To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 25:26

The Metropolitan Police: its creation and records of service

London’s Metropolitan Police service was formed in 1829. This talk provides an overview of how crime was dealt with before this date, and how to trace the records of our Metropolitan Police ancestors at The National Archives.


Good afternoon, thank you all for coming. Today what I’m going to do is look at the records of The Metropolitan Police that we hold here at The National Archives and cover some of the background about how The Metropolitan Police came into existence.

The Metropolitan Police started in 1829 but what I want to do first of all is just have a look at what was in place before. How was law and order maintained before The Metropolitan Police came into existence? What would you do if someone stole your sheep or your horse and there were no police to go to? Well, what happened was we had a system of Justices of the Peace. The law was administered through these Justices of the Peace (I’ll call them JP’s because it’s less of a mouthful).

There you see [shows image] a JP administering justice between two women obviously having an argument about something and they were sort of introduced round about 1327 when an act required that good and lawful men be appointed in every county in the land to guard the peace (that’s the King’s peace or the Queen’s peace). You’ve heard of breach of the peace which is the same sort of idea that if you’re breaking the law you’re breaking the King’s peace.

In 1361, in the reign of Edward III, these became known as JP’s or Justices of the Peace and they were appointed by The Crown.

A Justice of the Peace is a layperson, not necessarily trained in law, but he should be an upright, good person who can be trusted to make a fair decision on any particular case.

These JP’s didn’t go out and about like policemen do, they weren’t there catching criminals but they did have two sets of men who would do that for them. There were constables and watchmen. (Now the next slide is a bit scary so I’ll warn you). That is a not very flattering picture of a watchman. I’ll come to them in a minute but the constables were parish constables so each parish would have at least one constable and the JP could recruit more constables if there was trouble. If there were riots or anything he could instantly pick trusted men and make them constables. They weren’t paid and they were part time and they were usually just householders filling in on a rotation, a bit like us on a desk, we’d take turns fulfilling the role. They were the people that you would go to, the constables, if you suffered from a crime.

As well as them [the constables] were the watchmen. They were paid but they weren’t very effective. They were also called Charlies because they came in during the reign of King Charles II. Charlies spent very little time patrolling, instead they would hide in a little box like a police box, like Doctor Who and they would be playing cards or going to pubs with prostitutes or sleeping. Some of them took bribes and they were just not much help at all really. So the parish constables were the main body responsible for catching criminals.

Generally speaking anyone who witnessed a crime should have reported it. It was their responsibility to report a crime. And there were professional thief-takers. With the introduction of rewards people would try and find criminals and bring them in, either to claim the reward or to do a deal, a bargain between the victim and the perpetrator of the crime.

Here are a couple of cartoons showing the respect that Charlies got. Here are some toffs having some sport with a Charlie, knocking his box over (he’s probably been asleep in there) and it was common sport to take the mickey out of these Charlies, they weren’t respected at all. That [picture] is dated 1821,

The next slide shows Henry Fielding. He’s the same Henry Fielding who wrote Tom Jones, he was a famous author and he became chief magistrate at the Bow Street Court in 1748. In 1749 he appointed eight Bow Street Runners, originally they were thief-takers on a retainer and they wore no uniforms but they had a formal attachment to the Bow Street magistrates’ office and they were paid by the magistrate with funds from central government. They worked out of his office at number four Bow Street and they didn’t patrol as such, like policemen would today, but they served writs and they arrested offenders on the authority of the magistrate and they would go nationwide to catch people.

Henry’s brother, Sir John Fielding, was known as the blind beak of Bow Street. He’d been blind since he was 19 years old. He took over as the chief magistrate and he stayed as chief magistrate for 26 years until 1780 and he could recognise the voices of over 3,000 criminals.

He refined the Bow Street Runners into the first truly effective force for the capital and he later added mounted policemen if you want to call them that on horseback and they were the Bow Street Horse Patrol, called the Robin Redbreasts. One of the documents we’ve got here, one of the Treasury files has this letter from him. You can see a signature at the bottom, sort of scrawly because he is blind. And in this letter he’s writing to the Treasury giving a report of how his grant was spent and he’s hoping for the same amount of money next year, that’s in the T 1 file.

So we get to 1829. On the 29th of September, The Metropolitan Police was formed. They were known as ‘Peelers’ after Robert Peel. He was the Home Secretary and he introduced the force and they were under his control which is why the records are here. They’re central government records in the Home Office papers here.

The other police forces that are still in existence, we don’t have their records because they’re not under the Home Secretary as such.

The first thousand of his policeman went on the streets on the 29th of September, 1829 and they had blue tailcoats, top hats and they began to patrol, as I said, on the 29th of September.

The uniform was carefully chosen not to look like an army uniform. It wasn’t red like the army was at the time, it was meant to look more civilian. They didn’t have helmets, they just had top hats and a blue tunic.

The following year there were 3,300 men, that’s gone up from 1,000. And then in 1849 there were 5,000 of them and by 1899 there were 16,000 of these ‘Peelers’. They were issued with a pair of handcuffs and a wooden rattle, like the old football rattles but that was replaced in the 1880s by a whistle. And they were also given a wooden truncheon which they carried in a special pocket in the tail of their coat, which may be why this chap [shows image] is sitting slightly awkwardly, sideways on the chair.

Women were not recruited until 1919 and their records don’t survive, we don’t have any records for female police.

Now the first recruits had to be aged between 20 and 27 and then later on they increased the age to 35. They had to be at least five foot seven and then later on they could be five foot nine. They had to be well built, fit, literate and with a fair knowledge of spelling and generally intelligent and of good character. And they also had to be free of any bodily complaint including flat feet, stiff joints, narrow chest and facial deformities. As you can see [shows image] he fits the bill very well.

Strangely most of The Metropolitan Police were recruited from outside of London because the poor conditions often meant that the physical, intelligence and condition of London men was not considered good enough. So most of them were from the shires, 2.5% were Scottish and 6.5% were Irish, to begin with anyway.

And the emphasis of their work was on prevention of crime rather than investigating crimes that had already happened. That was still carried out by constables which carried on for a while.

OK, so they [the Peelers] were introduced but they still didn’t cover the square mile of London, the City of London, and here we see a cartoon of the Charlies carrying a box, a watch box, as if it was a coffin. This was following some of the magistrates in the City of London suggesting that they should have their police force as well. But the Charlies just carried on until after 1835 or so.

The police were not popular, we’ll see that in the next few slides. People were afraid of them, they thought it was a new military force coming in to take over and they would rather have these easy going Charlies around than a sort of military campaign going on around them.

So, you’ve got this sort of thing, a poster against the new police. This is in one of our files HO 61 and it’s basically calling for the abolition of the new police force. This is from 1830 so it’s the following year. You probably can’t read all of it but it says things like ‘Why is the sword of justice placed in the hands of a military man? Unite in moving such a powerful force from the hands of government and let us institute a police system in the hands of people under parochial appointments’. So they didn’t mind police but they wanted them recruited locally, for local people in each parish.

The old watchmen were famous for being drunk and the police suffered the same infamy really. Drunkenness was common in the police as it was with the old watchmen and here’s a cartoon [shows image] with an obviously drunk policeman saying to somebody ‘Come move on there, it’s time you were in bed young woman. Anyone with half an eye can see you are in liquor’. And he is saying that to another person and he is obviously drunk. So they were seen as immoral and hypocritical. That was from May 1830 that one.

And there’s another one showing the police as a brutal force really. This one’s from 1832 and it expresses the fears of the imposition of a French style political police.

Now, this is a map showing the jurisdiction of The Metropolitan Police. It started off a seven miles radius from Charing Cross in 1829 and then ten years later it was extended to 15 miles radius from Charing Cross, including the whole of Middlesex, most parishes in Surrey, Hertfordshire, Essex and Kent that had parts not more than 15 miles from Charing Cross.

At the same time, in 1839, the paid constables were abolished and they were replaced in 1842 by plain clothed detectives, still within the police, and they eventually became the CID, Crime Investigation Department.

By 1869 London was divided up into four districts, each of which had several divisions. For example, number four district had Lambeth, Southwark, Camberwell, Greenwich and Clapham. And later on they became responsible for the Royal Dockyards Police, military stations at Portsmouth, Chatham, Devonport, Pembroke, Woolwich and Rosyth. And the Bow Street Horse Patrol and the Thames River Force were incorporated into them.

So basically they were responsible for the whole of that area except for a little white bit in the middle which is The City of London and that still even now has its own police force, the City of London Police Force and all attempts to unite the two have failed over the years. They were set up in 1832 and their staff records are not here, they’re at the Corporation of London Records Office in The Guildhall in London.

There’s a kind of family tree here [shows image] just to reiterate the organisation. London divided up into four districts and each district has several divisions and each division has a superintendant in charge. Then under him are four inspectors and under them 16 sergeants.

Now we’re going to move on to the staff records. These are all records that are here at The National Archives. Now it’s true to say that The Metropolitan Police records have not have survived in their entirety. There are gaps, bits of this, bits of that, and there is a bad period about from 1856 to 1868 when pretty much nothing survived. But there is a good period between 1889 and 1909 when there are alphabetical registers of joiners, station ledgers, certificates of service and registers of leavers and they all survive for that period. So you kind of win some and lose some, you have to be fairly lucky to find something in all of those four for your man.

There are six main collections of staff records and all of them will give you those four things on the screen, the name, the warrant number, the division and the dates of appointment or removal. It doesn’t matter which set of records you look at you should get at least those four things from them.

So the first set of records are numerical registers. There’s only two volumes of these and they are in warrant number order. Obviously they’re just filled in as the policemen are signed up and it gives you the warrant number, the name, the date of appointment, the division they’re attached to, their height and how they were removed from the force which is either died, resigned or dismissed.

The very first warrant number, number one, was issued to a man called William Atkinson, who was dismissed for being drunk on the 29th September, the very first day [laughter] after only having been in the job for four hours. And nearly all the ones in this first book, when you look down the list, they’re nearly all dismissed for being drunk. In fact of the first 2,800 new policemen only 600 managed to keep their jobs. So it wasn’t a good start really.

The second set of records are the alphabetical registers, well an alphabetical register, there’s only one of it. It’s HO65 piece 26. And that’s in alphabetical order. It gives date of appointment, warrant number, name, rank, date of promotion or reduction, former warrant number if reappointed and why he was removed from the force, again death, dismissed or resigned. Most of them when you look down are dismissed.

[The] Third set of documents are the registers of joiners. This is the easiest set to use really. It’s in alphabetical order of joiner and they cover from 1830 to 1857 and then there’s a gap and they start again 1878 to 1933 and they’re in MEPO 4. MEPO is the acronym for Metropolitan Police records. This should give you the name, rank, warrant number, division and dates of appointment and removal. The earliest volumes also give you the names and addresses of referees, so if you’re doing [a] family tree there might be his father or brother listed as well as a referee.

The fourth set of records are the Attestation Ledgers. These are in warrant number order and they mostly comprise when you look at them of their signatures. They’re basically signing up to join The Metropolitan Police and in the front cover of the document you get an oath that they would have sworn at the time of their signing. It also gives you the division that they joined and by whom they were sworn and a signature of a witness, again it could be another member of their family. That is part of the oath that they would have sworn, that’s inside the front cover of these documents.

The fifth set of records are the Certificates of Service. This is where you get quite a lot of information on each person. They only survive for 21 years from 1889 to 1909 but they give you a physical description, date of birth, the trade that they were employed in before they joined the police, their marital status, residence, number of children, last employer, surgeon’s certificate, postings to divisions, promotions, demotions and cause of removal.

Now they’re mostly questions and answers, it’s basically the recruiting officer would ask the questions down the side of the page and then fill in what they replied. So most of it is to do with their life before joining the police. And the very last question is a strange one, it says ‘Do they belong to an illegal secret society?’ [laughter]. So whether they’re going to say ‘Yes I do’ or ‘I can’t tell you’ I’m not sure but this person says no anyway.

The last set of service records, if you like, are the Registers of Leavers. Obviously arranged in date order because they’d just fill it in as people left but there are name indexes at the front. So you could either just go to the name index, find your person and then go to the right page or if you know when he left just go by date. It gives you the division, the warrant number, the rank, the class, his name obviously, number of certificate granted if not dismissed. They seem to get certificates like number one would be excellent, number two would be very good and so on and you get little abbreviations like R.P. is resignation permitted and R.R. is required to resign.

So, where would you start if you wanted to find a specific policeman? Well you could plumb straight into those sets of records if you want to. Some of them are by name, some are by number. Some of you will have the number, some of you won’t, but there are a couple of sets of records that would give you a kick start. There’s a combined name index which is in yellow binders behind the staff desk in the research enquiries room and then there’s one single blue binder.

Now what these seem to be, they were compiled some time ago and they may not be complete but they’ve been compiled by someone going through MEPO 2, which is correspondence and papers. They’ve gone through them and picked out names and warrant numbers and then put them in alphabetical order and then cross referred them to other sets of Metropolitan Police records, MEPO 4, MEPO 7 and the HO 65 ledger.

MEPO 7 are police orders and you can think of them as like office notices, sort of announcements of people leaving or joining or being promoted and they give you specific information on individual policemen. But it’s not something that you would go to unless you knew something was there already in a way because there’s no index to it apart from these. But these should give you at least the warrant number and if you’ve got the name and the warrant number then those are the keys that open the other records.

So, when your policeman has finished serving and he’s claiming his pension there are some pension records that you can look at. Pensions were discretionary up to 1890, they didn’t have a legal right to them but after that, as long as you did 25 years then you get a pension, as far as I understand.

Now there are records that concern pensions in MEPO 5 between one and 90, piece numbers one to 90, covering 1829 to 1907. But again it’s one of those collections of papers where if you’ve got time you can go through and you might find something about your person but it’s not indexed by name or anything so it’s not something you’d go to straight away.

MEPO 21 on the other hand are arranged on the catalogue for the first few years, the first 19 pieces by name, and it’s searchable on the catalogue so you can just type in the name of the person you’re looking for, and if they received a pension between 1852 and 1890 then they’ll come up and you can order the document straight away.

The records actually continue on until 1993, still in MEPO 21, but they’re not in the catalogue yet. The reason for that was that there was a card index that we’ve just copied into the catalogue and the card index was only done up to the first 19 pieces. But you can still use MEPO 21 after that date by using retirement date. So if you use the register of leavers, find when your person left and then go into MEPO 21 for that date and order that document up then he should be in there.

The sort of information you get is date and place of birth, marital status, parents, next of kin, service details, and then from 1923 details of a spouse. And there are a few documents concerning widows’ pensions amongst MEPO 21 as well, they’re quite clearly marked as widows’ pensions so you could use those as well.

The next couple of slides show a typical MEPO 21 entry. This is for a chap called Christopher Hayes, who served over six years, and it gives his name, rank, reason for discharge and rate of pension. They’re arranged in order of pension number and this particular one shows that he received severe bodily injuries, received in the execution of his duty, you can see that written here. He left the force on the 22nd June 1852 and his pension of £28 is starting the following day, 23rd June 1852. That’s on one side of the page.

All of these are bound up in volumes and you get one page for each person. On the back of the page you get more information about the individual including things like hair and eye colour, his complexion and particulars of his service.

And this particular one, if I click on the next one, he was kicked by a prisoner causing injury to the spermatic cord, so he was kicked in the groin. And you can see his address down there is Willie Lane [laughter], a bit unfortunate.

If he’s actually killed while serving you can also find information in the ‘returns of death while serving’. This again is just one volume, MEPO 4, piece number two, and it’s in date order from 1829 to 1889. It’s in date order but if you don’t know when he died then you can use MEPO 4, piece 448, which also gives you the cause of death, but that’s an index, you can use it as an index to the one above.

OK. That’s all I have to say, thank you very much.