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History of law enforcement in the United Kingdom

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History of law enforcement in the United Kingdom

Law enforcement
in the United Kingdom
Types of agency
Types of agent
Statutory Instruments

The history of law enforcement in the United Kingdom charts the development of law enforcement in the United Kingdom.

Victorian Police Officer with itinerant circa 1900 - recreation.
1919 Battle of George Square.
Eurocopter EC 135 T2 providing law enforcement and medical assistance in the Avon and Somerset Police, and Gloucestershire Police areas, based at Bristol Filton Airport.


  • History 1
    • Watchmen and Constables 1.1
    • London 1.2
    • Boroughs and Counties 1.3
    • National Policing 1.4
    • Modern Policing 1.5
  • Timeline 2
  • See also 3
  • References 4


Watchmen and Constables

Law enforcement and policing during the 1700s, and earlier, were not administrated nationally, instead they were organised by local communities such as town authorities.[1] Within local areas, a constable could be attested by two or more Justices of the Peace, a procedure that some sources say had its roots in an Act of the Parliament of England of 1673.[2] From the 1730s, local improvement Acts made by town authorities often included provision for paid watchmen or constables to patrol towns at night, while rural areas had to rely on more informal arrangements.[1]

In 1737, an Act of Parliament was passed "for better regulating the Night Watch" of the

  1. ^ a b c "Watchmen and constables". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  2. ^ a b "Independent Port Constabularies - History" (PDF). Independent Port Constabularies. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c "British Police Service". City of London Police. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  4. ^ "Sir John Fielding". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  5. ^ a b "Sir Robert Peel and the new Metropolitan Police". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Metropolitan Police". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  7. ^ "History of City of London Police Key dates". City of London Police. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  8. ^ "Provincial Police Forces". The National Archives. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  9. ^ "Creating the nation's police force". UK Parliament. Retrieved 29 December 2013. 
  10. ^ "The Glasgow Police Museum". Retrieved 3 January 2015. 
  11. ^ "History". Metropolitan Police Service. Retrieved 3 January 2015. 


See also

  • 2013: Amalgamation of 8 Scottish territorial police forces into one, Police Scotland.
  • 2006: Major provisions of the PCSOs; these (other than SOCA) applying in England and Wales. The majority of the Act applies only to England and Wales with only a few sections applying to Scotland or Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 comes into force.
  • 2002: Police Reform Act 2002. Introduced Community Support Officers, commonly referred to as Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs) notwithstanding that this term does not appear in any legislation, as well as investigating officers and detention escort officers - all in England and Wales only. None of these are Police Constables although they have certain specific powers of a constable, e.g. in relation to lawful detention.
  • 1999: Most police powers and functions in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Scotland Act 1998.
  • 1984: Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Regulated the actions of the police in England and Wales, particularly in relations to arrest and searches/powers of entry. Also instituted the PACE Codes of Practice. PACE did not extend these matters to Scotland but dealt with other subjects there.
  • 1974: Local Government Act (1972) reduced the number of forces in England & Wales to 43.
  • 1964: Police Act 1964. This created 49 larger forces in England and Wales, some covering two or more counties or large urban areas.
  • 1919: Police Act of 1919 passed in response to the police striking. It criminalised the police union, replacing it with the Police Federation of England and Wales. The act also guaranteed a pension for police; previously it had been discretionary. The fragmented nature of the police was resistant to change, and there were still over 200 separate police forces before World War II. During the War, resignations were not permitted except on grounds of ill-health.
  • 1918 and 1919: The police went on strike over pay and working conditions, because of this the polices' right to strike and form a union was revoked.
  • 1878: As a result of the 1877 Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1878.
  • 1860: By this year there were over 200 separate forces in England and Wales.
  • 1857: The General Police Act (Scotland) 1857 required each Scottish county and burgh to establish a police force, either its own or by uniting with a neighbouring county, the latter was usually the case if the area in question was small and had little means of aquairing such manpower.
  • 1856: County and Borough Police Act 1856 made county and borough police forces compulsory in England and Wales and subject to central inspection. By then around thirty counties had voluntarily created police forces.
  • 1842: Within the Metropolitan Police a detective department was founded.
  • 1839: First county police force created, in Wiltshire.
  • 1835: Municipal Corporations Act 1835 passed. Among other matters this required each borough in England and Wales to establish a Watch Committee, who had the duty of appointing constables "for the preserving of the peace". The jurisdiction of the borough constables extended to any place within seven miles of the borough.
England and Wales Scotland Ireland/Northern Ireland
1707 At the time of the formation of the Kingdom of Great Britain, only Edinburgh had any sort of police force - the Edinburgh Town Guard that had been formed in 1682 to police the city and enforce an initiated curfew.
1726 Edinburgh Town Guard gained notoriety when its Captain Porteous became the trigger for the Porteous Riots.
1749 London's Bow Street Runners established - considered the foundation to all modern police forces.
1779 Glasgow Magistrates appoint James Buchanan as the first Inspector of the Glasgow Police, with an establishment of eight police officers, though it was disbanded in 1781 due to a lack of money.
1788 The Glasgow Police re-established, but failure to succeed in getting a Bill before Parliament meant that the force again failed, in 1790.
1798 The Marine Police was established, based in Wapping - a localised force with a limited remit.
1800 The Glasgow Police Act, the first such Act in Britain, was finally passed through the persistence of Glasgow city authorities. This allowed the formation of the City of Glasgow Police, funded by taxation of local citizens, to prevent crime.[10] This was quickly followed by the establishment of similar police forces in other towns.
1812 A committee examined the policing of London, and made several suggestions on their findings to help evolve the existing state of affairs.
1814 The Peace Preservation Act creates the first organised police force in Ireland, becoming the Irish Constabulary in 1822, and was awarded the Royal prefix after putting down the Fenian Rising of 1867.
1817 Edinburgh Town Guard disbanded.
1818, 1821 Further committees examined the policing of London.
1829 Based on the committees' findings, Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, prompting a rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The Metropolitan Police was founded on 29 September 1829.[11] The new constables were nicknamed 'peelers' or 'bobbies' after the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the latter nickname continuing to this day.


Since the 1960s, police forces in the United Kingdom have been merged and modernised by several Acts of Parliament.

Modern Policing

The Police Act of 1946 led to the merger of a number of smaller town forces and surrounding county forces, leaving 117 constabularies. Further mergers took place following the 1964 Police Act which cut the number of police forces in England and Wales to 47, and Scotland to 20.[6]

By 1900, England, Wales and Scotland had 46,800 policemen and 243 constabularies.[6]

After the County and Borough Police Act in 1856, policing became a requirement throughout England and Wales paid for by central government Treasury department funds distributed to local government. In addition, the Act formed a "central inspectorate of constabulary" that would assess the effectiveness of each constabulary and report regularly to the Home Secretary. Parliament passed a similar Act for Scotland in 1857.[6]

In 1847 two pieces of national legislation were enacted - the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 and the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847.[2] Parliament continued to discuss the idea of national policing and, by the early 1850s, the Government was thinking about implementing policing across the nation.[9]

National Policing

By 1851 there were around 13,000 policemen in England and Wales, although existing law still did not require local authorities to establish local police forces.[6]

In 1835 the Municipal Corporations Act was passed by Parliament which required 178 Royal Boroughs to set up paid police forces.[3] In 1839 the Rural Constabulary Act allowed county areas to establish police forces if they chose to at a local level; Wiltshire was the first county to do this.[6] a further eight county police forces were formed in 1839, twelve in 1840, four in 1841 and another four by 1851.[3]

In the early 1800s, Newcastle had a police force that was accountable to the mayor and council. Liverpool, which was at the time a city of around 250,000 people, had only watchmen and parish constables for policing, with a small police force for the dock area. The establishment of more formal policing in cities started to gain more support among the public as cities grew and society became more prosperous and better organised through understanding of legal rights, education and better informed through the press.[8]

Boroughs and Counties

The City of London was not included within the remit of the Metropolitan Police because the Mayor and Corporation of the City of London refused to be part of a London-wide force because the City of London had certain liberties dating back to Magna Carta.[5] The London City Police was formed in 1832, later renamed in 1839 to the City of London Police.[7]

London in the early 1800s had a population of nearly a million and a half people but was policed by only 450 constables and 4,500 night watchmen. The idea of professional policing was taken up by Metropolitan Police. The new Metropolitan Police were responsible for an area of 7 miles in radius from the centre of the city (excluding the City of London), which was later extended to 15 miles. The government intentionally tried to avoid creating any likeness between the police and a military force; in particular the officers of the new police force were not armed and a blue uniform was chosen, dissimilar to that of the army. During this period, the Metropolitan Police was accountable directly to the Home Secretary (whereas today it accountable to the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Authority).[5][6]


In the early 1800s, some town authorities became more involved in improving local policing. An Act of Parliament in 1800 enabled Glasgow to establish the City of Glasgow Police, often described as the first professional police force in Britain. As the population in industrial towns grew, more local Acts were passed to improve policing arrangements in those towns, such as Rochdale in Lancashire in 1825, and Oldham in 1827.[1]


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