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Creating the nation's police force

By the early 1850s the Government was considering extending policing on a national scale. Many towns and over half the English counties had no police force, in most cases owing to the costs involved.


A series of riots in northern towns such as Wigan and Blackburn in 1853 caused much public concern about the inadequacy of local policing.

These concerns were deepened by the fact that most of Britain's armed forces were currently engaged in the Crimean campaigns, and that the public had limited means of protection.

Compulsory policing

Responding to this disquiet, Parliament passed the County and Borough Police Act in 1856 which made policing compulsory throughout England and Wales and made provision for Treasury assistance to local authorities.

The Act also established a central inspectorate of constabulary to report regularly to the Home Secretary on the efficiency of each police force. A parallel Act for Scotland was passed in 1857.

Decline in crime

Organised policing quickly made an impact and from 1850 on there was a general decline in street crime such as pickpocketing and mugging.

Some of the toughest urban areas were placed under regular patrol, and the role of the police was particularly appreciated in poorer areas where shopkeepers, landlords and skilled workers were exposed to criminal behaviour.

By 1900, the number of police in England, Wales and Scotland totalled 46,800 working in 243 separate forces.

Merging forces

The Police Act of 1946 began the process of merging smaller town forces with county constabularies, leaving 117 forces.

In the interests of greater efficiency this process was taken further by the 1964 Police Act which reduced the number of forces to 47 in England and Wales, and 20 in Scotland.

Related information

Historic Hansard

The House of Commons debates the second reading of the Police (Counties and Boroughs) Bill

The House of Lords debates the second reading of the Police Bill 1946

Did you know?

An Act of 1914 created special constables as part-time police officers to fill the place of full-time officers who had volunteered for the army in the First World War. An Act of 1923 made them a permanent feature of Britain's police forces.

Women also first joined the police as volunteers at the start of the First World War, when many policemen left to join the army. Their role remained controversial for many years and women were not fully integrated into the police force until 1973.