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Sir Robert Peel and Police Reform in Victorian England

Jacqueline researches the literature and social history of the Victorian era with particular interest in the 1840s-50s.

Sir Robert Peel

Sir Robert Peel

The early years of the nineteenth century were years of great social and political upheaval in England. A growing population was confronted with rapid industrialisation and urbanisation, and a protracted period of agricultural depression which caused high prices and food shortages. Poverty, accentuated by increasing social polarisation, was rife and the situation was exacerbated in 1815 as the end of the Napoleonic wars saw thousands of ex-servicemen, many them severely disabled by war, swell the ranks of vagrants and beggars on the streets. In addition, ‘The Gordon Riots of 1780 … and the lurid tales reported in the English press of the crowd violence during the French Revolution[1]’ had increased upper class fears of insurrection and added to a general perception that crime levels were rising uncontrollably. The compilation and publication of annual crime figures from 1810 onwards appeared to contemporaries to support this perception, but could equally well have been interpreted as evidence of increasing efficiency among the existing parish constables, many of whom, although unpaid, performed their tasks diligently and effectively[2]. Whatever the reality, the fear of crime and a belief that serious crime particularly was on the increase characterized the period from the late eighteenth to the mid-nineteenth century[3]

Since the creation, by Henry and Sir John Fielding, of the first ‘group of professional thief-takers, the Bow Street Runners … in the 1750s[4]’, there had been regular debates among the ruling classes about the need for professional policing in England, especially in the burgeoning industrial towns and cities. London, as the centre of political and commercial life, was of particular concern to Parliament, and consequently no fewer than ‘four parliamentary select committees were appointed to investigate “the police of the metropolis” between 1812 and 1828’[5]. The 1818 Select Committee concluded, in somewhat delusory fashion, that

the institutions of the country being sound, its laws well administered, and justice executed against offenders, no greater safeguard can be obtained, without sacrificing all those rights which society was instituted to preserve[6]

Likewise the Select Committee reporting in 1822 ‘concluded that a large, centralised police force would be inconsistent with the traditions of English liberty’[7]. Despite intermittent atrocities, such as the Peterloo Massacre of 1819[8], in the intervening years, the consensus in parliament continued to uphold a traditional English ‘apprehension of a standing army … fear of administrative centralization, fear of the political uses to which [police] might be put, [and] objections to their cost’[9]. Thus, it was left to ‘the determination and astute political management of Sir Robert as Home Secretary’[10] to inaugurate police reforms in London which would create a model for police reform in the rest of England.

Peel’s interest in police reform went back to the period 1812 to 1818 when, as Chief Secretary for Ireland, he was heavily involved in creating and developing the Irish Constabulary[11]. The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act passed through parliament with the aid of evidence which Peel claimed ‘show[ed] a population increase of 19 per cent in London and Middlesex, but an increase in crime of 55 per cent’[12]. His statistics were supplemented by the Duke of Wellington who claimed that in the last six years the total number of criminals committed … had increased in the ratio of two-fifths … [and] this rapid increase in crime arose solely from the deficiency of the police[13].

Such confirmation of widely-held perceptions of rising crime and police incompetence served to facilitate the creation of the Metropolitan Police in London and to smooth the path of similar legislation in the provinces. Cheshire had also established a professional police force in 1829, based on the proposals of Bedfordshire auctioneer John Hopkins Warden[14], as a response to public concern about what the Chester Chronicle termed ‘“the wide spreading and awfully increasing dissemination of crime”’[15]. Ten years later it was ‘fear of disorder’[16] which drove Birmingham to establish their first professional police force.

The intervening years had seen an increase in incidents of public disorder throughout England. In Kent a sudden fall in already low agricultural wages in 1830 precipitated a series of violent protests which, under the banner of ‘Captain Swing’,[17] swept into Sussex and across the South of the country during 1830 and 1831. Threshing machines were smashed and barns set alight as farm labourers, often supported by their employers, attempted to increase their wages and protect their customary way of life. In Midland towns and cities[18] rioters protested against the new Whig government’s Reform Bill, which generated the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 and exacerbated the problems of the poor. Outdoor relief was withdrawn for anything other than medical reasons and claimants were condemned to the workhouse where the principle of ‘less eligibility’ subjected them to punitive conditions. Poverty thus became tantamount to criminality and, faced with a choice between the two, ‘many men - notably the married - would do virtually anything to avoid the workhouse, with its separation of husbands from their wives, and both from their children’[19]. Amid the unrest Chartism found a ready following and was, from 1838 to 1842, a significant influence on government policy. The failure of their two petitions for political reforms, concentrating chiefly on universal male suffrage, resulted in riots and aborted but well publicised plans for a Bank run and a general strike in August 1842[20]. The northern Plug Riots[21] ensued and middle and upper class fear of insurrection reached its zenith. As the Metropolitan Police were drafted into Sussex to ‘infiltrate plebian organisations thought to be behind … risings’[22] which had been put down with the aid of the army, ratepayers there, as elsewhere, began to concede a need to finance their own professional police force.

Calls for police reform were not, therefore, driven by social or ideological concerns for justice, or inspired by the struggles of the poor to support themselves in a hostile social and political climate, but derived from the concerns and ideas of political figures drawn from the ranks of the landed magnates … [for] the maintenance of order in the countryside under the leadership of England’s traditional ruling élite[23]

Peel’s successor as Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, had formulated plans for a nation-wide police force in 1832, in the wake of the Swing protests and Reform Bill riots[24]. This particular legislation had to be abandoned as a result of parliamentary opposition and led only to the Watching and Lighting Act of 1833. This legalised local policing initiatives[25] and allowed parishes to employ Watchmen, as many already did, without compelling them to do so and without imposing the central control so feared by many in the English establishment prior to the radical centralisation inherent in the implementation of the New Poor Law from 1834 onwards.

The Whig government, under Lord Melbourne’s premiership following Grey’s retirement, was not discouraged and their Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 made the creation of a professional police force a condition of incorporation for towns and cities. The Royal Commission set up the following year to investigate rural policing comprised leading Benthamite reformer Edwin Chadwick, Colonel Charles Rowan of the Metropolitan Police, and Charles Shaw LeFevre M.P. The latter two represented the county interest and were opposed to Chadwick’s centralising ideas[26]. The Commission also called in the Tory Duke of Richmond who Brundage suggests ‘functioned as a virtual fourth commissioner’[27]. His vehement opposition to police reform in his home county of West Sussex[28], however, suggests his involvement was designed by the government to minimise opposition from an influential member of the House of Lords to reform they were determined to pursue.

The Commission’s report of 1839 generated the 1839/40 Rural Constabulary Acts. Chadwick’s customary zeal for utilitarian centralisation was evident in its biased condemnation of traditional policing methods despite the ameliorating influence of LeFevre and Rowan. Like the report Chadwick had previously compiled as secretary of the Poor Law Commission, the report on rural policing showed little sympathy for, or empathy with, the poor. It ignored the seasonal nature of rural occupations and the endemic under- and un-employment which was its corollary. It insisted that ‘poverty and indigence … did not lead to crime; criminals suffered from two principle vices - “indolence and the pursuit of easy excitement”’[29] and concluded that inefficient, uncoordinated, policing was encouraging the poor to engage in crime as an easy alternative to labour. Such misrepresentation of their gruelling everyday experience disenfranchised the poor more effectively than parliament’s rejection of the Chartist agenda. Late eighteenth-century enclosure of common land had robbed them of their Common Rights, the New Poor Law had robbed them of allowances and outdoor relief, and now the Royal Commission on Rural Policing was robbing them of dignity, for the report insinuated that to be poor was to be dishonest and lazy.

As professional policing spread gradually throughout the country, and difficulties of amalgamating new forces with existing watch committees were overcome by interim legislation and local agreements,[30] its compulsion under the 1856 County and Borough Police Act became increasingly inevitable. Hence, Police Reform occurred between 1820 and the mid-1850s because enhanced public awareness of poverty and crime conflated with paternalistic, interventionist, Whig government policies. The New Poor Law not only substantially inflated the number of poor and drove many of them to petty crime, it also broke the mould of localised government and set a precedent for centralisation which police reformers were eager to follow. Reformers and politicians alike capitalised on poverty-driven crime, whilst simultaneously denying its existence, in order to persuade ‘a largely inert and deeply suspicious broader society’[31] that police reform was an essential component of both rural and urban development in the industrial age.



Clive Emsley 1, The English Police: A Political and Social History, second edition, (Harlow and New York, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd, 1996)

Clive Emsley 2, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, second edition, (Harlow and New York, Longman Group Limited, 1997)

Juliet Gardiner and Neil Wenborn (eds), The History Today Companion to British History, (London. Collins and Brown Limited. 1995)

Mark Overton, Agricultural Revolution in England: The transformation of the agrarian economy 1500-1850. (Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid, Cape Town, Cambridge U.P., 2001)

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David Taylor, Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1750-1914. (London, Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998)

Journal Articles

Anthony Brundage, ‘Ministers, magistrates and reformers: the genesis of the Rural Constabulary Act of 1839’, Parliamentary History, 5 (1986)

R. D. Storch, ‘The policeman as domestic missionary; urban discipline and popular culture in northern England, 1850-80’, Journal of Social History, IX (1976)

Roger Wells, ‘Implementation and non-implementation of the 1839-40 policing acts in east and west Sussex’, Policing and Society, (1991).

Lecture Handouts (Canterbury Christ Church University 2003)

Kentish Sources - Crime and Punishment (Lecture 17)

The new police in nineteenth-century England - Selected Documents (Lecture 18)

[1] Emsley 1 16

[2] The Kentish Sources: Crime and Punishment handout from Lecture 17 of the course offers three examples of the lengths parish constables went to in 1828 to investigate crime and prosecute its perpetrators.

[3] Taylor 25

[4] Emsley 1 19 and 2 220

[5] Emsley 1 22

[6] ‘Third report of the Select Committee on the Police of the Metropolis, Parliamentary papers, 1818 (423), viii, pp.32-3’ - as reproduced on lecture 18 handout The new police in nineteenth-century England: Selected Documents. Document 7.

[7] Emsley 1 23

[8] Gardiner 595

[9] Storch 481

[10] Emsley 1 42

[11] Emsley 1 25-26

[12] Emsley 1 25

[13] ‘Speeches on the Metropolis Police Bill, House of Commons, 15 April 1829, and House of Lords, 5 June 1829. Parliamentary Debates, 2nd Series, 1829, cols 868, 880-1, 1750-1’ - as reproduced on lecture 18 handout The new police in nineteenth-century England: Selected Documents. Document 13

[14] Emsley 1 34-36

[15] Emsley 1 35

[16] Emsley 1 42

[17] Overton 190 and Wells 300

[18] Emsley 1 38 cites Bristol, Derby and Nottingham.

[19] Wells 301-302

[20] Emsley 2 36 and Wells 302

[21] Gardiner 604

[22] Wells 301

[23] Brundage 62

[24] Emsley 1 38

[25] Wells 301

[26] Emsley 2 227 and Taylor 77

[27] Brundage 57

[28] Wells 301 and 310-311.

[29] Emsley 2 65

[30] Second Report of the Select Committee on Police, Parliamentary Papers, 1853 (715), xxxvi,pp. iii-iv. Resolved, 3 and 6. - as reproduced on lecture 18 handout The new police in nineteenth-century England: Selected Documents. Document 16.

[31] Wells 311

© 2016 Jacqueline Stamp


CJ Kelly from the PNW on March 29, 2016:

Great hub. Very informative. Shared.

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