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England Occupations Law and Order, Constables, Police (National Institute)

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The original content for this article was contributed by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies in June 2012. It is an excerpt from their course English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military & Services  by Dr. Penelope Christensen. The Institute offers over 200 comprehensive genealogy courses for a fee ($).

Law and Order[edit | edit source]

Police[edit | edit source]

History of Police[edit | edit source]

The maintenance of law and order can be divided into two epochs in Britain with Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 Act of Parliament for improving the police as the defining moment for the creation of the modern police force.

Parish Constables[edit | edit source]

Anciently the parish constable was the man who preserved the peace and was appointed annually and regulated by the manorial court. He was also known as a Petty Constable, and in some places was synonymous with the Headborough or Tithingman. In 1381 Justices of the Peace were established to whom he then reported, but for certain duties he was responsible to the Head or Chief Constable of the county division known as a hundred or wapentake. As manors decayed during the 17th and 18th centuries the parish vestry took over appointing the constable, but the head constable would be appointed by the quarter sessions and was paid £5 per quarter. A constable was unpaid, (but did get expenses re-imbursed), and had to be an able-bodied male resident aged 25-55 who was required to serve when called unless he could pay for a substitute, or belonged to one of the exempted occupations (Arnold-Baker). He had a wide variety of responsibilities (Hey, Fitzhugh):

  • The village stocks, pillory and lock-up.
  • He raised the hue and cry.
  • Vagabonds and intruders who had no right of settlement in the parish, and whipping vagrants.
  • Securing prisoners and transporting them to quarter sessions or assizes.
  • Escaped prisoners, riots and unlawful assemblies.
  • Collection of county rates (taxes) which paid for the house of correction, roads and bridges, lame soldiers, travellers with passes, and the assizes.
  • Collection of national taxes like the poll tax, hearth tax and land tax.
  • Organizing ballots for raising local militia and compiling muster rolls.
  • Providing lodging and transport for armed forces.
  • Lighting of beacons.
  • Weights and measures.
  • Supervision of alehouses and providing a list of them for licensing at the brewster sessions.
  • Non-attendance at church.
  • Oppression by other officers.
  • Commercial irregularities.
  • Compiling jurors’ lists.
  • Drunkenness.
  • Unauthorized building of additional cottages and dovecotes.
  • Taking lewd women before the Justices of the Peace.
  • Detaining fathers of bastards.
  • Destroying vermin.
  • Appearing at inquests.
  • The parish bull.

The position of constable was thus exceedingly time-consuming and resented by many who had to take their turn, with concomitant inefficiencies. Church has edited a contemporary account of the parish constable’s duties, and a detailed account of how they were appointed with a long list of those who were exempt is in Arnold-Baker (Parish Administration). From the time of Charles II cities employed night watchmen as assistants to the constables. These were usually old, infirm men who were virtually useless for the position, so quickly acquired the nicknames right Charlies. Their watchhouses, some also used as cages to hold prisoners, were sometimes converted into early police stations later on.

Development of the Police Force[edit | edit source]

Henry Fielding (1707-1754), author of Tom Jones, was well acquainted with London lawlessness, being a barrister and chairman of the quarter sessions from 1749, and also a Justice of the Peace. He, and his half-brother Sir John Fielding, also a magistrate, set up the Bow Street Runners in 1750. This was a small detective force employing paid constables in London, intended to combat crime, and men wore red waistcoats which earned them the nickname Robin Redbreasts. Unfortunately, after Henry Fielding died the Runners became corrupted. There was also a Bow Street Horse Patrol and experience with these two forces provided the early impetus to reform the administration of law and order (Shearman).

Other factors in the late 18th century which showed that better policing was necessary were the American Revolution (1776), the French Revolution (1789), increasing highway robbery, and social and industrial unrest epitomized by the Gordon Riots (1780), the Luddites around 1812, and the Peterloo Massacre in 1819. At first the government’s only recourse was to raise an army to deal with British insurgency, but after a number of years of reports and indecision reform came with the passage of Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel’s Act in 1829.

The New Police or Metropolitan Police Force of London appeared in their tailcoats and top hats in September 1829, and carried wooden truncheons and rattles (later whistles). They had to be at least 5'7" tall, under 35, literate and of good character. The force was responsible for a 7-mile radius around Charing Cross, excluding the City, extended to a 15-mile radius in 1839. Initial public reaction was not favourable as they were regarded as traitors to the working class and acquired the nicknames Peelers (after Sir Robert Peel), Blue Devils, and Raw Lobsters. The high collars on their uniforms were not decorative but protection against garrotting! (Bird). Later the uniform changed to a jacket and helmet and they gradually established their reputation as friendly advocates and firm disciplinarians, reflected in the later affectionate appellations of Bobby (after Sir Robert) and Copper (to cop is to capture or arrest). Royall remembers their centenary celebrations.

Legislation was passed to create local police forces, responsible to the Home Office, in boroughs in 1835 and counties in 1839, and by 1856, (1857 in Scotland), this was mandatory. Thus between 1829 and 1856 there was a mixture of old and new systems throughout the country. There were 231 forces in England and Wales by 1889, some with as few as 11 men, but mergers have reduced this to 43 forces. Naturally the greatest need was in urban rather than rural areas, especially with the large-scale movement into the towns during the 19th century.

Dublin Metropolitan Police were formed in 1786 and the rest of Ireland was covered by the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) that came into being in 1836 and lasted until Ireland divided in 1922. There was a special auxiliary force called the Black and Tans during the troubles prior to independence.

Special forces were needed to police rivers and railways:

  • In 1798 the Marine Police was instituted to protect Thames merchant shipping in the Port of London.
  • In 1837 the Railway Police started and it now covers all of England, Scotland and Wales, including the London Underground and the Docklands Light Railway. Richards provides information about railway police.
  • There was also a separate Royal Military Police (address in Appendix).
  • Women were not appointed to police patrols until 1919 but did not have the power of arrest until 1923.

Policemen’s Records[edit | edit source]

Records of Constables[edit | edit source]

Chief constables were appointed at the quarter sessions for each hundred so records will be there and the petty (or parish) constables may be listed for each parish in the quarter sessions as well. Most of these are filmed look on the FamilySearch Catalog under COUNTY-COURT RECORDS. Otherwise the parish vestry minutes will have the appointments, and these will be on the FamilySearch Catalog under COUNTY-PARISH-POORHOUSES, POOR LAW ETC. After 1842, when parish constables were appointed by the Justices of the Peace, records of appointments should be with the records of the county Clerks of the Peace (Herber) and under county records in the FamilySearch Catalog. The workings of the quarter sessions have been described by McLaughlin and a list of extant ones is given by Gibson.

Appointment of Chief Constable in 1830 Quarter Sessions Records

Hundred of Freshwell, Essex

Michaelmas 1830

Mr. Frederick GIBLIN

Chief Constable of the Hundred of Freshwell

On the recommendation of His Majesty’s Justices of the Peace usually acting in and for the Hundred of Freshwell in the said County, It is Ordered by this Court that Frederick GIBLIN of Radwinter in the said County Gentleman be and he is hereby appointed Chief Constable of the said Hundred of Freshwell in the [place] of the late Mr. John Hornet deceased and this Court doth desire some or one of the Justices acting in and for the said Hundred forthwith to send for the said Frederick GIBLIN and Administer to him the Oath for the due execution of his said Office.

Appointment of Headboroughs
Vestry Minutes, St. George-in-the-East, Mddx FHL film 1786554

6 April 1817

Memorandum that the persons undermentioned were sworn to serve the Office of Headborough for the ensuing year. HEADBOROUGHS

David Janes John Coverdale John Lowen
James Proudfoor William Mackay Joseph Reilly
John Benton James Briggs Charles Jauncey
Henry Palmer William King William Brown
John Wm Price William Brooker Thomas Parker
John Sargeant William Barker Joseph Messenger
Charles King Andrew Anderson Aaron Knight

Police Force Records[edit | edit source]

The early senior officers (sergeants, inspectors and superintendents) were drawn from the ranks of the army and navy and if police records are lacking, then those services should be checked. Regular policeman had no army or navy experience or discipline, being often labourers of good character.

Most modern police forces date from before 1860 and amalgamations have complicated the records but there is no central police archives. The only records that are public ones are those of the Metropolitan Police and the Royal Irish Constabulary and their records are at TNA who have produced appropriate leaflets:

D52 Metropolitan Police (London): Records of Service.
D54 Records of the Royal Irish Constabulary.

Despite the problems for preservation of records caused by those wishing to clear away ‘old rubbish’ after amalgamations, costs of proper storage and handling, and the paper pulping demands of two world wars, a surprising number of records of other forces survive although often somewhat spotty in nature. These have either been deposited at the county or local archive, or may still be with the force itself. Many police departments are very helpful and have very good open archives and even museums. Others don’t have the resources to offer these to the researcher or have severe restrictions on divulging personal details even to descendants of long deceased members, an example being the Royal Ulster Constabulary. Progress is being made, and much is being transferred to local archives.

An alphabetical gazetteer of British police forces and their surviving records is provided by Shearman in My Ancestor was a Policeman. How Can I Find Out More About Him? and an older guide is that of Bridgeman and Emsley (A Guide to the Archives of the Police Forces of England and Wales). Access to records at public archives is through the usual routes, but for records still held by a force then a letter with an SAE to the Curator or Archivist at the police HQ would be the right way to start an enquiry. Addresses can be found in local phone books that are available on the net at Infobel

Metropolitan Police[edit | edit source]

The Metropolitan Police in London, (the Met), still have access to pension registers and indexes although the documents are now at the PRO. They are very helpful to researchers. Below shows information received in 1991 from the Metropolitan Police that seems to have come from the Pension Ledger Index.

Letter from New Scotland Yard

According to our records John DOLAN joined the Metropolitan Police on 23 Feb 1880. He was given the Warrant Number 64322. He retired from E Division on 5 mar 1906 and had the Divisional Number 366 and was awarded a pension to the value of £58 5 shillings and 4 pence per annum. The following information is available from his pension record: He was aged 56 years on resignation. He served 26 years 10 days in the Force. He was paid £1 13 shillings 6 pence per week. His height was 6 feet and ¼ inch. Hair was grey; eyes brown; complexion fresh. He had a scar on his forehead. He was born at Glendalough, County Wicklow, Ireland on 19 Sep 1849. He joined the Police at Leman Street Police Station and remained a constable for the whole period. He was transferred to E or Holborn Division on 7 Mar 1901. His next of kin was Richard George Dolan. His last known address was No.2 Tankerton Houses, Tankerton Street, WC London.

The record does not indicate that he worked on the infamous Jack the Ripper case, nor that his handcuffs are somehow still in the family’s possession!

Archival procedures are even better now as the 1995 information contained below attests. The source of records from the index was identified and photocopies of the two pages of the pension ledger were sent.

Metropolitan Police Record
From the Pension Ledger Index

John George GARDENER born on 17 Apr 1840 in Stratford, Essex. He joined the Metropolitan Police on 9 Aug 1858 Warrant number 37237 on N or Islington Division. He was promoted to Sergeant on [25 Dec 1864 and to Inspector on] 11 Oct 1867 and transferred to A or Whitehall Division where he remained for the rest of his services. He retired on 15 Sep 1888 after 30 years service on a pension of £164 13s 4d.


Information in this Wiki page is excerpted from the online courses English: Occupation Records-Professions and Trades and English: Occupations-Military and Services offered by The National Institute for Genealogical Studies. To learn more about this course or other courses available from the Institute, see our website. We can be contacted at

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