The birth and development of the police

Authored by: Clive Emsley

Handbook of Policing

Print publication date:  August  2008
Online publication date:  August  2012

Print ISBN: 9781843925002
eBook ISBN: 9780203118238
Adobe ISBN: 9781136308529


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The year 1829 is commonly seen as the one in which the ‘New Police’ were established in England. The traditional Whig histories, accounts infused with the idea of social progress pushed forward by far-sighted men, assumed that London's Metropolitan Police were a significant advance on what had existed before and, in support of their arguments, they quoted early nineteenth-century police reformers who maintained as much. In the perception of these histories late Georgian and early Victorian British society sought to be consensual but was threatened by mob violence and rising crime committed by individuals who, as ‘criminals’, were separate from the majority within society. The ‘New Police’ were a neutral government's solution to these threats (Reith 1938, 1943; Critchley 1978; Ascoli 1979). The Whig histories also assumed that the gradual spread of policing through parliamentary legislation was a further illustration of the success, superiority and public acceptance of the Metropolitan model. Charles Reith, the doyen of the Whig police historians, even argued that British success in two world wars during the twentieth century was, at least in part, due to a superior policing system – a ‘kin’ police as opposed to a state-directed gendarmerie (Reith 1952: 20, 244). From the late 1960s revisionist historians started to challenge this view. They began from a perception of late Georgian and early Victorian society as divided internally, primarily by class conflict. In the revisionist view, the new police were an instrument for controlling and disciplining a burgeoning, and increasingly self-confident and non-deferential, working class (Storch 1975, 1976).

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