Watchmen and constables

In the 18th century law enforcement and policing was left entirely to local initiative. There was no nationally organised police force.

Paid watchmen

From the 1730s local improvement Acts often included provision for paid watchmen or constables to patrol towns at night, while rural areas had less formal arrangements.

By the end of the century, however, it was becoming clear that these local forms of policing, which varied in effectiveness from town to town, were hardly adequate in the sprawling new industrial districts.

From 1805 statistics produced by the judiciary revealed that crime was increasing at an alarming rate.

Moral condition of the nation

There was general concern among the governing classes that the moral condition of the nation was deteriorating. Industrialists demanded tighter law enforcement to discipline unruly workforces.

Petty crime was no longer tolerated, and the number of summary prosecutions increased. Criminal behaviour in general became associated with the underclass, and the growing industrial cities were regarded as havens for lawlessness.

Local police forces

In the early 19th century some town authorities took the initiative of stepping up their policing arrangements. An Act of Parliament in 1800 enabled Glasgow to establish its own city police force - the first professional police force in Britain.

More local Acts established forces in growing industrial areas, such as Rochdale in Lancashire in 1825, and nearby Oldham in 1827.

Problems of policing London

The problems of policing London were investigated by a House of Commons committee in 1818. Its report expressed concern at the disturbing increase in criminal activity that had followed the end of the Napoleonic Wars, but questioned whether a police force would be acceptable in a free country.

Related information

Current parliamentary business on the topic of crime