West Midlands Police

West Midlands Police Museum

Police History Society

Staffordshire Police history

The story of policing
(aimed at schoolchildren)

History of police dogs

Police Federation

The Police and the Black Country

by Mick Pearson

The Pre-History of Policing

In the beginning there were constables, the word first appeared at the time of the Normans, even before then there were the Saxons and the word Tythingmen was used, who were they, and why were they still around in the 1800s?

King Alfred the Great (who would never command a TV cookery programme due to his inability to cook the simplest of cakes) ruled England in Anglo-Saxon times. He, like other kings of the period, ruled absolutely, and demanded loyalty and obedience from all of his subjects. In exchange the Kings provided protection from invasion from abroad, or Lords under the Kings control.

Alfred dictated to the 'thanes' (landowners) that they were responsible for policing his territory. This would include delivering criminals to the King as well as settling civil litigation. A 'tything' consisted of 10 families of people under each 'thane' (landowner). These groups would meet regularly to discuss common concerns and provide a mechanism whereby criminals within these family units would be delivered to the thane to be dealt with. Furthermore, the 'tythings' also often formed the first examples of "Neighbourhood Watch" where patrols looked after others' property to prevent damage being caused. The head of this group was the 'tythingman'.

The concept spread and evolved so that eventually 100 tythingmen set up an organisation known as a 'hundred'. This organisation met once a year and elected a man called a 'reeve'. The reeve organised a court handling complaints from within the shire, and also handled civil matters between two or more people. Later the reeve became known as the sheriff. This system always ensured that policing was local, and would be an important feature as policing developed during the next 700 or so years.

William the Conqueror came along in 1066, he saw the Anglo-Saxon system and decreed it was a "good thing". However, he made a few changes. The Sheriff became an appointee of the King, not an elected representative (thus establishing the link between law enforcement and the crown - this still holds today). The Sheriff was a man in a superior role because of this, responsible not to the people, but to the king.

The 'hundred' was also maintained, but its name changed to the "Court of the Tourn", hearing a range of cases, mainly petty crimes and cicil matters. From the court 12 ththingmen were elected to hear more serious cases (sound familiar - yes, a jury, still around today).

The Normans also established the "Court Leet", to deal with petty nuisance and matters of local interest (anti-social behaviour was dealt with by this court, in the early 21st century the police are being encouraged to take a stronger stance against anti-social behaviour for the first time in a number of decades - nothing in policing is entirely new).

By the mid-13th century the term "constable" covered a variety of functions:

  • High Constables of the Hundreds
  • Petty Constables of the manors/tythings or vills

The medieval constable differed from the Saxon (tithe system). He would probably hold office for no more than a year, and became the executive agent of the manor or parish for which he was appointed. He was tasked to make regular reports (or Presentments - bureaucracy in the 13th century) to the local court leet about felons, miscreants and nuisances. He also acquired royal authority and kept the King's peace in his district.

Watchmen were another tier of policing - local law enforcement agents who have long been recruited by, and from among, urban dwellers. As the 13th century progressed royal writs made the appointment of watches obligatory. In 1285 the Statute of Winchester ordered boroughs to provide watches of a dozen men. Smaller towns had between 4 and 6 watchmen. The City of London was divided into 24 wards, each with a watch of 6 men, with an additional "marching watch" to patrol the whole city.

Justices of the Peace (JPs) were initially commissioned by Richard I in 1195 to keep the peace and were fully recognised during the 14th century (mainly by an act of 1361). Justices were socially superior to constables, and presided at courts leet where Petty Constables brought cases.

Over the next 3 centuries the image of the constable became undermined. Shakespeare poked fun at the office with his characters Bogberry (Much Ado Abouot Nothing) and Elbow (Measure For Measure). There were also characters who demonstrated courage and efficiency in organising the hue and cry and in making arrests.

Oliver Cromwell declared (when explaining his understanding of Lord Protector) that he was ready 'to serve you, not as a king, but as a constable'. The office of Constable was not without criticism. A Grand Jury at Sussex in 1613 lamented "Our Constables in most part are honest men but of meane estate and fewe of them knowe what belongeth to the office".

The system of elected constables was not without problems, however. In 1714 Daniel Defoe described the office as one of "insupportable hardship: it takes up so much of a man's time that his own affairs are frequently totally neglected, too often to his ruin".

Towards the end of the 18th century things began to improve. By 1800 Constables of metropolitan parishes were more numerous, better supervised, better informed, and more used to making criminal charges and acting as prosecutors.

Serious rioting was a different type of problem that created major problems for local authorities in the Tudor and Stuart periods. Watchmen, Constables, men sworn in as Special Constables and Magistrates all had a part to play in dealing with riots. The Magistrate could call upon military support. Trained Bands were county militia run by the local gentry, but they were hardly trained and sometimes unreliable. It would take time to be able to call on well-disciplined, professionally led soldiers who could be used to supress rioting. This use of the military was unpopular.

The Georgian Period

Crime and disorder became more of a concern in the Georgian period. Crime was apparently becoming more professional. Disorder and criminality were both growing, how much is difficult to assess, no crime statistics exist. There were riots throughout the period, particularly because of food shortages or when the armed services were recruiting heavily. London was the main focus of concern, partly because it was an enormous and continually growing city. Other cities such as Birmingham would probably have suffered to a lesser extent.

The court system was evolving to cope with the increase in cases brought before them. The County Magistrates became swamped with cases, and consequently more and more courts were presided over by 'trading justices' who profited from the fees paid to work as a Magistrate. With this change came an element of corruption - both among the justices and the 'thief takers' employed to catch criminals. The result (in London) was the creation in the mid-18th century, of the Bow Street Runners.


email the web master Mick Pearson: