Spies & Lobsters

Burke & Hare
It was no offence to steal bodies, only to dig them up.

By the beginning of the 19th century crime scenes were basically sightseeing events: bodies propped up in place with the public walking over and poking about the site. Inquests were often held in local taverns. Souvenir sheets were sold and papers created grizzly stories until the trial was over and the sentence or public executions were carried out.

City policing was completely inadequate and ineffective.

Whole areas of the town were inhabited solely by criminals. Alsatia, the district between Fleet Street and the Thames, was notorious; no honest man dared venture into that network of crooked lanes and fetid slums. The region round Covent Gardens was studded with ‘night-houses’, low taverns where every form of villainy could be indulged in. Saffron Hill, the home of Dickens’ Fagin, abutted on Smithfield, which had a most unsavoury reputation. Between St Katherine’s Dock and Limehouse the riverside was lined with the haunts of the water-rats who robbed the shipping in the Thames to the tune of some £300,000 a year. After the disclosure of Burke and Hare’s activities many people saw the need for a modern police force.

Metropolitan Police Force1829

Both the establishment and the radicals objected to an established force, citing the French Policiers who were in effect Napoleon’s spies and the government’s secret police. They also feared that a standing police force would eventually lead to a standing army which could be deployed by any government to enforce laws by military force. In short they saw a police force as a threat to civil liberties. Peel and the Tory government went ahead anyway and set up the Metropolitan Police Force in 1829. The 1,000 constables employed were affectionately nicknamed ‘Bobbies’ or, somewhat less affectionately, ‘Peelers’ (both terms are still used today).


The Peelers were issued with a wooden truncheon carried in a long pocket in the tail of their coat, a pair of handcuffs and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm. By the 1880s this rattle had been replaced by a whistle.  The first uniform, which was a lighter blue than at present, was a high-collared tailcoat, worn with white trousers in summer. The headgear was a hardened top hat, which served the dual purpose of protecting the officer from blows to the head and allowing him to use it as a step to climb or see over walls. The sleeves of the dark blue coats originally had a pattern of white bars, roughly 6mm wide by 50mm high, set roughly 6mm apart. Whilst patrolling the streets, they had no power to prevent or investigate crime. Most officers were poorly trained and unsuitable for the job. The trial of the police officers accused of killing John Peacock highlighted many of these issues. Although wearing blue naval-style uniforms, policemen were quickly associated with the army (memories of Peterloo were fresh in the public’s mind) and they were soon called ‘raw lobsters’. British redcoats were often refered to as ‘Lobsters’. In other words policeman were soldiers by any other name.  In 1842 the CID was set up in London. Many of those who were against setting up a police force in 1829 were crying out for a criminal investigation department.


History of the British Police Force








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