There are many nicknames for police, generally coined by those they target. Among the most inventive come from the United Kingdom, and they generally fall within a pattern: “filth”, “pigs”, “fuzz” and the like.
But back in the early 19th century, when Sir Robert Peel revolutionized law enforcement and created the first modern police force, they had a different name. This momentous event marked a turning point in the history of policing and set the stage for the professional, centralized, and community-oriented police forces England has today.
This was no easy task, and there were many challenges to be overcome by the early police. But the principles established by Sir Robert Peel, and the impact his reforms had on policing in the UK and around the world, gave us the first true policemen: the “Bobbies”.
What’s in a Name?
The name Bobby isn’t a terribly intimidating name for a police force, but that was not the intention and it was a bemused and slightly amused public that gave them their first nickname. They were named after their founder, Sir Robert Peel.
Sir Robert Peel set up the London Metropolitan Police force in 1829 when he was serving in his last year as home secretary. Bobby is a popular shorthand for Robert in England and so the newly found police force soon found themselves being referred to as Bobbies in reference to their founder, Robert Peel.
For much the same reason, they were also known as “peelers” for a time after their founding, in reference to his surname. It is interesting to note however that peeler eventually fell out of use, but Bobby is still used to this day.
But why? It could be that peeler sounds more intimidating than bobby. When the police force was set up in England the government was careful to make sure that the police were accepted by the people and not seen as a threat. Bobby is simply more indicative of the kind of relationship the English have traditionally had with their police force.
A Necessary Institution
When we look at the state of the world today it is hard to believe there was ever a time without the police. Who kept the order and who caught the bad guys?
- Sir Francis Walsingham: Who was Queen Elizabeth’s Spymaster in Chief?
- Outlaw General: Jan Žižka and the Rise of the Common Man
Before the founding of the London Metropolitan Police forces policing in London and elsewhere in Britain was mostly handled by the constables and law enforcement officers who reported to the local magistrates. The problem was that there weren’t many of these constables and since they reported to local magistrates there was no centralized leadership, leading to a lack of cohesion in Britain’s policing.
The early 19th century was a period that saw massive social and economic changes as a result of the Industrial revolution. While the Industrial revolution is today seen as a net positive event it did have its downsides. Namely a large increase in crime and public disorder caused by the revolution’s upheaval of social norms.
The lack of a centralized and professional law enforcement system made it difficult for the government to maintain law and order during this period. When the constables couldn’t keep up, especially in cases of civil or political unrest, soldiers had to be deployed.
No one likes seeing soldiers on the streets. It is seen as overly authoritarian, and the general populace hates it. It also made the most powerful empire in the world at the time look weak.
Peel decided the answer to these problems was the London metropolitan police force, which if successful, would be rolled out nationwide. He had good reason for thinking his plan would work. Scotland had had police forces since the introduction of the City of Glasgow police force in 1800 and the Royal Irish Constabulary had been set up in 1822. Both had been a success.
When Peel first proposed a professional police force be set up it did not go down well. His critics feared that the government would use a police force to target political opponents and threaten civil liberties. Peel made it clear that this would not be the case and the Metropolitan Police Act of 1929 was soon passed.
Life as a Bobby
Peel lived up to his word and the police never became what his opponents feared they would. The governments went to great lengths to ensure that it was clear that the Metropolitan police force was there for crime prevention and nothing more.
The first thousand officers began patrolling the streets of London on 29th September 1829. They wore blue tailcoats and top hats. They carried a truncheon and a rattler (later replaced with a whistle) and most importantly, no firearm.
- Sir Francis Bacon: King James I’s Man of Science
- London’s Notorious Female Gangsters: The 40 Elephants
This uniform and equipment setup was chosen to make them look more like ordinary citizens and to emphasize the fact that the officers were not members of the military. In dressing and equipping them as a distinct organization, Peel hoped they would not be seen as threatening.
Becoming a “bobby” wasn’t easy, there were strict entry criteria. Applicants had to be between the ages of 20-27, at least 5’7” (170 cm) tall, fit, literate, and have a clean criminal record. No thugs allowed.
These young men worked seven days a week and only received five days of holiday a year. For their troubles, they were paid £1 per week. This was enough to live on without needing bribes while also ensuring it didn’t only attract people who were salary focused.
Officers lived by a strict set of rules. They couldn’t vote (to ensure they were seen as apolitical), had to get permission to marry, and had to ask permission if they wished to eat with a civilian (cut down on accusations of corruption). As the public feared being spied on, officers had to wear their uniforms when both on and off duty.
The police operated under what was known as the “Peelian Principles”. These said that the force was to be used only for crime prevention and that the police must always act in a way to ensure the public’s respect and cooperation. Officers had to offer service, courtesy, and friendliness to all they came across and physical force was to be a last resort.
Finally, the police were judged not on how many arrests they made but by the reduction in crime and disorder, their presence caused. In short, the police were there to be an ally to the people, not oppressors.
So, the British police force was created and founded with noble goals. But did they live up to them? Well, the new bobbies were so successful in decreasing crime that the service was expanded into London’s outer boroughs and then across England. The force was then heavily emulated abroad.
There will always be bad apples, but it seems for the most part the original bobbies successfully lived up to their mandate. It would also seem that for the most part, their successors have gone on to do so and the principles of modern policing in England are roughly the same as they were when they were founded nearly two hundred years ago.
Top Image: Images such as “A Safe Escort” from 1911 portrayed the police as a help to the community, wrapped up in the image of the approachable British Bobby. Source: Harry Payne / Public Domain.