A ‘common evil’? London’s police in their early years

peeler

 

I have referred previously to criticism of the police in the decades after their creation in June 1829. Historians such as Robert Storch have pointe out that far from the smooth transition described by early historians of the force, the ‘New Police’ were openly abused, distrusted and despised by ‘ordinary’ working-class men and women.

It wasn’t just the lower order that disliked the ‘boys in blue’. The upper and middle classes resented them as burdens on the rates and for overstepping their class position. In short the wealthy were not at all keen on being told what to do by their social inferiors.

The working classes were equally disgruntled about being told off or told to to ‘go home’ by someone of their own class who seemingly lauded it over them. The p’liceman who earned a steady wage where others of his class struggled, was bound to attract some unfriendly comments at the very least. Policeman were also recruited from outside the capital, often former agricultural labourers (who could be relied upon to be strong, dependable, and not ask too many questions).

This case illustrates some of the underlying tensions that existed in the first 20 or so years of the Met and reflects the awkward position of both the police officer on the beat and the ‘Police’ Magistrate (who was not a part of the same organisation). It also gives the paper an opportunity to aim some fairly typical racist barbs at the Irish.

One of Mr Greenwood’s cases at Clerkenwell Police Court on the weekend of the 18th-19th June 1842 concerned a man (unnamed) of ‘decent-looking’ appearance. He appeared with the policeman (also anonymous here) who had arrested him and accompanied him to court. The PC was Irish and possibly a new recruit. This, it was explained, might have accounted for his behaviour.

There was no obvious charge levelled against the man and it soon became apparent that there was little reason for him to be in court at all. He had been arrested, effectively, for loitering on Grove Lane, Holloway.

The policeman testified that he had seen him standing in Grove Lane two days in succession, presumably passing him on his beat. On the second occasion he asked hi what he was doing there but the man refused to answer.

He then asked him where he lived, and was told ‘Islington’.

‘”Where” ses I’ continued the policeman.

‘What’s that to you?’ replied the man.

“Be the powers, are yer respectable?” I thin [sic] remarked’, the officer told the court, ‘and he still refusing to give any satisfactory explanation, I marched him off to the station-house’.

The magistrate now examined the policeman directly:

‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Nothing at all’ responded the bobby, to peels of laughter from the courtroom.

‘And that was why he was locked up?’ enquired a clearly puzzled Mr Greenwood.

Yes, yer Worship. He wouldn’t say anything about himself but told me to mind my own business’.

Well, that was as it should be the magistrate chided him. He told the policeman that he had no more right locking up this person than would have in arresting him or anyone ales for that matter. The man had done nothing wrong; had broken no law and was simply being locked up for being slightly impertinent to a copper.

He said that this should not have resulted in a charge and for that the policeman was less to blame than the desk sergeant. However, he added, ‘I have frequently of late had to complain of the conduct of the police, and if there is not an alteration, they will be become a common evil’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 20, 1842]

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