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The question of whether policing represented the minority or elites and not the majority or masses in the 19th century assumes importance when it is considered how historically the police (as the military) has been used by the elites to reinforce their power (Mann, 2006). It has also been noted that in the 19th century, organised labour was thought to be as much a group that needed to be controlled as it comprised of ‘rough’ societies, as was organised crime (Taylor, 1997, p. 8). It is in this context that Storch (1976) has called policemen as ‘domestic missionaries’ who were sent to the ‘dark’ corners of England to made its rough communities more civilised and respectable. This essay critically evaluates whether it is accurate to say that in the 19th century, the police represented the minorities more than the majorities. This essay argues that the police did largely represent the interests of the minority elite.
There are two conflicting views of the policeman in the 19th century; one is that of the fighter of crime and the protector of the public order and the repressor of the public political movements, and the other is that of the agent of the minority elites in the surveillance and control of the majority (Storch, 1976; Taylor, 1997). It has also been said that the police also played a role as the “all purpose lever of urban discipline” in the 19th century (Storch, 1976, p. 481). In this role, the police had the daily task of monitoring and controlling streets, pubs, and other spaces of public life mostly dominated by the working classes (Storch, 1976). In the Northern industrial towns with large working class populations, the police became also the supplement to the urban elites in trying to civilise the ‘rough’ working classes so that they became more temperate and amenable to workplace discipline and it is in this sense that the police can be seen more as agents of the urban elites (Storch, 1976). Another aspect to this control over the morals of the general public can be related to the laws that gave the powers to the police in this regard; for example, the Vagrancy Act 1824 could be used against beggars and homeless people and gave powers to the police to deal with them (Inwood, 1990). This suggests that powers were given to the police that could be seen as extension of moral policing.
Elitism not only reflected in the policing but also in the criminal justice system where the use of royal pardons, jury verdicts, and prosecution discretion all were used to shield elites from prosecution or punishment and it has also been said that social elites used the criminal law to reinforce their own social status (Hay & Snyder, 1989). However, it is not completely appropriate to see policing only from the perspective of the economic relations as pointed Ogborn (1993) because policing also became more surveillance oriented and this could be linked to the growing power of the state rather than the elite minorities. On the other hand, it can be argued as surveillance oriented police reforms were more focussed on subjecting public spaces to more scrutiny and surveillance, this affected the non-elites more. This argument is supplemented by the evidence provided by Taylor (1997) that suggests that the police forces were not just the agents of the state for the purpose of combating of crime, but were also involved in the task of managing the ‘rough’ communities that were comprised of the working poor in the 19th century. Therefore, it has been argued that the police were also agents of the elite minorities at this time and they were tasked with the job of keeping these rough communities under control and surveillance and not just with fighting crime (Taylor, 1997).
The argument that the police was more representative of the minority elite and not the majority masses is also justified in the light of the processes that were undertaken to reform the police in the 19th century as being driven mostly by the rural and urban elites (Taylor, 1997). The fact that reforms were not carried out as long as they were opposed by the elites and when adopted in 1829, this was due to the acceptance by the elites. The shift towards reform reflected the change in the position of the elites as they were more concerned about increase in rioting and crime by the lower classes (Taylor, 1997). This suggests that the reforms were also controlled by the elites and were representative of the interests and concerns of the elites.
Another important to be noted is that the police forces, especially in the rural areas, was structured in a way that suggests dominance by the elite in appointing of the members of the police forces; for example, county magistrates were allowed to appoint rural police forces and the terms of conditions for their services as well as the rules and regulations were determined by the county magistrates (Taylor, 1997, p. 28). Even the chief constable was appointed by the county magistrates (Taylor, 1997).
To conclude, the police forces represented the minority and acted as their agents. This was seen in the way the police was allowed more surveillance over public spaces and powers that were akin to the moral policing of the masses or urban and rural poor classes who were seen as people who needed monitoring or civilising. Two facts support this as discussed in this essay. First, the police were appointed by the rural elite county magistrates, and second the reform of the police depended largely on its acceptance by the rural and urban elites. This suggests that the argument that the police forces in the 19th century was more represented of the minority elite and not the majority of the masses. This is most reflected in the way police forces were used to monitor and control public spaces most frequented by the masses, like pubs, and racecourses.
The rapid introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 can be related to two important conditions prevailing in London prior to the reforms by Sir Robert Peel: the first is that London had witnessed regular bursts of rioting since 1815 and the police had proved to be ineffective; second, the poor economic conditions, unemployment and striking created a precarious economic environment that led to increase in crime and demanded more efficient action in terms of policing. This essay reflects on the reasons why the reform in the police system became so necessary and the demand for such reform led to the rapid introduction and passage of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829.
In an analysis on the factors that led to the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, Lyman (1964) writes about the conditions existing in London in the period immediately preceding the 1829 Act. Predominant amongst these factors are social and economic conditions like increase in population and urbanisation of London in the 18th century, increasing unemployment, crime; and factors related specific to policing, especially the lack of serious attention to law-enforcement in London and the lack of cohesive and uniform policing practice across the city. The resultant condition was as Lyman (1964) writes about, the insufficiency and inefficiency of the constables and night watchmen in London at a time, when despite the growing concerns about improvement in means for public safety and the security of property, there was a lack of uniformity and consistency in how policing and security issues were dealt within the London city itself with different methods adopted across parishes and boroughs. What can be surmised from here is that the existing condition was that there was growth in population in the London city as well as other cities across England, and also increase in crime, but the police were unable to deal with the growing crime and lawlessness due to inherent weaknesses that demanded reform.
In the absence of definite policy and law related to policing, there were also instances of police misbehaviour and indiscipline with harsh and bullying conduct. The events leading up to the Peterloo Massacre of 1819 and the public outcry after this are also relevant to highlight the reasons for the rapid introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829. The Peterloo Massacre was the cavalry charge into a crowd of thousands of people gathered to demand the reform of parliamentary representation (Prenzler, 2009). In a way, the changes in the police system were precipitated by the Peterloo Massacre, which was seen as an event that demonstrated the increasing police brutality (Prenzler, 2009). The Peterloo Massacre led to widespread protests against militarised police forces and there were demands for modernisation of the British police forces with a view to imbibing discipline in the police forces (Prenzler, 2009). Added to this was the demonstration of the helplessness and ineffectiveness of the police to prevent growing demonstrations and appearance of threatening placards in 1820 during the trial of Queen Caroline and the rioting incidents after her acquittal (Lyman, 1964). The lack of effectiveness of police forces was also reflected in the rising crime and the resultant harsher penal code with more than two hundred offenses punishable by death (Lyman, 1964). What can be concluded from this is that there was growing discontent about how police forces conducted themselves, which led to the need for reform of the police forces. Reform had been stifled for long despite the protestations of influential thinkers like Jeremy Bentham (Reynolds, 1992).
Corruption in the police forces is also one of the reasons for the swift adoption of the Metropolitan Act 1829. Indeed, Prenzler (2009) writes about the corruption in the police force of England as an historical fact which also led to the calls for the modernisation of police and the formation of the London Metropolitan Police in 1829. Prior to the reforms in 1829, there were instances of police corruption with there being endemic bribetaking by the police and collaboration with known criminals (Lyman, 1964).
Despite these factors discussed above, there was a more immediate cause for the rapid acceptance of the Metropolitan Act 1929, which is the situation related to the 1825 financial panic caused by the period of prosperity of 1823-1825 and its financial speculation; the 1825 financial situation was precarious because several banks failed at this time, and there was a drop in wages, as well rising unemployment due to the closure of factories and mills. This precarious situation led to riots in London as well as lawlessness with increase in robberies by unemployed people (Lyman, 1964). It is stated that the crisis in London was so severe that when the Metropolitan Police Act was tabled in 1829, there was such a widespread demand for protection of business and industrial interests, that the pressure which transcended party lines, a pressure could not be ignored by the Parliament anymore and the Act was rapidly enacted (Lyman, 1964). Indeed, the hearings before the Select Committee before the passage of the Bill show evidence by individuals who testified that there was increase in crime, especially by the unemployed and the poor which necessitated a need for effective policing (Emsley, 2018). This suggests that by the time the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 came to be tabled and passed in the Parliament, the social and economic conditions were already such that instead of there being opposition to the law, there was rapid introduction and adoption of the same.
To conclude, the rapid introduction of the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 can be linked to the social and economic problems in the London city prior to the passage of the law coupled with the increasing dissatisfaction with the existing system of policing which had proved to be ineffective in controlling crime as well as rioting and other such civil disturbances. Instead of opposition to reform like before, now it became a necessity.
Emsley, C. (2018). Crime and Society in England, 1750–1900. Taylor & Francis.
Hay, D., & Snyder, F. G. (1989). Policing and prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850. Clarendon Press.
Inwood, S. (1990). Policing London's Morals: The Metropolitan Police and Popular Culture, 1829–1850. The London Journal, 15(2), 129-146.
Lyman, J. L. (1964). The metropolitan police act of 1829: An analysis of certain events influencing the passage and character of the metropolitan police act in England.". The journal of criminal law, criminology, and police science, 55(1), 141-154.
Mann, M. (2006). The sources of social power revisited: a response to criticism. An Anatomy of Power , 343.
Ogborn, M. (1993). Ordering the city: surveillance, public space and the reform of urban policing in England 1835–56. Political Geography, 12(6), 505-521.
Prenzler, T. (2009). Police corruption: Preventing misconduct and maintaining integrity. Boca Raton : CRC Press.
Reynolds, E. A. (1992). The night watch and police reform in metropolitan London, 1720-1830. Cornell University.
Storch, R. D. (1976). The policeman as domestic missionary: Urban discipline and popular culture in Northern England, 1850-1880. Journal of social history , 481-509.
Taylor, D. (1997). The new police in nineteenth-century England: Crime, conflict and control. Manchester University Press.
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