Rules and regulations

Appropriate conduct for constables was laid down in a detailed book of instructions published in 1840 and issued to all new constables. On discovering a fire, for example, the constable, who doubled as a fireman, could consult his book for the suggested response, '...the constable will spring his rattle and cry fire there for raising an immediate alarm. He will also raise the inmates of any house or dwelling.' The instructions didn't just cover operational matters, '...night duty officers will grow a beard that will cover his throat to keep his air tubes warm...'.

'...night duty officers will grow a beard that will cover his throat to keep his air tubes warm...'
The constable's uniform consisted of a top hat representing authority and a tailed jacket for servitude, because although the police were considered public servants they were also the public's masters. The officer would also have carried a truncheon, handcuffs (which were issued on a semi-regular basis from 1832 and by 1839 were commonplace), an oil lamp and - in some of the more dangerous areas - a cutlass. Police whistles came much later; the early Victorian constable would have carried a small wooden rattle.

Constables lived either in the police station or a few doors away. On parading for duty at 6am the day constables were marched to their beats. Only at this stage was the night constable they were relieving allowed to join the officers going on duty so he could march back to the police station to sign off. Had any incidents occurred on his beat then he would have to write up the report after he had finished his tour of duty.

On the straight and narrow

The day constable would have to patrol at the pace of two and a half miles per hour, keeping the streets free from hawkers selling goods from suitcases, moving on persons causing an obstruction, and looking out for children playing in the street. He was not allowed to leave his beat or consume alcohol when on duty. Traffic duty consisted of ensuring the roads were not obstructed by horses and carts, hansom cabs and making sure that persons being carried in sedan chairs were transported on the road not on the pavement. He was not allowed to gossip with anyone or even pass the time of day with another constable if it was not in the line of duty. The policeman was clearly dissuaded from taking advantage of his smart new uniform - '...a constable will not enter into conversation with women especially female servants...'.
'The policeman was clearly dissuaded from taking advantage of his smart new uniform...'
The Victorian policeman was lucky enough to receive sick pay (with a deduction of one shilling). However, if he had a hangover or injury caused by drinking, he received nothing - all at the discretion of his Superintendent. After his first year of duty, the constable received ten days leave a year, but he worked seven days a week!

Clearly though a thick rulebook was not enough to keep the constables on the straight and narrow. The Birmingham Police force 'Default book' for 1839-40 lists examples of where constables slipped up. The hapless PC George Leach joined the force in July 1840. On 3rd September he was found to be, 'Absent from duty beat at 9pm and found drinking in the White Lion Beer shop in the company of prostitutes and thieves - fined two days' pay'. Four days later a slightly ambiguous entry reads 'Highly disgraceful behaviour in Church yesterday - dismissed from the service.'

The rogues' gallery

During the second half of the 19th century the policeman's role was complemented by the development of forensic science and the invention of the camera, which led to the creation of the infamous rogues' gallery. In Birmingham this pictorial record began in 1858 and the earliest photographs were taken in a studio next to the station in Moor Street. Once the police had a camera, the number of photographs increased to become an archive of mugshots. Details of the alleged crime, the court case and sentence are listed with each photograph forming a comprehensive record. (Police photographs are distinguishable from prison photographs since prisoners usually wore a uniform.)

Thus the days when criminals had only to change their locations and identities to slip the bobby's grasp were over. With the advent of forensic science came the more sophisticated image of the police force as a band of men equipped with a combination of cunning, science and logical deduction.

Scientific and technological advances aside; the foundations of the modern police force were laid in towns like Birmingham during the early Victorian period (the town became a city officially in 1889). The uniforms, division of uniformed and plain-clothes officers, the hierarchy and the role of the superintendent have not changed dramatically in the century and a half since PC George Leach found himself on the wrong side of the law. However, the drunken law-enforcer is doubtless not an invention the Victorians can claim credit for.

Published: 01-08-2001 - Dave Cross