8/3/10 - london police

In today's excerpt - the first modern police force. With the Industrial Revolution came the beginnings of immense social and economic changes and the large scale migration of the population from towns to cities. The parish constable and "watch" systems that had previously been in place 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." Jack Whicher, who later became a famed detective, was among the first of these new policemen:

"On 18 September, [1837, Jack] Whicher became a police constable. ... The Metropolitan Police, the first such force in the country, was eight years old. London had got so big, so fluid, so mysterious to itself that in 1829 its inhabitants had, reluctantly, accepted the need for a disciplined body of men to patrol the streets. The 3,500 policemen were known as 'bobbles' and 'peelers' (after their founder, Sir Robert Peel), as 'coppers' (they caught, or copped, villains), as 'crushers' (they crushed liberty), as 'Jenny Darbies' (from gendarmes), and as pigs (a term of abuse since the sixteenth century).

"Whicher was issued with dark-blue trousers and a dark-blue long-tailed coat, its bright metal buttons imprinted with a crown and the word POLICE. ...  Whicher shared a dormitory with about sixteen other men in the Hunter Place station house, in Hunter Street, just south of King's Cross. ... All single men were expected to lodge in the station house, and to be in their quarters by midnight....

"In the daytime, a constable covered a seven-and-a-half-mile beat at two-and-a-half miles an hour for two four-hour stints: from 6 a.m. to 10 a.m., say, and from 2  p.m. to 6 p.m. He familiarised himself with every house on his beat, and strove  to clear the roads of beggars, tramps, costermongers, drunks and prostitutes. He was subject to spot checks by a sergeant or an inspector, and the rules were strict: no leaning or sitting while on the beat, no swearing, no consorting with servan girls. The police were instructed to treat everyone with respect—the drivers of hansom cabs, for instance, were not to be referred to as 'cabbies'—and to avoid the use of force. These standards were to be observed off-duty, too. If found drunk at any time, a constable was issued with a warning, and if the offence was repeated he was dismissed from the force. In the early 1830s four out of five dismissals, of a total of three thousand, were for drunkenness. ...

"The circuit was much shorter at night—two miles—and Whicher was expected to pass each point on his beat every hour. ... Though this shift could be miserable in winter, it had its perks: tips for waking up market traders or labourers before dawn, and sometimes a 'toothful' of beer or brandy from each publican on the route. ...

"[Whicher's district] teemed with tricksters, and the police ... had to be expert in identifying them. A new vocabulary evolved to catalogue the various deceits. The police watched out for 'magsmen' (conmen, such as card sharps) who 'gammoned' (fooled) 'flats' (dupes) with the help of 'buttoners' or 'bonnets' (accomplices who drew people in by seeming to win money from the magsmen). A 'screever' (drafter of documents) might sell a 'fakement' to a vagrant 'on the blob' (telling hard-luck stories)—in 1837, fifty Londoners were arrested for producing such documents and eighty-six for bearing them. To 'work the kinchin lay,' was to trick children out of their cash or clothing. To 'work the shallow' was to excite compassion by begging half-naked. To 'shake lurk' was to beg in the guise of a shipwrecked sailor. In November 1837 a magistrate noted that some thieves in the Holborn area were acting as decoys, feigning drunkenness in order to distract police constables while their friends burgled houses."


Kate Summerscale


The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective


Walker Publishing Company


Copyright 2008 by Kate Summerscale


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