Nineteenth-century London was a grubby and lawless place, full of drunkards, thieves, house-breakers and other ne’er do wells. What law enforcement that did exist was piecemeal, and not under any central control.
There were random parish constables and watchmen keeping an eye on things ; the ‘Bow Street Runners’, which had been put together by the novelist Henry Fielding in the mid-18th century; and the Marine Police Force – the river police – established in 1798 to combat crime in the docks. But there was very little organised city-wide crime-fighting going on.
But London was expanding. People were growing rich, and crime was on the rise. The Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, wanted things organised properly. And so he drew up “An Act for improving the Police in and near the Metropolis”.
Peel’s force would be a civilian outfit, with a blue tailcoat and top hat. Officers had to be aged between 20 and 27, be at least 5’7” tall, be able to read and write, and be of good character.
The force was based in 4 Whitehall Place, and would operate within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross (excluding the City of London). The back entrance was in Great Scotland Yard, soon shortened to Scotland Yard.
It consisted of 895 constables, 88 sergeants, 20 inspectors and eight superintendants. Standard equipment was a truncheon, handcuffs and a rattle to raise the alarm.
They worked seven days a week for £1 a week, with five days holiday a year – the low pay was supposed to ensure that the men would not feel ‘superior to the job’. They were required to wear their uniforms at all times, even when they were off duty.
The Act was passed in July 1829, and on 29 September, the first ‘Peelers’ took to the streets, pounding their beats at 2.5 miles an hour.