Constabulary Duties - The Lives of Police Constables a Century Ago

Finlay Mckichan | Published in
19TH century
Social – legal - administrative

It was in 1880 that the policemen in The Pirates of Penzance first sang in doleful tones that 'a policeman's lot is not a happy one'. The full-time professional policeman was still, a century ago, something of a novelty in Britain and was very much in the public eye. He had trodden the streets of London since 1829 and had appeared gradually in counties and large towns in the first half of the nineteenth century, but not until 1857 was the appointment of such men compulsory in every town and county in the Kingdom. The policeman was still very much a talking point in the 1880s, as the traffic warden has become in the last twenty years. He was lampooned in Punch and became the subject of comment in every newspaper in the land. By no means everyone shared W. S. Gilbert's belief that his lot was a hard one. It was a common complaint among ratepayers that the policeman sauntered around with clean hands and a straight back at their expense, while other labouring men had to earn their wages by constant toil.

What was life like for the policemen of around a century ago? A good way to answer this question is to compare the lives of constables in three quite different types of force: the Metropolitan, that of a large industrial city in the Provinces (Glasgow) and two rural forces (those of Elginshire – now called Moray – and Banffshire in north-east Scotland).

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