19th Century

The Birth of Police Brutality in England, 1831 | Stephen Basdeo

The text of a talk given by Stephen Basdeo to the University of Montes Claros, Minas Gerais, Brazil, on 19 August 2022


The subject of police brutality is quite timely: the death of George Floyd in the USA, at the hands of the police, on 25 May 2020, sparked worldwide outrage in several media outlets and on social media. The ensuing Black Lives Matter protests that started in the USA kick-started protests in France,[1] the UK,[2] and other Western European cities. Here in Brazil, acts of police brutality are covered by in the news fairly regularly and, in some cases, films take it as their subject. When the George Floyd protests began, I remember someone saying something to the effect of:

“I wonder how many times in the past the cops got away with doing things like this and brushing it up.”

The murder of George Floyd (Wikimedia Commons)

But this got me thinking: who reported police brutality in the 1800s? Was there even a concept of police brutality in the early nineteenth century? So this paper is the result of me thinking about and researching these questions and I will show how the concept of police brutality was born in England in 1831.

The first question can be answered fairly quickly. Police brutality is a media construct. In the Western World, violent acts committed by policemen are “packaged” up in the media as being “brutal.” It is largely the press—and nowadays social media—who decides whether a policeman has overstepped the boundaries of “reasonable force.”[3] The term “police brutality” was first coined (as far as I’ve been able to ascertain) on 3 August 1833 in a periodical published by Henry Hetherington titled The Poor Man’s Guardian—which ran between 1831 and 1835—where the paper exposed “ANOTHER ATROCIOUS CASE OF POLICE BRUTALITY!”[4] If we interrogate the language there,[5] we find that The Poor Man’s Guardian is talking about this as though police brutality is already an ongoing problem; this is another case of police brutality. Yet in London the Metropolitan Police, or the “New Police,” as they were often called, was only founded in 1829. The time between 1829 and Hetherington’s report in 1833 was not exactly a long one for the police to build up a reputation for brutality. There is in fact surprisingly little scholarship on the history of police brutality in the United Kingdom and this is where I want to make a modest contribution to scholarship by analysing accounts of police brutality in Hetherington’s periodical.[6] As the first paper to use the term it makes sense to examine the Poor Man’s Guardian’s reporting of police brutality; after all the paper regularly printed small columns in its back pages usually titled something to the effect of “Atrocities of the New Police.”

Henry Hetherington

As I argue in this presentation there were two reasons why Hetherington devoted a lot of space in his journal to coverage of police brutality: firstly, the passage of the Metropolitan Police Act in 1829 represented a loss of political rights for working and lower middle-class people, who before to 1829 had always had the opportunity to choose the law enforcement officers in the areas they lived; secondly, although the “old police” had always had wide-ranging powers to be even more “brutal” than the Metropolitan Police, the instances of brutality were even more galling because and noteworthy because no one had voted for these policemen and there was no means of redress against their brutality. This new centralised force, who were derided by Hetherington’s newspaper as “soldiers,” had been imposed on the working classes without their consent.

Policing before 1829

It makes sense, then, to discuss the powers that were available to agents of law enforcement prior to 1829. I shall also briefly discuss how constables were selected prior to 1829 as it is will shed some light on why the response to the wrongs committed by the Metropolitan Police emerged. But it does require me going into some rather dry details of local government.

Jonathan Wild

Before 1829 law enforcement in London was, to say the least, haphazard in its organisation. The capital was policed by a variety of thief takers, like the famous Jonathan Wild; Bow Street Runners, who were a very small body of constables founded by Henry and John Fielding which operated out of Bow Street Magistrates office and were funded by a direct parliamentary grant; as well as watch men, constables and, in the liberties, High Constables and High Bailiffs. Now, thief takers were independent entrepreneurs who ensured the return of a person’s stolen goods for an appropriate fee. They were rarely “official,” although they might give evidence in a trial. Instead I shall focus upon constables.

The office of constable was one which had existed since time immemorial. A person did not apply to become a constable as you would apply to become a policeman today. Instead a person was selected to serve as a constable. The selection was made at a parish level by members of the vestry who took charge of issues like administering poor relief; maintenance of roads; maintaining food and drink standards; and the managing the election of stewards, poor law guardians, constables, and beadles. Only rate payers could stand for these offices but in most places the franchise for vestry elections was truly universal and included men and women (women could even hold office—and the story of women’s participation in local politics is sorely overlooked in historical writing).[7] What we have at a parish level, then, is democratic control over how the law was enforced (the British Crown Dependencies of Jersey and Guernsey still elect their constables to this day—a continuity from the eighteenth century!)

The English Constable (BM Prints)

Constables who served in the Bow Street Runners had their appointments confirmed directly by a stipendiary magistrate, and increasingly in many areas local magistrates, in collaboration with parish officials, took charge of appointing the constables. But in other areas people had a more direct say in who became a constable.

The duties of a Constable

In the liberties[8]—those areas of London and elsewhere that were free from the authority of the crown—the selection of constables was usually made at a meeting of the court leet, the lowest court in the land. The body’s remit is nicely summed up in the mission statement of the one remaining English leet court today: to take care of 

“roads, paths, and ditches; to guard against all manner of encroachments upon the public rights … [and] to take cognisance of grosser crimes of assault, arson, burglary, larceny, manslaughter, murder, treason, and every felony at common law”.[9]

The jury of court leet couldn’t prosecute criminals but had to make provision for crime prevention. The leet court’s jury was not a jury in the sense that we think of today but was a selection of people from the local community, whose social class ranged from pauper to merchant—though in practice usually the labour aristocracy upwards—and who had taken an oath to oversee the liberty’s business. Under the direction of the steward and the high bailiff of the liberty, the jury of the court leet would hold elections for all of the liberty’s officers:[10] bailiffs, constables, and beadles[11] were all elected.[12]

It was a person’s civic duty to serve as constable and fines would be levied against those who refused to take the oath of constable when they were selected. They also had wide-ranging powers which were the same whether they were elected by parishioners or at a meeting of the court leet. They were armed usually with pistols and swords—after all, the golden age of highway robbery, one could not take a mere truncheon in pursuit of an armed highwayman.[13] If a felon resisted arrest or attempted to escape, the constable was within his rights to kill the felon and he would not be prosecuted. However, if you were a constable and you did kill a felon, you had to make sure you had a warrant about and that it was evident to all by-standers that you were acting in an official capacity.[14]

Joseph Ritson: High Bailiff of the Liberty of the Savoy

The constable might also draft a bystanders into service either by raising the hue-and-cry (that is the cry of “Stop! Thief!” with everyone required to stop what they’re doing and chase the thief) or by administering the oath of constable on the spot to an individual; if the by-stander killed a felon after being drafted into service, he would not face any penalties either.[15] The summary killing of a felon who resisted arrest was obviously one of the more extreme measures at the constable’s disposal. But the constable could beat a rogue who resisted arrest and may imprison the offender after the beating till the would-be rogue had recovered.[16] Constables could also conduct public floggings of offenders and summarily place them in the pillory without first bringing them before a magistrate.[17]    

Tom and Jerry assaulting a night watchman

Finally another feature of eighteenth- and early-nineteenth century street life was the night watchman. All householders were required to serve as a watchman on a rota basis with fines for those who refused.[18] These men’s roles were similar to constables but it was a position funded and appointed directly by the parish and empowered to prevent crime. The watchmen have generally received a bad reputation; anyone familiar with Pierce Egan’s Life in London (1821) will know that, in that novel at least, they are figures of fun and easily overpowered by drunken louts on a night about the town. The reality is that they were formidable figures—often burly ex-soldiers who, armed with pistols and cutlasses, had the same powers of arrest as the constables. What we would now recognise as the excessive or extreme use of force—bordering on what we might call brutality—was actually embedded into the role of the constables and night watchmen. Be that as it may, in the majority of cases, local people from all social classes, and both sexes, had the right to have a say in selecting who enforced the law in their local community. Even in the case of watchmen who were appointed, there was still democratic control over who ran the parish.

While there were, prior to 1829, some isolated instances of constables who fell afoul of the law, the press seemed not to take much notice of the excessive force used by law enforcement officials. My own (unprovable) theory on this point is that press commentators probably didn’t draw attention to constables’ wrongdoings as there was a democratic way of getting rid of the worst offenders at the next parish vestry or leet court meeting—there was already a means of redress against the worst offenders. Of course, as I come to the end of this section and you think that law enforcement and the selection of constables was a complete mess, you’d be correct. It was an antiquated system that had evolved in a haphazard manner since the Norman Conquest. Two parishes situated next to each other may not have appointed constables under the same rules as each other.[19] No wonder, then, that in the “rational” nineteenth century forward-thinking statesmen wanted to change this system.

The Establishment of the “New Police” and Hetherington’s Coverage of their Brutality

However, the attitude to exposing the crimes of the law enforcement officials changed with Robert Peel’s establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The British public, in the preceding century, had been very hesitant to support the establishment of a uniformed police force; having such a force was something which, so many people thought at the time, was something that the despotic governments of the continent did.[20] Nevertheless the frequent riots in the post-Napoleonic War era, the Peterloo Massacre in Manchester, as well as the perceived increase in criminality, convinced both parliamentarians and the public at large of the need for a uniformed police force.[21] The new police had two aims. The first was to arrest those who they considered were about to commit a felony and thereby ensure the “security of the person and property and the preservation of public order.”[22] Secondly the police would be “civil and obliging to all people of every rank and class … and cautious not to interfere unnecessarily, in order to make a display of authority.”[23] Importantly they would not be armed with pistols but only with a truncheon. Every officer would be assigned a “beat” to patrol and, although in the early days of the New Police they operated out of the same watch houses as the “Old” constables and watchmen, it was hoped that the new centrally organised force would spell the end of the “disorganised” older system which Peel and his co-reformer Edwin Chadwick thought was inefficient.

William Carpenter’s broadside complaining about the New Police

Now, the late 1820s were an age of reform—along with the founding of the “New Police,” also called “Bobbies” and “Peelers”, there was in 1832 the passage of the Representation of the People Act—which created new electoral constituencies and extended voting rights to men who owned freehold property worth over 40s; people who owned copyhold property worth over £10; and male householders who paid £50 per year in rent.[24] In 1834 there was the Poor Law Amendment Act which revised and extended the workhouse system. The reform acts of 1832 and 1834 are generally seen as having been detrimental to the working classes. Excluded from the franchise in 1832 the poorest in society would, after 1834, be consigned to the workhouse. Yet the Metropolitan Police Act can be conceived as the first of these reform acts to exclude the working classes from government, albeit at a local level. Instead of all social classes gathering together at a parish level or at the court leet and electing men from the local community to serve as constables—as they’d had the right to since time immemorial[25]—from 1829 onwards policemen, who probably didn’t live in the local area, would be selected by a centrally organised, unelected, bureaucratic institution. As one scholar remarks:

[T]he broad purposes of Peel and Chadwick were ultimately realised, and it is incontestable that they advocated a new kind of state power: rationally planned, publicly funded, bureaucratically controlled, centrally directed, and reaching into every neighbourhood which might secrete crime and disorder.[26]

Writers in the radical press, already angry with the government for not having yet granted universal male suffrage, were outraged. A broadside printed by William Carpenter early in 1830 reported that, at a mass meeting held at St Pancras and attended by over 2,000 people, the organisers boldly called on attendees to resist Peel’s encroachment on their “right of governing your parochial affairs.” The historic right of “appointing guardians [constables] of your own property has been arbitrarily wrested from you and usurped by the secretary of state for the Home Department.” The meeting finished by demanding that the king return Britons’ ancient rights over the “government of our parochial police affairs.”[27] It should be noted here that radicals were not alone in their opposition to the police. Some of the more traditionally-minded Tory and Whig ministers were apprehensive about Peel’s New Police because it placed too much power in the hands of central government.[28] But it’s clear that the working classes’ indignation at the imposition of a new police force upon them can be explained when we view the foundation of Peel’s force as part of a process of the monopolisation of state power—taking power from the people and denying them a stake in their own affairs. The Bow Street Runners and the existing constables were then amalgamated into the police force in 1839.

As for the wider newspaper press, most of the “establishment” journals like The Times were largely favourable in their coverage of the new police’s activities; even though some correspondents disagreed with a uniformed police on the grounds that it infringed people’s civil liberties, they did not “expose” wrongdoings by the police and certainly never suggested abolishing the police like Carpenter called for.

For radicals, injury was added to insult when it transpired that the new police were not actually the gentlemen they purported to be. Henry Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian, which began its publication shortly after the Met Police’s establishment, was therefore poised and willing to report any instances of police brutality. Hetherington was born in 1792 and as a youth he was apprenticed to Luke Hansard’s printing firm. He was soon laid off and, for a time, wandered about Europe in search of work, spending a couple of years in Belgium honing his craft as both printer and writer. It was during the 1820s that Hetherington was “radicalised” after reading Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (1791), and Hetherington thereafter became a firm supporter of the universal suffrage campaign.

Back in England Hetherington set up his own press and determined upon publishing a penny paper and the result was The Poor Man’s Guardian.[29] Selling at one penny the paper would help to instruct the working classes in radical politics and convince them of the need for universal suffrage in parliamentary elections. The content consisted of a lead article, usually written by Hetherington; reprints of articles from other radical papers; election coverage; letters from members of the working classes; and short articles on the final pages consisting of coverage of a variety of issues including police brutality. The tone of the paper was melodramatic: evil murderous aristocrats and greedy “shopocrats” were responsible for all of the nation’s ills. The working class were almost saintly by comparison (Louis James might call this literary mode “social melodrama”).[30] A tool in the establishment’s tyranny was of course the police, who had tried on multiple occasions to suppress the sale of the Poor Man’s Guardian because it was an unstamped newspaper. Hetherington even spent several short spells in prison himself because of his defiance against the taxes on knowledge. Perhaps it was both his political persuasions and a personal animosity against the police, born of his own experiences in prison cells, which made Hetherington particularly alert to instances of police brutality. While the Poor Man’s Guardian endeavoured to report on the wrongful arrests of political reformers, it also highlighted police misconduct concerning more “everyday” type of offences, and both of these type of instances which will be my focus going forward.

Hetherington was clear: the new uniformed police were, just as many of his eighteenth-century forebears predicted might happen if such a force were ever established, an instrument of despotism and tyranny. The language used to describe the force made his position clear. The new police were “soldiers,” the equivalent of a standing army set upon the people which earlier Georgians had always avoided—the memory of Oliver Cromwell’s maintenance of a standing army policing the people in the seventeenth century loomed like a spectre over eighteenth-century law enforcement policy. But Hetherington also drew on more recent examples to highlight the despotic nature of the new police by calling them modern gens d’armes.[31] The gens d’armes in France, of course, were prior to the revolution the French king’s personal police force and, after the revolution, Napoleon’s imperial guard.

There were several instances of what I call “general complaints”—these are reports where correspondents made unsubstantiated allegations about several policemen all at once. One such example was a short article titled “New Police Nuisance” which complained that

The police-fellows go about breaking heads and laying informations, in both of which accompaniments they are most diabolically indiscriminate … we have no hesitation in declaring our conviction that a more deservedly unpopular body of men never disgraced the name of constable or peace-officer more than these blue-coated bullies … peaceable mechanics cannot take a walk … but these bullies are drawn out armed with sword and bludgeon to block the streets against them, and take the opportunity of splitting heads and cutting out eyes.[32]

Interestingly Hetherington was of the opinion that the new police had disgraced the old and presumably time-honoured office of constable. The sense of class oppression there is also clear: this was a force which unfairly targeted working-class people who wanted nothing more to go about their daily business in peace.

However, generalised complaints were few and far between in the Poor Man’s Guardian. Hetherington instead was often very specific in recounting the details of all cases of police brutality. The complaints can be divided roughly into two categories: harm caused while keeping the peace and harm caused in custody.

Much of the police’s brutality in the process of keeping the peace was committed at public events. In one of the newspaper’s earliest issues some column space was devoted to the following article:


Advertisement for the Cold Bath Fields meeting

It seems that, on the day of William IV’s coronation (8 September 1831), a brewer’s assistant named Charles Sweet stood in line to watch a procession of the horse guards. To make room for the procession policemen begin pushing people back. Sweet was at the front of the line and received a blow on the head from a policeman’s cutlass. Although the new police would not be armed with such weapons on their everyday beat, they were routinely issued with cutlasses when maintaining public order at large events.[34] The blow to Sweet’s head was so brutal that, according to a witness, the cutlass cut through Sweets hat and into his skull where the blood “gushed out.” Sweet did not die immediately and the policeman was dismissed for misconduct the next day and ordered to pay £2 in compensation (equivalent to £135 today). However, over the course of the next few days Sweet had to be admitted to Middlesex Hospital (his symptoms were not specified in the paper). He later died on 22 September. Being an “unnatural” death, a coroner was called; the coroner observed the partially healed wound on Sweet’s head but concluded that the policeman’s cutlass stroke didn’t cause Sweet’s death. Taking a high moral tone, Hetherington thundered that this was yet another instance of class oppression by police “soldiers.” The coroner dismissed the case because Sweet was a poor working man. Had Sweet been a lord, reasoned Hetherington, then the policeman William Kinsman would have been hauled in front of a magistrate on a charge of murder.

Hetherington also exposed crimes of the police at the Cold Bath Fields meeting on 13 May 1833. At this event the working classes held an “illegal” protest against the 1832 Reform Act—it is an event which police historians have marked as the first major clash between the police and the working classes. The Poor Man’s Guardian’s headline five days later railed against the “SAVAGE AND MURDEROUS ASSAULT BY THE POLICE ON THE CONVENTIONISTS AT THE SPA-FIELDS MEETING.” Eyewitness accounts of the police’s “savagery” against protestors were related in suitably dramatic detail in the article itself. The police were said to “furiously attack the multitude with their staves, felling every person indiscriminately before them, even the females not escaping the blows of their batons, and men and boys lying in every direction weltering in their blood and calling for mercy.”[35] So ferocious was the police’s conduct that even The Times, Hetherington remarked, dared not justify the police’s actions in spite of that newspaper’s previous support for Peel’s reforms. As Hetherington always did, he portrayed the working classes as saintly, thereby setting up in his readers’ minds clear good guys and clear baddies. The rumours about the protestors all carrying daggers, Hetherington assured readers, were nothing but “false news.” What made the brutality worse, in Hetherington’s eyes, was the fact that the police were operating “under the immediate superintendence of ‘his Majesty’s Servants,’ the Whig Ministers of the crown,” against whom there was no means of redress, unlike with the constables of old chosen by the people at a parish level.[36] It was true that a policeman also died at the Cold Bath Fields meeting,[37] but Hetherington replied that this was a warning to the police not to underestimate the power of working class people at organised protests. Besides the “affray” was caused by the police so it stood to reason that the police themselves were responsible for the officer’s death.[38]

There were several instances of police brutality in the more “everyday” reports of the force’s actions. It appears on occasion that some of the new police manhandled people so brutally that people died as a result—Hetherington was ever ready to report these instances. One example was an article titled


The “bludgeonists,” as Hetherington called them, entered a public house at 12 a.m. on Saturday 20 July 1833 to clear it at closing time and literally threw a poor man out of the house, striking his head on the kerbstone. Assuming he was drunk the police left him outside and went about their business. When they returned to the scene two hours later the man was still lying there and, thinking he was just drunk, they took him to the station. No surgeon was called for and the man died in custody. Hetherington was furious: he named the police officers and gave their badge numbers—John Douglas (No. 279K) and one sergeant Patterson (9K)—although it must have at least assuaged Hetherington’s and his readers’ anger somewhat on learning that the officers themselves were eventually indicted for the unlawful death they had caused. Yet it was clear, to Hetherington at least, that the policemen in this instance were being protected by the elites: a week later the Poor Man’s Guardian revealed that a respectable “Lady” had stood bail for these murderous “guardians of public peace.”[40]

The death of the waterman was by no means the only death in custody. I should note at this point that, when the Metropolitan Police was in its infancy, there were very few dedicated police stations and most of them were operating out of the watch houses that were in use in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries (many of which, in fact, dated back to the medieval period). Often a one or two room “roundhouse” or “lock up”—where prisoners arrested on an afternoon or evening would be kept until their appearance in front of a magistrate the following day—the prisoner would be kept in poorly ventilated close quarters. Oftentimes imprisonment in such conditions exacerbated existing illnesses, as it did in the case of the 68-year-old pauper woman Mary Bradley one evening in July 1833. In an article titled “A PAUPER KILLED BY CLOSE CONFINEMENT,” Hetherington revealed that Mary was taken to the St Giles lock-up for being drunk and disorderly. By the morning Mary was dead. A coroner declared that while Mary was, at the time of her arrest, ill with cholera, it was the fetid conditions in the lock-up which led to her demise that evening.[41] That same week a girl of fifteen was likewise killed in a lock-up by the close confinement and foul air where she was imprisoned. Such occurrences were, Hetherington remarked, “absolutely disgraceful in any country calling itself Christian.”[42]

A “lock up” from the eighteenth century

Hetherington also raised queries about the new police’s use of guns. The Metropolitan Police, to this day, take it as a point of pride that they do not bear arms—that policing in the United Kingdom is by consent. Anxious to avoid the idea that the police were “soldiers,” Peel decided in 1829 that his police force would not carry guns (unlike the old parish constables). Why, then, did cases of seemingly unlawful shootings by the new police come before Hetherington’s notice? And why, on occasion, were the soldiers of the Metropolitan Police found to be operating outside of London, where they had no jurisdiction?[43] The Poor Man’s Guardian reported on the case of policeman Robert Piercy who apparently had apparently travelled out of London to Watton in Hertfordshire. At the request of a local landowner, Piercy was asked to defend, with firearms, the landowner’s estate from poachers. The actual details of the case are a bit vague but it seems that, while patrolling the area at night, Piercy shot a man who he thought was a poacher. It turned out that the man was not a poacher but merely a drunk shepherd named James Sheppard. As the (very anti-police) Hertford & Ware Patriot reported, angry citizens chased Piercy away from the town. A verdict was later recorded of “justifiable homicide” was recorded by the coroner and Piercy was quickly transferred back to his Westminster beat.[44] The well-to-do should not be “hiring” public servants as their personal protection forces, so Hetherington argued. In fact, there were other instances recorded in the Poor Man’s Guardian where it seemed that the London-based upper classes were hiring the services of the police. One such example was the Duke of Devonshire who gave a grand ball at his London mansion in May 1833 and hired the police to block off the road so that no one from the working classes could pass through the public thoroughfare.[45]

The police seem to have developed a reputation for the mistreatment of women, particularly poorer women. We noted the case of Mary Bradley earlier, and policemen’s willingness to man-handle women also received portrayals in fiction. For example, in G.W.M. Reynolds’s Pickwick Married (1840–41), Samuel Pickwick has to defend a pauper woman from an overzealous police officer who’s treating her a little too roughly.[46] There were another heinous crime committed by an officer of the new police, and which was duly reported in the Poor Man’s Guardian, was the rape of a woman prisoner named Ruth Morris by an on-duty “Inspector” of the D Division in August 1834 (the policeman’s name was kept anonymous). As with the Piercy case I just mentioned, few of the case’s particulars were known because reporters were not allowed to be present in the courtroom when such cases were being tried. One fact that was reported, however, is that the police force essentially “closed ranks” when the case was brought before a magistrate and obstructed the Justice of the Peace’s investigation at every turn. Yet as Hetherington noted, the mistreatment of women was par the course with the Metropolitan Police. These “scoundrels,” thundered Hetherington, were the same who had “battled with poor apple women in Westminster” and had also attacked women at the Cold Bath Fields gathering.[47]


At 6p.m. on Tuesday 29 September 1829 the first “Peelers,” dressed in their top hats, dark blue tunics, filed on to London’s streets and began patrolling their beats. They looked like perfect gentlemen. But as Hetherington’s coverage illustrates, there were many men whose actions rendered them unworthy of the office.[48] This is illustrated by the sheer number of men who were dismissed from the force. Of the 2,800 constables who were employed by the Metropolitan Police in May 1830, by 1834 only 562 of that original intake were still in service. The main reasons for these men’s dismissal seems to have been drunkenness and fighting with civilians and fellow officers alike. There were officers such as James Rogers of the 2nd Company, for instance, who was dismissed for starting a fight with a woman in Tufton Street. Thomas Tapp of the 7th Company was fired for turning up to work drunk. Michael Swollard of the 14th Company was sacked for being drunk and verbally abusing civilians.[49] I could list many more cases but it is understandable how, in the early years of the force the officers garnered very little respect among the public, although to the police force’s credit, the sheer number of dismissals suggests that they dealt with “bad apples” fairly swiftly. The exposures of their misdemeanours, not only in the Poor Man’s Guardian but in other radical newspapers like The True Sun and the Destructor, only served to further dent the new police’s reputation. These statistics, combined with Hetherington’s newspaper reports, suggest that police brutality in its early years was in fact endemic throughout the force. Mistakes were certainly made and there was probably a “dark figure” of police brutality which never got reported (this “dark figure” is the number of committed crimes that are never reported or discovered).[50] As time went on, the incidence of police brutality in the new police became less frequent. And perhaps Hetherington’s attitude to the new police changed as the calibre of men recruited to the force improved. In the latter part of 1834 right through to 1835 there were no reports of police brutality. Much of the coverage in the Poor Man’s Guardian in these years was focused upon the Poor Law Amendment Act and not the police.

Of course, if we lay aside the murder and rape cases for a moment, we should note that in Hetherington’s complaints about police “ruffianism”—the beating up of would-be felons—such beatings had always been meted out by the “old” constables and very few words were said about it in the newspaper press. Furthermore deaths in custody were nothing new in 1829. In fact, one of the reasons behind the passage of the Penitentiary Act (1779) was the fact that prisons were overcrowded and, with diseases rife, prisoners were dying.[51] The difference with the new police, however, was that the people could not get rid of them through democratic means when they were unhappy with their service. To the masses, law enforcement always felt like it was a community-based endeavour but by the nineteenth century this was replaced with rule by institutions.[52] The Metropolitan Police Act had wrested control over law enforcement from the people. The police’s ruffianism meant that they were seen in the radical press as the henchmen of an oligarchical elite who set out to punish the working classes. The police “guarded St James by watching St Giles.”[53] Anger towards the Act of 1829 was reflected in the radical press’s coverage of police brutality and their framing of the establishment of the new police as a loss of rights. This was a process repeated in other parts of the country when the County Police Act was passed in 1839, mandating the establishment of police forces in provincial towns and cities. Wherever a new police force appeared, they seem to have been, in their early years, initially distrusted by the working classes—a “plague of blue locusts” was the description one newspaper gave to the establishment of a police force in one of the northern industrial towns. Yet as the century progressed the police appear to have gradually gained the trust of the Victorian public. The policeman, especially in the realm of fiction and popular culture more broadly became a friendly figure and someone who you could trust. This was true of fiction written even by radical working-class champions—I’m thinking here of George W.M. Reynolds’s Mysteries of London in which the virtuous hero Richard Markham enlists the help of the police to track down the Resurrection Man. This was a reputation that was a far cry from Hetherington’s denunciation of them as “soldiers” and “gens d’armes” in the early 1830s.


[1] David Keohane and Victor Mallet [online], ‘How France was touched by the death of George Floyd’, Financial Times, 12 June 2020, accessed 26 February 2021. Available at: http://www.ft.com

[2] BBC [online], ‘George Floyd death: Thousands turn out for UK anti-racism protests’, accessed 26 February 2021. Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk

[3] See Regina G. Lawrence, The politics of force: media and the construction of police brutality (Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2000).

[4] ‘Another Atrocious Case of Police Brutality’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 3 August 1833, 250.

[5]  ‘More Police Brutality’, The Puppet-Show, 9 September 1848. 14: Wikipedia says that the first use of the term in Britain was in 1848 in a satirical magazine called The Puppet Show—a short-lived rival to Punch—in which the writer remarked: “Scarcely a week passes without their committing some offence which disgusts everybody but the magistrates. Boys are bruised by their ferocity, women insulted by their ruffianism; and that which brutality has done, perjury denies, and magisterial stupidity suffers to go unpunished … And “police brutality” is becoming one of our most ‘venerated institutions!’” See also Louise A. Knafla, ed. Essays from Criminal Justice History: Crime, Police and the Courts in British History (Westport, CT: Meckler, 1990), p. 210: In 1848, in fact, the police hardly covered themselves in glory—there are reports of police brutality committed by drunken officers at the Chartist Rally at Kennington Common in April of that year.

[6] The problem of course was where to start; as far as I can ascertain, there are no cases of what we would now call police brutality—incidences in which members of law enforcement resort to extreme and unwarranted use of force—in the annals of the Old Bailey Online, which is the first port of call for any crime historian studying events in London (there are accounts of what we might call “crooked cops” in the dock, who were found guilty of stealing or extorting money from people, but there are no accounts of brutality). On constables and policemen in the dock see the following: Old Bailey Proceedings Online, July 1689, trial of Richard Dowers (t16890703-30); January 1721, trial of Edward Arnold (t17210113-35); September 1684, trial of Richard Burton Martin Stevenson (t16840903-2); September 1830, trial of Richard Barrett John Lyddiard (t18300916-218); July 1832, trial of William Young (t18320705-92), accessed 13 February 2021. Available at: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org. However, there has never been a focused and sustained examination of police brutality from the inception of police and throughout the nineteenth century.

[7] Sarah Richardson [online], ‘Petticoat Politicians’, The Historian, Autumn 2013, accessed 15 February 2021. Available at: warwick.ac.uk/fac/arts/history/people/staff_index/srichardson/impact/historian_article.pdf

[8] A liberty was a special kind of parochial district which originated in the Middle Ages. It was a place where, at some point in the past, central and local government authority over a particular place had been ceded to a mesne lord. Under the feudal system, the mesne lord could sublet these lands to tenants, most likely his sons, who would then hold authority over the inhabitants. As such, liberties were separate and distinct from the usual system of local government into which areas were divided into hundreds and boroughs and run by a local corporation. The Liberty of the Savoy was an area of London where sovereignty over it had been granted by Henry III to Peter II, Count of Savoy, in 1246. The Liberty of the Savoy became part of the Duchy of Lancaster in 1284 when the district was bequeathed to Edmund, Earl of Lancaster. Essentially, then, the Savoy was a self-governing domain with its own laws and court system—the Court Leet.

[9] Alcester Court Leet [online], accessed 13 February 2021. Available at: http://www.alcestercourtleet.co.uk/

[10] The only unelected officer in a liberty was its highest-ranking steward who might rarely visit and was probably “absentee” for much of the time. The steward appointed the High Bailiff—the office that Joseph Ritson occupied in the Liberty of the Savoy.

[11] The parish beadle was also, it appears, able to administer a public flogging. We have literary evidence for this in William Shakespeare’s King Lear (Act 4 Scene 2): ‘Thou rascal beadle, hold thy bloody hand! / Why dost thou lash that whore? Strip thine own back; / Thou hotly lust’st to use her in that kind / For which thou whipp’st her.’

[12] Not every hundred in the eighteenth century had a court leet, however, and the manner by which constables were chosen differed from place to place. A rota system was in place in some districts, whereby several men—who could be of any class—would take it in turns to serve for a given number of months; at other places without a court leet the constable was selected at the tourn, when the sheriff made the annual inspection of every hundred under his jurisdiction. The sheriff would then appoint a man, or perhaps several men, of good standing in the community to serve as constable. Merchants and tradesmen appear to have been the type of people mostly selected for service. But as happens with jury duty in England and Wales today, a householder would then receive a letter informing him to take the oath of constable and to serve for a specified number of months. The constable would be required to undertake his law enforcement duties alongside maintaining his business.

[13] Maureen Janet Scollan [online], ‘Parish Constables versus Police Constables: Policing Early Nineteenth-Century Essex’ (Unpublished Ph.D. diss. Open University, 2007), p. 101, accessed 3 March 2021. Available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/59970/1/439337.pdf

[14] Old Bailey Proceedings Online, October 1775, trial of Alexander Tate (t17751018-1), accessed 13 February 2021. Available at: http://www.oldbaileyonline.org. This case from the eighteenth century reveals that a constable, in going to arrest a wife-beater, got into a fray with the abusive husband and cut him on the head with his sword—the husband later died but the constable was sentenced to death as no warrant was found on him at the time of the murder

[15] Joseph Ritson, Law Tracts (London: Privately Printed, 1794), p. 8.

[16] Ritson, Law Tracts, p. 9.

[17] Ritson, Law Tracts, p. 20.

[18] London Lives [online], ‘Policing’, accessed 16 February 2021. Available at: http://www.londonlives.org.

[19] Joseph Ritson, Law Tracts (London: Privately Printed, 1794), p. xv.

[20] Roy Porter, English Society in the Eighteenth Century (London: Penguin, 1982), p. 119.

[21] Clive Emsley, The English Police: A Political and Social History, 2nd edn (Harlow: Pearson, 1991), p. 24.

[22] Barry J. Ryan, Statebuilding, Security-Sector Reform and the Liberal Peace: The Freedom of Security (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p. 42.

[23] Clive Emsley, The Great British Bobby: A History of Policing from the Eighteenth Century to the Present (London: Bloomsbury, 2009), p. 42.

[24] Stephen Basdeo [online], ‘Electoral Fraud in Victorian Times’, Victorian Web, 20 May 2020, accessed 13 February 2021. Available at: http://www.victorianweb.org/

[25] Elaine Reynolds, Before the Bobby: The Night Watch and Police Reform in Metropolitan London, 1720-1830 Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1998), p. 104.

[26] B. Lenman and G. Parker, ‘The state, the community and the criminal law in early modern Europe’, in Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe since 1500, ed. by Vic Gatrell, B. Lenman, and G. Parker (London, Europa Publications, 1980, pp. 11-48. Similar points have been raised by Vic Gatrell who argues for the “Policeman-State” thesis: “as the [nineteenth] century wore on the English judicial system came very near to as total a regulation of even petty – let alone serious – deviance as has ever been achieved. A professional police and in some urban centres a professional magistracy were diminishing the opportunities for informal justice and extra-judicial settlement of the kind so common in earlier eras” See V.A.C. Gatrell, ‘The decline of theft and violence in Victorian and Edwardian England’, in Crime and the law: the social history of crime in western Europe since 1500, ed. by V.A.C. Gatrell, B. Lenman, and G. Parker (London, Europa Publications, 1980), pp. 238-370

[27] ‘A Monitory Letter to Sir Robert Peel’, in Political Letters and Pamphlets, ed. by William Carpenter (London: William Carpenter, 1831), pp. 4–9 (p. 7).

[28] David A. Campion, ‘Policing the Peelers: Parliament, the Public, and the Metropolitan Police, 1829–33’, in London Politics, 1760–1914, ed. by Matthew Cragoe and Antony Taylor (London: Palgrave, 2005), pp. 38–56 (p. 41).

[29] See Patricia Hollis, ‘Introduction’, in The Poor Man’s Guardian, ed. by Patricia Hollis, 4 vols (London: Merlin, 1969), I, pp. vii–xlv.

[30] See Louis James, ‘Time, Politics, and the Symbolic Imagination in Reynolds’s Social Melodrama’, in G.W.M. Reynolds: Nineteenth-Century Fiction, Politics, and the Press, ed. by Anne Humpherys and Louis James, 2nd edn (London: Routledge, 2019), pp. 179–198. Louis James was of course speaking of the novels and newspapers of G.W.M. Reynolds, although I think James’s concept can equally be applied to Hetherington’s coverage.

[31] ‘The New Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 24 August 1833, 273.

[32] ‘New Police Nuisance’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 7 April 1832, 340.

[33] ‘Alleged Murder by One of the New Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 8 October 1831, 118–19.

[34] D.J.V. jones, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 33 (1983), 151–68 (p. 165).

[35] ‘Savage and Murderous Assault by the Police on the Conventionists at the Spa-Fields Meeting’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 18 May 1833, 155–57 (p. 156).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Hannah Awcock [online], ‘On This Day: The Coldbath Fields Riot, 13th May 1833’, Turbulent London: The historical geography of protests, riots and general mischief in London, 13 May 2017, accessed 15 February 2021. Available at: https://turbulentlondon.com/

[38] ‘The Whig Government and their Murderous Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 1 June 1833, 176.

[39] ‘Alleged Murder by the New Police.—A Waterman Killed’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 20 July 1833, 234.

[40] ‘News of the Day.—The Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 20 July 1833, 232.

[41] ‘A Pauper Killed by Close Imprisonment’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 27 July 1833, 242.

[42] Ibid.

[43] ‘The Shooting by a Policeman’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 21 December 1833, 409.

[44] Prison History [online], ‘Watton-at-Stone Lock-Up and Police Station’, accessed 15 February 2021. Available at: https://www.prisonhistory.org/print/?lid=26438

[45] ‘A New Occupation for the Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 1 June 1833, 174.

[46] George W.M. Reynolds, ‘Pickwick Married’, The Teetotaler, 23 January 1840, 242.

[47] ‘Charge of Rape against a Police Inspector’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 30 August 1834, 236–37 (p. 237).

[48] Emsley, p. 39.

[49] Ibid.

[50] See Albert D. Biderman and Albert J. Reiss, Jr., ‘On Exploring the “Dark Figure” of Crime’, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 374: 1 (1967), 1–15.

[51] London Lives [online], ‘Prisons and Lockups’, accessed 16 February 2021. Available at: http://www.londonlives.org

[52] Allan Silver, ‘The demand for order in civil society: a review of some themes in the history of urban crime, police, and riot’, in The Police: Six Sociological Essays, ed. by D.J. Bordua (New York, John Wiley & Sons, 1967), pp. 1–24.

[53] See also: Robert Storch, ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’, International Review of Social History 20:1 (1975), p. 61; Robert Storch, ‘The Policeman as Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’, Journal of Social History 9:4 (1976), p. 481.