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Crime and PunishmentSir Robert Peel and the new Metropolitan Police Return to the main page
Case Study 2 - What kind of police force did Sir Robert Peel set up in 1829? Task Glossary

Early 19th century London, with a population of nearly a million and a half people, was policed by 450 constables and 4,500 night watchmen. Their effectiveness was weakened because they belonged to different organisations, all jealous of their own powers.
Attempts by the government to deal with the situation by setting up a police force for London met with lots of opposition:

  • People were suspicious of a large force, possibly armed. They feared it could be used to suppress protest and support military dictatorship.
  • Paris had the best-known, best-organised, paid police force. Britain was at war with France from 1793 to 1815, so many people hated the idea of anything French on principle.
  • People did not think it was the job of the government to set up and control a police force; it should be under local control.
  • The Mayor and Corporation of the City of London refused to be part of a London-wide force.

When Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary, he was determined to deal with London's policing problems. The Metropolitan Police Act was passed in 1829. It set up a force for London, leaving out the City, but covering an area 7 miles radius from the centre, later extended to 15 miles. In the 19th century the "Met" was responsible directly to the Home Secretary, whereas today it answers to the Mayor of London and the Metropolitan Police Authority..
The government was anxious to avoid any suggestion that the police was a military force, so they were not armed. Nor was their uniform anything like military uniform. Uncertainty about what they could and could not do was responsible for many of the early complaints about the police (see
Case Study 5).
The constables' pay of 21/- (£1.05) a week was more than a labourer earned, but less than a skilled worker. There were however, deductions from their wages for their uniform and they weren't allowed to have any other income. Some worked a seven day week, walking a beat of 7 - 10 miles a day. Until 1887 police constables were not allowed to vote.
Ten years later, the Rural Constabulary Act of 1839 allowed counties to set up their own police forces, (see also
Case Study 3).

But what kind of police was it going to be? What powers would the police have? Were they to be armed? What type of people would join?
Peel in 1829 and others in 1839 had to decide on these and dozens of other questions, as you can see from these documents. We are still living with the results of their decisions.

Case Study 2 sources
Source 4 Source 3 Source 2 Source 1