The history of the Metropolitan Police is central to our understanding of London and British history. For much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries London was not just the capital city of the United Kingdom, it was the symbolic heart of the British Empire. Officers in the Metropolitan Police force were not just deputed to police the streets of London, they also played an imperial role, such as guarding the royal family, the houses of parliament and major government buildings. The fact that morning newspapers published in London, such as The Times, began to reach a wider audience across the UK during the nineteenth century meant that activities in London assumed a national significance.
Examining the interaction between the police and public is important for two reasons. First, the presence of police officers on the streets of London was symbolic of the power of the State. Remember, when the Metropolitan Police was established in 1829 the central State played a much smaller role in society. Local government was far more important in the day-to-day affairs of the average citizen, hence initial opposition to the notion of centralized police control in 1829. With the exception of defence and taxation, central government had little say especially in social matters. Schooling was not compulsory until 1880, old people did not receive pensions until 1909, and the National Health Service was not established until 1948. Second, public opinion about the police was indicative of the legitimacy of increased state power, with officers acting as a unique point of contact between political elites and the wider public.
We need to ask whom do we mean by the 'public'? Different sections of the community were united in their initial opposition to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police. Whigs (a political grouping that might be described as upper-class liberals) saw the centralized police as an attack on the liberties of Englishmen. Some aristocratic Tories held similar views; Radicals commonly saw the police as a ruling-class instrument which might be used to combat calls by disenfranchised middle- and working-class groups for wider participation in the political system; parish vestries and magistrates lamented the reduction of their power and influence; while some ratepayers opposed the cost of the new force. Yet as the nineteenth century progressed, the work of the police was viewed in a more favourable light by many sections of society. Still, even in the twentieth century, tensions remained.
This study module will help you to:
- Understand why a broad section of society was initially opposed to the creation of the police.
- Explore some of the discretionary aspects of policing.
- Examine some of the ways that the police and public interacted.