Wider Social Role of the Police

This module has challenged the traditional view that very quickly the Metropolitan Police was functioning with the overwhelming consent of all Londoners. Yet this is not to dispute the fact that many, perhaps most, people did accept them as a force to which they could turn when in trouble. As members of the working class acquired more and more property from the Victorian period onwards, so they became more and more vulnerable to being victims of theft or criminal damage. And when they became victims, the logical body to turn to was the police. Police assistance in such instances improved relations and increased police acceptance.

police notice on juvenile smoking

As the government took an increasing role in regulating more and more aspects of social affairs, so the remit of the police expanded. Children were increasingly protected. For example, in 1885 the age of consent was raised from 13 to 16 years. Yet a loophole remained in the law whereby people could argue 'reasonable cause' that the person with whom they had sex was indeed sixteen. In practice it was often difficult to tell if someone was 14 or 16 years of age. Senior officers at Scotland Yard sought to establish how, in the opinion of their superintendents, the law worked in practice.

In 1908 the role of the police was extended with the passing of the Children Bill which criminalized the selling and consumption of tobacco by those under the age of 16 years. These regulations were added to concerns previously brought to the attention of the police such as alcohol consumption. A number of memoranda illustrate the increasing duties imposed on the police regarding alcohol and licenced premises. During the war years the police were required to observe activities associated with public houses and in particular to ensure that soldiers were not being molested by women.

Bischoffsheim hand ambulance, withdrawn from use in 1938

Bischoffsheim hand ambulance

Limiting drunkenness and rowdy behaviour may be a social benefit, though it can lose friends as well as make them. So too with the police role in negotiating domestic disputes. They tracked down husbands who had deserted their families. And on a more mundane level they took care of lost property. They gave directions to passers-by. They attended fires and, before the advent of an ambulance service, they would administer first aid and convey people to hospital. In summary police officers contributed to the well-being of society and this, outside the traditional role of crime fighting, led to more harmonious relations between police and public. Yet marginalized social groups continued to feel the more oppressive arm of the law throughout the twentieth century. Thus if we can speak of a growing consensus between police and public, it was often a fragile one, and events transpired to upset that consensus every few years.


PC giving directions to a mono-cyclist, Hammersmith, c.1935 PC giving directions to a mono-cyclist, Hammersmith, c.1935.