. In the majority of cases the applicant was deterred from proceeding with his application. As Roberts recalled: ‘I thought they would definitely fail me on the interview board because they asked questions like, “what would you do if a drunken man calls you a black bastard?”’ (James Whitefield, 2004:117)

After his acceptance into the metropolitan police, he faced enormous prejudice from his constable colleagues and his superiors. When he first landed in Bow street Police station, a sergeant using racial abuse promised him that he would not pass his probation period.

Because of his true grit and determination, he stuck at it and eventually transferred over to the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) where while working for the drugs squad, earned several commendations.

After 30 years’ service, he retired as a detective sergeant, the first black officer to be decorated with the Queens Police medal for distinguished service.

The experiences Robert Norwell faced was the same for many who joined from the black communities, many of whom struggled for acceptance and recognition. Sometimes black officers would be seen as joining the ‘other side’ by black communities and they would also like Norwell, face difficulties from their own colleagues.

Evidence of this problem is still seen today in policing but is thankfully no longer seen as the norm and is dealt with appropriately when it arises.


In conclusion, these milestones clearly show that Policing has changed and evolved many times over the years and mostly for the better. There are now many talented woman police constables employed throughout the UK and while racial prejudice is still a problem there are many more officers from Black and ethnic backgrounds patrolling the streets and working within specialised roles within the police. And while new equipment is created or existing police kit and equipment is being improved, the simple wooden truncheon officers started with has now evolved into an extendable baton, like the Police its purpose remains the same.

We can still see the principles and standards Sir Robert Peel and his Commissioners created present in today’s modern police forces. And ‘policing by the public consent’ remains at the heart of police forces to this day.


  • BBC (2011) Blue Plaque for Edith Smith [Online] Available at: [Accessed 27012021]
  • BBC (2019) PC Andrew Harper: Hundreds of mourners attend funeral [Online] Available at:[Accessed 27012021]
  • BBC Revision, Commonwealth immigrants in the modern era [Online] Available at: [Accessed 29012021]
  • Emsley, Clive, (2009) The Great British Bobby, London: Quercus
  • Emsley, Clive, (2014) The English Police: A Political and Social History Second Edition, New York: Routledge
  • Grant, Richard A. (2010) Sir Robert peel – The life and legacy, London: I.B.Tauris

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Watchman, Legalistic and Service Styles of Policing. (2022, December 27). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 24, 2023, from
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Watchman, Legalistic and Service Styles of Policing. [online]. Available at: <> [Accessed 24 Mar. 2023].
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