Bobbies and Peelers: The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829

29 September 2017

History

On this day in 1829 the first units of the London Metropolitan Police appeared on the streets of London, under Sir Robert Peel. Having become Home Secretary in 1822, Peel set to work laying the legislation in place that would enable the very first English police force. Peel’s force consisted of 17 divisions, each with 4 inspectors and 144 constables, and took its home in 4 Whitehall Place. As the base outgrew 4 Whitehall Place and took up neighbouring buildings it soon became synonymous with a nearby street, Great Scotland Yard, which of course gave name to the Metropolitan Police HQ we know today. Meanwhile, the police force itself became known after its founder as the ‘bobbies’ and ‘peelers’ (or, if you’re a fellow East Lancastrian like Peel himself, ‘the dibble’).

This bit of “on this day” history prompted me to have a dig into our vibrant resource full of street scandal and vice, London Low Life. An extract from an 1805 London tourist guidebook soon told me that up until 29th September 1829 the safety of the streets in 19th century London had relied on parish constables and night watchmen. The guide assures nervy visitors ‘such is the safety of this great metropolis by night, that not less than 2044 beadles, watchmen, and patroles are put on duty every evening’. I’m not sure I know exactly what a beadle is but something tells me I would have felt much safer in the hands of a police force.

London: being a complete guide to the British capital; containing a full and accurate account of its buildings, commerce, curiosities ... including a sketch of the surrounding country, with full directions to strangers on their first arrival, 1814 © The Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Having said this, the new police force was not particularly well-received and it had many critics – as this Morris & Newman cartoon suggests.

Police evidence illustrated., n.d. © The Lilly Library, Indiana University.
 

Whilst browsing through London Low Life I also came across the following 1889 issue of Police & Public – a weekly London newspaper sharing police and general news.

Police and public, 1889 © The Lilly Library, Indiana University.

Just below the copyright guarantee ‘Entered at Stationers’ Hall’ (cue our latest collection Literary Print Culture: The Stationers’ Company Archive), the front cover holds some news story gems, perhaps with a little truth twisting at play. From a Thames Police court case on Daniel Leary who was arrested for breaking a washing basin over his father’s head, to news of a lady’s hand found inside a giant halibut caught by fishermen, I suspect Peel had something a little more ground-breaking than halibuts and washing buckets in mind when he deployed his policing troops upon the streets!

All of these documents alongside many more are available in London Low Life. For more information, including trial access, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Also make sure to check out London Low Life’s interactive mapping feature here!

​Full access restricted to authenticated academic institutions which have purchased a licence.

About the Author

Lucy Davis

Lucy Davis

Having joined Adam Matthew’s Editorial team as a Development Assistant in February 2016, I have already had the chance to work across a wide variety of exciting projects including Literary Print Culture, Shakespeare's Globe and The First World War. My academic background lies in literature and language. I am particularly interested in literary and linguistic contexts within postcolonial writing such as African American and Indian Dalit poetry.

Leave a comment

You are commenting as guest.