The introduction of a professional and uniformed ‘new’ police force in London in 1829 (and across the country thereafter) was not without controversy. Historians have debated the reasons behind police reform and consensus has been hard to find. One of the worries of contemporaries was that the police would become an arm of an autocratic state, as they were in some European countries. Even Sir Robert Peel – the Met’s founding father – was at pains to say that he had no desire to instigate a ‘system of espionage’ in the capital.
As a result of this the police were careful to look distinctive from the military (hence the blue swallow tailed coast and tall hats) and always to be easily identifiable as police officers. At times, of course, this ran counter to what we would now accept as good intelligence gathering operations. Put bluntly, the police were not supposed to go about their inquiries dressed in plain clothes.
With that in mind let us consider this case from May 1857. Mrs Patteson was summoned to court in her husband’s absence (as he was in gaol for debt). The charge was selling alcohol in there beer shop on a Sunday (and so outside the legal trading hours). There was no doubt that this was an offence and that the couple were liable for a hefty fine, but the circumstances gave the court reason to be alarmed.
The police had been told that the Patteson’s were breaking the law but needed proof. In order to get this two officers donned plain clothes and went into the beer house at 11 on a Sunday morning and ordered a couple of pints. They were served and drank their beer and noticed four other men at the bar.
However, despite an offence having taken place the Patteson’s attorney suggested that on this occasion they were the victims of police entrapment. He told the court that, if he had read the commissioner of police’s guidance correctly, ‘under no circumstances, were the police to entrap persons into an offence by means of a disguise’.
The magistrate agreed and merely charged the couple costs, but warned Mrs Patteson that there should be no repeat of the offence or ‘the highest penalty should be imposed the next time’.
[From Reynolds’s Newspaper , Sunday, May 17, 1857]