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Brief definition and history of policing

The definition of policing

The word "Police" means, generally, the arrangements made in all civilised countries to ensure that the inhabitants keep the peace and obey the law. The word also denotes the force of peace officers (or police) employed for this purpose.

In 1829 Sir Richard Mayne wrote:
"The primary object of an efficient police is the prevention of crime: the next that of detection and punishment of offenders if crime is committed. To these ends all the efforts of police must be directed. The protection of life and property, the preservation of public tranquillity, and the absence of crime, will alone prove whether those efforts have been successful and whether the objects for which the police were appointed have been attained."

Police officerIn attaining these objects, much depends on the approval and co-operation of the public, and these have always been determined by the degree of esteem and respect in which the police are held. One of the key principles of modern policing in Britain is that the police seek to work with the community and as part of the community.

Origins of policing

The origin of the British police lies in early tribal history and is based on customs for securing order through the medium of appointed representatives. In effect, the people were the police. The Saxons brought this system to England and improved and developed the organisation. This entailed the division of the people into groups of ten, called "tythings", with a tything-man as representative of each; and into larger groups, each of ten tythings, under a "hundred-man" who was responsible to the Shire-reeve, or Sheriff, of the County.

The tything-man system, after contact with Norman feudalism, changed considerably but was not wholly destroyed. In time the tything-man became the parish constable and the Shire-reeve the Justice of the Peace, to whom the parish constable was responsible. This system, which became widely established in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, comprised, generally, one unarmed able-bodied citizen in each parish, who was appointed or elected annually to serve for a year unpaid, as parish constable. He worked in co-operation with the local Justices in securing observance of laws and maintaining order. In addition, in the towns, responsibility for the maintenance of order was conferred on the guilds and, later, on other specified groups of citizens, and these supplied bodies of paid men, known as "The Watch", for guarding the gates and patrolling the streets at night.

Historic officer In the eighteenth century came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the consequent movement of the population to the towns. The parish constable and "Watch" systems failed completely and the impotence of the law-enforcement machinery was a serious menace. Conditions became intolerable and led to the formation of the "New Police".

The Metropolitan Police

In 1829, when Sir Robert Peel was Home Secretary, the first Metropolitan Police Act was passed and the Metropolitan Police Force was established. This new force superseded the local Watch in the London area but the City of London was not covered. Even within the Metropolitan Police District there still remained certain police establishments, organised during the eighteenth century, outside the control of the Metropolitan Police Office, viz:-

  • The Bow Street Patrols, mounted and foot, the latter commonly called the "Bow Street runners".
  • Police Office constables attached to the offices of, and under the control of, the Magistrates.
  • The Marine or River Police.

By 1839 all these establishments had been absorbed by the Metropolitan Police Force. The City of London Police, which was set up in 1839, remains an independent force to this day.

Scotland Yard

The task of organising and designing the "New Police" was placed in the hands of Colonel Charles Rowan and Richard Mayne (later Sir Richard Mayne}. These two Commissioners occupied a private house at 4, Whitehall Place, the back of which opened on to a courtyard. The back premises of 4 Whitehall Place were used as a police station. It was this address that led to the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police being known as Scotland Yard. The exact origin of the name is not clear and the following two stories have both gained credence at various times:

  1. It is said the location had been the site of a residence owned by the Kings of Scotland before the Union and used and occupied by them and/or their ambassadors when in London, and known as '"Scotland". The courtyard was later used by Sir Christopher Wren and known as "Scotland Yard".
  2. Number 4 Whitehall Place backed onto a court called Great Scotland Yard, one of three streets incorporating the words "Scotland Yard" in its name. The street names are said to have derived from the land being owned by a man called Scott during the Middle Ages.

By 1887 the Police HQ embraced numbers 3, 4, 5, 21 and 22 Whitehall Place, numbers 8 and 9 Great Scotland Yard, numbers 1, 2 and 3 Palace Place and various stables and outbuildings as well as a freestanding building in the centre of the Yard that had successively held stores, the Public Carriage Office and the CID offices.

police boatThese headquarters were removed in 1890 to premises on the Victoria Embankment designed by Richard Norman Shaw and became known as New Scotland Yard. In 1967, because of the need for a larger and more modern headquarters, a further move took place to the present site at Broadway, S.W.1, which is also known as New Scotland Yard.