A brief history of law enforcement – Part 2

As I mentioned in part 1 of this series, the Bow Street Runners were the beginning of modern policing, and they operated from 1750 – 1839, finally being made redundant 10 years after the police act of 1829 established the Metropolitan Police. This brings me to Part 2.

The Metropolitan Police

220px-Robert_Peel_Portrait.jpgIn 1829, Sir Robert Peel, Home Secretary in the cabinet of Lord Liverpool, gained Royal assent for the Metropolitan Police Act, which came into effect on September 29th, establishing what is considered to be the first modern and professional police force in the world.

In creating the Metropolitan Police Force, Peel intended to established a centralised police force that would both investigate crimes and arrest those responsible, and act as a visible deterrant to crime. The intent was also for it to be politically neutral, and to operate as an organ of the judicial system, rather than as an organ of the government, which was the situation on the continent.

Initially three main groups remained separate from the Metropolitan Police, they were:

  • The Bow Street Patrols (both foot and mounted)
  • The Police Office constables, who operated under the control of magistrates
  • And the marine police, who handled the policing of London’s waterways

By 1839, however, these groups had been integrated into the Metropolitan Police and a new force, the City of London Police, had been established to deal with police matters within the City of London proper, which is a 1 mile² 2.9km² area covering most of what is considered to be the original city from ancient times.


This map is from 1939, 100 years after the establishment of the City of London Police, but the territory remains the same.

The Metropolitan Police are responsible for all policing matters, excluding the City of London, within a radius of 16km from St Paul’s.

Bobbies or Peelers

The Metropolitan Police was established with a force of 1000 officers, known affectionately as ‘Bobbies’ and less affectionately as ‘Peelers’, both names coming from the man responsible for their founding. They wore blue tail-coats and top hats, which were intended to distinguish them from the red-coated soldiers and convince the populace that the army was not being deployed to handle civilian matters, and were armed with a wooden truncheon and a rattle with which to signal a need for help.


To further separate the police from the army in the eyes of the populace, they were given differently named ranks, the only exception being that of sergeant. Additionally, Sir Robert Peel published publicly what were known as his Peelian Principles, which stated

  • Every police officer should be issued an warrant card with a unique identification number to assure accountability for his actions.
  • Whether the police are effective is not measured on the number of arrests but on the lack of crime.
  • Above all else, an effective authority figure knows trust and accountability are paramount. Hence, Peel’s most often quoted principle that “The police are the public and the public are the police.”

Primary sources



Coming in part 3, the establishment of detectives.

A brief history of law enforcement – Part 1

As a writer of crime novels, both the slightly more cozy sort (already published) and the more gritty thriller type (coming in April/May) it seems to me that it would be a good thing for me to write a bit about crime, criminals, and policing, primarily with regard to the UK, where my books are set, but I may also spread out and encompass information, trivia and fun facts from around the world in later posts.

Usually when it comes to something like this I would now find myself sitting here, fingers poised over the keyboard, wondering where in hell I should start. That is not the case on this occasion, there’s a fairly obvious place for me to start – where policing started.

Obviously, since the title is ‘a brief history…’ I’m not going into too much depth, and I don’t plan on going back too far with things; I’m going to start with what is generally considered the beginning of formalised policing in the UK – The Bow Street Runners.


The Bow Street Runners

The ‘Runners’ as they were known were founded by Henry Fielding, a magistrate and author of Tom Jones (not the singer) who formalised and regulated a system that previously had been in the hands of private citizens. The name derives from the fact that they operated out of offices on Bow Street and were attached to the magistrate’s court there.

The ‘Runners’ were not police officers as the term is understood now, they did not patrol the streets, instead they were responsible for serving writs and making arrests on the authority of the magistrates.

Although founded by Henry Fielding, who ran the ‘Runners’ from 1750-1754 it was John Fielding, Henry’s brother who led them to gain recognition from the government during his time in charge, 1754-1780.

The ‘Runners’ continued to operate following John Fielding’s death in 1780 until they were made redundant by the Police Act of 1839, 10 years after the establishment of the Metropolitan Police.

Fun Facts

John Fielding was blind and is reputed to have been able to tell if someone was lying by the sound of their voice.

The ‘Runners’ are occasionally known as Robin Redbreasts, however this is believed to be incorrect and is, more accurately, a derogatory term for The Bow Street Horse Patrol that was organised in 1805 by Richard Ford, who succeeded John Fielding. The term stems from the distinctive scarlet waistcoasts they wore under their blue greatcoats.

Source https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bow_Street_Runners

Look out for future instalments, which will include The Peelers and the establishment of Scotland Yard.