In the first year or so from their creation in 1829 the ‘New Police’ experienced a somewhat troubling baptism of fire. Resented by the working class for interfering in their day-to-day lives, and looked down upon and resented by the middle class for being another expensive charge on the rates, the new ‘Peelers’ were attacked from all sides. Added to this was the reality that in the first 18 months of their existence a large number of new officers were disciplined and discharged for drunkenness, corruption, or for fraternizing with local prostitutes.
It was, then, an inauspicious beginning for Sir Robert Peel’s new force of law and order.
The reports of the Metropolitan Police Courts in the early years (when ‘Police Office’ is a more accurate term) are not as regular, or often as fulsome as they were after mid century, but this one from 1830 gives us a sense of the difficulties the police had in establishing themselves as protectors of the public and the state in the 1800s.
In early May 1830 PC John Harding (99 E) was placed in the dock at Bow Street accused of assaulting a member of the public. The charge was brought by a respectable member of society, a Middlesex magistrate no less, named Mr Mallard.
Mr Mallard claimed that he had seen PC Harding maltreating a woman in Russell Street, near the British Museum. It had been around 6 o’clock in the afternoon when he saw the policeman dragging a woman (later identified as Sarah Scott) up and down the street, while she protested.
Harding was not apparently on duty as he wasn’t wearing his badge, as the Middlesex justice told his colleague at Bow Street. When Mr Mallard attempted to stop the PC from continuing with his abuse of Sarah he received short shrift and a mouthful of invective. Crossing the road Mallard took out his pocket book and started to write down the copper’s details so he could report him.
At this PC Harding strode across towards him, ‘seized him by the collar’ and said: ‘I’ll teach a fellow like you to take a Policeman’s number!’ Mallard explained that he was a magistrate but Harding was undeterred; instead he grabbed him by the arm and ‘dragged him through St Giles into the High-street’, while a crowd of baying onlookers hooted at him.
Finally, Mallard was able to present PC Harding with his calling card and was released. He went and complained to the commissioners but was informed that the policeman was only doing his duty (as regards arresting the woman) and so would keep his job. Sarah Scott appeared and gave evidence that supported the magistrate’s version of events, while PC Harding argued that he had arrested the woman as she was interfering with his attempts to chastise a young street tearaway.
Mr Halls, the Bow Street justice on duty, was clearly conflicted. When presented with the word of a magistrate versus that of a policeman he felt unable to decide what the merits of the case were. Instead he chose to pass it up through the system, to the Sessions of the Peace, where a jury could decide whom to believe.
[from The Morning Post, Monday, May 03, 1830]