During the fifteenth and much of the sixteenth centuries the Parish Constable was still pre-eminent amongst the four principal annually elected officers of the parish, others being, Churchwarden, Surveyor of the Highways, and Overseer of the Poor. He held this position in some small towns until the eighteenth and early parts of the nineteenth centuries, but in the rural areas of the country the position of Parish Constable lasted well into Victoria’s reign, right up to the 1850s.

Many men bought their way out of serving as parish constable, an honorary office, as there were significant commitments associated with the role taking up much of the time that he could have spent making a living from his regular employment. A constable’s duties were based upon common law but were extended by Parliament. The oath taken by the Parish Constable read:

"You shall swear that you shall keep the peace of our Lord the King well and lawfully according to your powers, and shall arrest all those who shall make any contest, riot, debate or affray, in breaking of the said peace, and shall bring them into the house or Compter of one of the Sheriffs. And if you shall be withstood by strength of such misdoers you shall raise upon them hue and cry, and shall follow them from street to street and from ward to ward until they are arrested. And you shall search at all times when you shall be required by scavenger or bedel, for the common nuisances of the ward, until they are arrested, and the faults you shall find, you shall present them unto the Mayor and to the offices of the said town ... so God help you and the Saints".

In practice this meant that the constable had to set the nightly watch in the town. He would take over prisoners from the watchmen and place them in the stocks or lock-up. In many instances he would keep them in his own cottage until he was able to deliver them to a Justice of the Peace. With his staff of office in his hand, the constable was to initiate the 'hue and cry'.

This 'hue and cry' demanded that every citizen should assist the constable in the pursuit of an offender; to fail to assist the constable was, and still is, an offence. This 'hue and cry' later became a document which, since the eighteenth century, has become known as a warrant. His staff or baton was his symbol of authority (also available as a weapon of defence) might have hung outside the cottage door, often ornately decorated. He wore no distinctive uniform of any kind.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 was passed and this meant that boroughs and cities outside of London had to form their own police forces. Once Victoria had come to the throne in 1837 this instruction was extended to counties. However, many counties did not adopt the new instructions very quickly and it took some years before the last of the old '‘parish constable' systems died out.2 Reform of the police in the counties was driven by the need to maintain order which for many of the landowners equated with poaching. Take up was initially voluntary or "permissive"3 and by 1856 only twenty five out of fifty five counties had police forces.

In 1840 a committee was established in Surrey to consider the implications of the Act but nothing happened until 1850, and one can only imagine that the threat felt was not high, that the current system was reasonably effective and the costs of an established police force were seen as unnecessary. Once it was decided to form a force the Quarter Sessions (until 1888) and Standing Joint Committee (from 1889) were charged with appointing a chief constable.

On appointment the chief constable had great powers over the Force and the Standing Joint Committee's powers were minimal unless the chief constable was incompetent. Quite understandably, the Standing Joint Committee would appoint people of a similar world outlook to manage their force and many favoured ex-military officers as was the case in Surrey.

Peel always intended that the Police would be a working class organisation up to the rank of Superintendent. In Surrey there was an organisation known as the Rural Police Committee and it was this group that initiated the formation of the Surrey Constabulary.

In the mid-to-late 19th century there were three main types of police force following the County and Borough Police Act, 1856: Borough, County and Metropolitan forces. (There also existed the small City of London Police). Each was subjected to similar oversight:

Police Authorities: In the boroughs Watch Committee were responsible for all aspects of policing (including operational policy). In the counties Standing Joint Committees (Quarter Sessions composed of magistrates before 1889) were responsible for the administration but not operational policy of policing in the counties. The latter function rested with the chief constable.

The Home Secretary was the police authority for the Metropolitan Police District. The Watch Committees delegated powers to a trusted head constable in the boroughs but retained overall control. Watch Committees were composed of elected councillors. Standing Joint Committees in the counties appointed a chief constable to manage county police. Standing Joint Committees were composed equally of elected county councillors and magistrates. The Home Secretary had overall responsibility for general policing matters.

Legislative changes 1856–1918: During this period there took place a number of minor but important legislative changes which worked towards standardising police work.

Police Expenses Act, 1874: Increased the treasury grant from a quarter (as of 1856 County and Borough Police Act) to a half. Problem of small borough forces arose again.

Municipal Corporations Act 1877: Prohibited new small boroughs (with less than twenty thousand population) from forming police forces.

Local Government Act 1888: Reduced number of the smallest borough forces by forcing them to amalgamate with larger forces (usually county).

Police Pensions 1890: The police were given a legal right to a pension after twenty five years service whereas before it was discretionary. The problem was that pension funds were discrete to each force and problems arose where a person moved from one force to another.

Police Weekly Rest Day Act 1910: Gave police officers a day off each week.

First World War: The police at the time of the First World War was described by Critchley in his history of the police as a collection of Victorian "Bric 'a Brac." Its structure did not fit with the demands made of them at that time.4 The First World War placed many new demands and responsibilities upon the police which they were hard pressed to fulfil.

The fact that many officers left to go to war didn't help the situation though to some degree replaced by retired and former constables. Some officers were prevented from retiring and greater use was made of the Special Constabulary a number being employed temporarily on a full-time basis.

In 1916 the Police Union was formed, although it was opposed by the Government. On Tuesday 27 August 1917 the Police Union threatened action unless: police pay increased, a sacked member was reinstated and the Police Union was officially recognised. This led to six thousand officers going out on strike. The Commissioner made promises and averted further action but became the scapegoat and resigned from office. Further action followed a year later.

The Desborough Committee: In response to the crisis in policing the government set up the Desborough committee to look at conditions of service. Recommendations were very broad and sought to standardise many aspects of police organisation. Police pay was for the first time not to be related the pay of an agricultural labourer.

The principle of recruiting chief officers from within the police was accepted (although not adhered to for many years). Before the Desborough committee could report the government pre-empted its report by passing the 1919 Police Act which prohibited the police from being unionised but allowed the creation of the Police Federation. Desborough’s recommendations about pay and conditions started to develop policing as a career.

Inter-War Years: The Royal Commission of 1929 and the Select Committee on Police Forces Amalgamation identified the problems of the police as being rooted in the quality of senior command. Commissioner Trenchard proposed a police college to train and fast track future senior officers to solve the Metropolitan Polices' problem of finding suitable senior officers. Hendon College was established. This created great disquiet (as the promotion of ordinary officers was frozen to allow the Hendon graduates to fast track). Hendon closed at the outbreak of war and never re-opened. In the 1960s the graduates occupied the most senior ranks in the UK police.

The Second World War was a crucial turning point in the development of central and local government influence over the police, with war time Regulation 39 giving the Home Secretary virtual control over policing, especially chief constables. This power was used to the full and was not fully relinquished after the war. In practice the provincial authorities could no longer appoint whoever they wished. During the Second World War the police were reorganised into larger organisations by amalgamating county and borough forces.

Sitting in 1943 and 1944, the Post-War Reconstruction Committee saw Britain being policed by fewer, but larger forces staffed by highly trained officers. The committee's reports laid the foundations for the 1946 Police Act which reduced the overall number of independent forces by a third to one hundred and twenty four.

Whilst the organisation of policing had theoretically improved, actual working conditions and pay were still very poor and morale was low. To prevent a repetition of 1918, the Oaksey Committee was formed in 1948 to look at the future of policing and develop structures to improve recruitment, representation and remuneration. The first report made recommendations on pay and conditions, the second on wider issues such as appointment, training, consultation, etc.

A direct result of the Oaksey Committee was an increase in wages for the next seven years, but these increases always fell behind the national average wage increase. The attractiveness of policing as a secure career declined. Some forces lowered height limits to widen the pool of available recruits. One of the recommendations of both Oaksey and the Post-War Reconstruction Committee was the formation of a National Police College at Ryton on Dunsmore. Rather than develop an officer cadre the college would develop the careers of serving officers and identify command potential early. The College later moved to Bramshill.

The Royal Commission 1960 was the first time that the principles, organisation and constitutional position of the police were examined publicly. The Royal Commission's terms of reference; efficiently control the police, make the best use of manpower, make the police accountable, and make arrangements for dealing with complaints. The Royal Commission reached three fundamental conclusions: the office of constable was original, not delegated, and exercised by virtue of that office; local forces were a good idea but needed increased central co-ordination; the problem of controlling the police was the problem of controlling the chief constables. The Police Act 1964 implemented (relatively) radical new ideas about controlling the police. The Police Act 1964 faithfully implemented the commission's recommendations.

Part 1 of the Act: Replaced the old county and borough police authorities with 'police authorities' composed of two-thirds elected representatives and one-third magistrates. These new police authorities had far less power then their predecessors - they had no direct power over the force. But they could appoint chief, deputy and assistant chief constables from an approved Home Office list. They could require the chief constable to retire in the interests of efficiency but, like the power to appoint, it needed the Home Secretary's approval. The chief constable effectively became the guardian of the public's interests over policing matters.

Part 2 of the Act: Increased the responsibilities and powers of the Home Secretary over the police.

The reorganisation of policing: One of the more visible effects of the Act was to further reduce the number of independent forces from one hundred and nineteen in 1965 to forty six in 1969. This number was further reduced when the Local Government Act 1972 re-defined local authority boundaries. The number fell to forty two.5

2 The original site has been updated and moved to [19 January 2010].

3 Durrant, A.J. (1951). A hundred years of the Surrey Constabulary, 1851-1951, p. 3.

4 Critchley, T.A. (1978). A History of Police in England and Wales, Constable, ISBN 0 09 461490 3, p. 176

5 Leeds University Policing Department website.


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