How London’s Bobbies Got Their Name

helmetThere are few things more synonymous with London than the Tower, Big Ben, double decker busses, black cabs, and the traditional headgear of the Metropolitan Police. The custodian helmet, as it is officially known, and the traditional blue tunic with brass buttons became the standard for the bobby on the beat in 1863, replacing the white trousers, tailcoat, and top hat worn by London’s Metropolitan policemen from their founding in bobbies1829. The updated attire brought the bobby into a sartorial era that has lasted well into the 21st century; although, the Number 1 Dress, as it is officially named, is generally reserved only for ceremonial ocassions. Today’s bobbies are far more likely to don the modern uniform of trousers, white shirt, jumper (pullover sweater on this side of the pond), and flat topped peaked cap with checked band seen on all of those wonderful BBC crime dramas. Whatever the manner of dress, the Met is considered one of the world’s best police forces, and historically, is its oldest.

Henry Fielding is credited with establishing the first professional police force in 1749. His Bow Street Runners employed investigative methods and crime prevention techniques, all innovations developed by Fielding, and enjoyed partial Parliamentary financial support until they fell from favor in the early years of the 19th century. While the Runners provided the first organized attempt at official, government supported policing, they were far from the fully functioning governmental agency we know today.

peelEarly in the 19th century, Scotland and Ireland had police forces in the modern sense, but London still lacked such protection when Sir Robert Peel became Home Secretary in Lord Liverpool’s Tory Cabinet in 1822. From our modern perspective, it may seem unbelievable that such a metropolis could function without a formal system of peacekeeping; however, that fails to take into account the history of crime and punishment in England.

For centuries, individual parishes and their freemen residents were responsible for law and order within parish boundaries. Male residents were required to “donate” their time as part of the night watch, which was overseen by a constable, usually an unpaid “volunteer” as well. There was little energy devoted to crime prevention and none to detection once a crime had been committed. Victims of crime were expected to handle the prosecution of same in the courts on their own. This system may have worked when England was a chiefly agrarian society, but the 18th century brought societal changes that would forever alter London and the nation. The growth of industrialization and urbanization brought with them attendant crimewaves. The overcrowded, squalid living conditions of the urban poor contributed to unrest and an increase in crime, as well. In addition, householders had become weary of their tedious duties with the night watch. Altogether, law and order came perilously close to extinction. Riots broke out when things reached boiling points over various issues. The Gordon Riots (June, 1780) and the Luddite Rebellion (1811-1813) had a particularly chilling effect on the upper classes and industrialists. Between 1750 and the early years of the 19th century, much discussion took place in Parliament and some bills were passed to address various individual crime related problems, but nothing of a universal or substantial nature was accomplished. Much dithering, discussion, and cries of “something must be done” occurred without any real, permanent solutions being adopted.

A crisis point was reached in the years following the 1815 end of war with France and defeat of Napoleon. Without the need for military contracts for manufactured goods, an economic depression ensued that lasted through 1822. Demobilized soldiers and sailors added to the ranks of those seeking what little employment was available. The landed gentry, fearing an agricultural depression, pushed the Corn Laws through Parliament, thereby protecting their incomes through increased taxation on imported grains and price supports for homegrown agricultural products. The already struggling poor were pushed to the edge of starvation.

Discontent boiled among the hungry and unemployed. Parish poor relief coffers and soup kitchens staggered under the load of ever increasing numbers of destitute. Resentment against mill owners and landowners resulted in destruction of machines and property. In London, a riot by unemployed weavers resulted in their former employers being shot. Coupled with dire need came a growing political awareness and demand for reform. Then came August, 1819 and a gathering at St. Peter’s Field organized to protest the Corn Laws. Fearing revolution, the local magistrates had the Riot Act read. The crowd refused to disperse. Sabers drawn, mounted yeomanry were sent in to deal with the situation resulting in 11 killed and 400 wounded. Parliament, frightened to action, passed the Six Acts, which prohibited unauthorized military style drilling; changed procedures for treason trials; authorized the seizure of literature deemed seditious or blasphemous, making transportation the penalty for a second offense; authorized warrants to search for weapons; imposed a stamp duty on certain publications; and restricted the size of public meetings. The Six Acts were not warmly received by the struggling masses.


George IV

A propitious economic upturn momentarily calmed dissent. Renewed apathy toward reform set in until a constitutional crisis was created by the king. George III died in January, 1820, leaving the bigamous Prince Regent to become George IV. George IV had illegally married a Roman Catholic, Mrs. Fitzherbert , in 1785 and while still married to her, married a legal wife, Caroline of Brunswick, in 1795. For years, he bounced between Mrs. Fitzherbert’s and his mistresses’ beds while eschewing the bed of his rightful wife. Once crowned, he demanded a divorce from Caroline. His Ministry was afraid to comply.  George threatened to fire them all.

To this combustable mix, the discovery of the Cato Street Conspiracy threatening the lives of the entire cabinet and unrest in Scotland that required troops to deal with it was added. Fearing an English version of the excesses and violence of the French Revolution, the gentry fled into the open arms of the conservative Tories. The Ministry now felt secure enough to act against the queen. With that, stir in the levying of unpopular taxes, suspicions of Lord Wellington’s political machinations, and a king whose behavior was beyond the pale, a scandal, and deeply offensive. The populous at all levels had had enough. When the Ministry supported trumped up charges of adultery against Queen


Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of George IV

Caroline, discontent erupted in the form of outcries in the Times from all levels of the reading public and demonstrations in the streets of support for the queen and antipathy toward the ministers. The ineffective police and the hated troops could neither control the masses, prevent demonstrations, nor quell the flow of unauthorized publications. England was ripe for revolution.

Disaster was averted with a reshuffling of the government and an improvement in economic conditions in the country.  The odious Six Acts were allowed to lapse; taxes were lowered; the price of wheat decreased; forgiven trade increased; unemployment decreased. As life became more bearable, the riots and disruptions ceased. Most important to the restoration of law and order, Sir Robert Peel was appointed Home Secretary in 1822. He served two terms: January 1822 – April 1827 and January 1828 – November 1830.

Peel succeeded in instituting criminal law reform where others before him had failed. He consolidated redundant laws and eliminated superfluous ones. He abolished the death penalty for over 100 crimes and did away with the Benefit of Clergy, which allowed the clergy to escape punishment for certain crimes. Victims of sexual crimes found bringing charges easier due to Peel’s reforms. He increased the number of judges and worked to prevent abuses within the penal system.

Once he had streamlined criminal law, Peel set his sights on law enforcement, no doubt propelled to greater haste by an economic downturn in late 1825. The financial prosperity of the years 1822-1825 had encouraged speculation. When prices crashed, a panic ensued, banks failed, factories and mills closed, unemployment rose, rioting returned. During his second term as Home Secretary, Peel focused on creating a unified police force that would serve the entire city. He commissioned a committee to study the matter. They collected and analyzed data. They found little new in the way of information, but when they issued their report, it had a recommendation previously voiced by Peel: a unified police force to serve the entire metropolitan area with authority to act centralized under the Home Office.

As with all things new, opposition cropped up in various quarters. To some city boroughs, the idea of giving up local control to a centralized force was not to be borne. They also feared a new tax to support the proposed force. Political rivals had their own reasons for trying to obstruct Peel. In the end, however, Peel prevailed. In April 1829, he introduced “A Bill for Improving the Police in and Near the Metropolis” in Parliament.  In it, he outlined his beliefs regarding effective, efficient policing and administration and the establishment of a permanent, paid force. The Metropolitan Police Act passed, laying the foundation of today’s Met.

bobbies early peelers


In the beginning, the officers were known as Peelers. Later, bobby came into use. Whether Peeler or bobby, the effect was the same: a centralized, organized, efficient, effective professional police force.

Peel’s influence and his ideas are still in evidence today. In a New York Times article dated April 15, 2014, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton discussed Peel’s Nine Principles of Policing.

There is some doubt among scholars that Sir Robert Peel actually enunciated any of his nine principles himself — some researchers say they were formulated in 1829 by the two first commissioners of London’s Metropolitan Police Department.

PRINCIPLE 1 “The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.”

PRINCIPLE 2 “The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of police actions.”

PRINCIPLE 3 “Police must secure the willing cooperation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the public.”

PRINCIPLE 4 “The degree of cooperation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.”

PRINCIPLE 5 “Police seek and preserve public favor not by catering to the public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.”

PRINCIPLE 6 “Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.”

PRINCIPLE 7 “Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence.”

PRINCIPLE 8 “Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.”

PRINCIPLE 9 “The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.”

It seems we owe Sir Robert Peel a considerable debt of gratitude.


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Linda Bennett Pennell is an author of historical fiction set in the American South or about Southerners traveling far from home. While she writes about the land of her birth, anything with a history, whether shabby or regal, ancient or closer to our own day, has fascinated her since early childhood. This love of the past and the desire to create stories of it probably owes much to her Southern roots.

Southern families are filled with storytellers who keep family and community histories alive. It is in their blood and part of their birthright. Linda’s family had many such yarn spinners who entertained the family on cold winter evenings around her grandmother’s fireplace and during long summer afternoons on her wraparound porch. And most important of all, most of those stories were true.

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