Origins of the name "Old Bill"
We are often asked about the origins of "The Old
Bill" or "The Bill" as slang names for the police. The
simple answer is that no one really knows for sure. Over the years at
least 13 different possibilities have been proposed, as follows:
- "Old Bill" was King William IV, whose
constables were an early form of police. (It is often said erroneously
that he was on the throne when the police were founded. Actually he
did not succeed George IV until 1830)
- The play "The Custom of the Country" written
by John Fletcher in 1619 has constables of the watch refer to themselves
as 'us peacemakers and all our bill of authority'.
- Constables of the watch were sometimes nicknamed
for the bills, or billhooks they carried as weapons.
- Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia visited England around
the time in 1864 when the police uniform changed from top hat and swallowtail
coat to helmet and tunic. Such 'Prussian militarism' may have led to
the police being nicknamed after the first (and today less remembered)
- The 'old bill' was, in Victorian times, a bill presumed
to be presented by the police for a bribe to persuade them to turn a
blind eye to some nefarious activity.
- New laws for the police to enforce all come from
bills passed through Parliament
- "Old Bill" might refer to Bill Bailey
of the music hall song 'Won't You Come Home...?' used in conjunction
with a pun on the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey.
- In the 1860s there was a Sergeant Bill Smith in
Limehouse. He was a popular character and people used to ask after 'Old
- Many police officers wore authoritarian-looking
"Old Bill" moustaches like that adorning a famous W.W.1 cartoon
character 'the wily old soldier in the trenches' by Bruce Bairnsfather.
- In 1917 the government used Bairnsfather's character
in posters and advertisements putting over wartime messages under the
heading "Old Bill says...". For this campaign the character
was dressed in a special constable's uniform.
- The original vehicles used by the Flying Squad all
had the registration letters BYL, so the squad became known as 'the
- The London County Council at one time registered
all police, fire and ambulance vehicles with the letters BYL
- According to old Etonian illegal gaming club organizer
and author the late Robin Cook ('Derek Raymond'), 'old bill' is a racing
term for an outsider or unknown quantity. From the point of view of
the underworld, police would be outsiders
Despite all these suggestions, the earliest documented
usage traced by the Metropolitan Police Historical Museum is from 1970
and 'Partridge's Dictionary of Slang'. Without giving citations
the book dates "Old Bill" from the 1950s "or perhaps earlier".
So the term may possibly be post W.W.2.