The establishment of the Metropolitan Police

The 1829 Metropolitan Police Act established the Metropolitan Police in central London. They covered an area with a radius of seven miles from the centre of London and it was a radical change in the responsibility for enforcing law and order. The Bow Street Runners continued to patrol in their area, and outside of the seven-mile radius the police had no authority.

Although this law only covered the central part of London it was important as it was the start of the modern police force.

An engraving of 1808 depicting Scotland Yard, located in the Borough of Westminster, London, which later became the headquarters for London's first police force in 1829
The head office of the Metropolitan Police was at 4 Whitehall Place, which was a house that had a back entrance on to Scotland Yard

1839 Metropolitan Police Act

This law extended the area covered by the Metropolitan Police to a 15 mile radius from the centre of London. It also ended the authority of all the other policing in London such as the Bow Street Runners, the River Thames Police and the Watchmen. Numbers quickly grew, and by 1882 there were 11,700 men in the Metropolitan Police.

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From the moment it was established until the modern day, it has been the responsibility of the Metropolitan Police to enforce law and order in London. For the first time, one area of the country had a state funded, professional police force. This was the start of the state taking responsibility for policing.

The extension of police forces across the country in the 19th century

Once the Government had taken responsibility for policing in the capital through the creation of the Metropolitan Police, attention was turned to the rest of the country.

A series of laws empowered county and borough councils across the country to set up police forces in their area.

  • 1835 Municipal Corporations Act gave towns outside of London the power to set up their own police force.
  • 1839 County Police Act gave each county the power to set up their own police force.

Both of these acts were permissive, which meant that they were not compulsory and could be ignored. Only about half the areas that were in a position to establish a police force took advantage of the laws.

  • 1856 County and Borough Police Act made it compulsory for all towns and counties to set up a proper full-time, paid police force. The law said that there should be one policeman for every 1,000 people. The Home Secretary appointed Inspectors of the Constabulary to make sure that the law was obeyed across the country. When a town or county set up a police force that was accepted by the Inspectors as satisfactory, the Government paid some of the costs of the police force, with the rest of the cost coming from local taxation.

These laws led to the setting up of several hundred police forces around the country. The police were not (and are still not) one police force – there were separate police forces for each part of the country.

The only police force that was controlled by the Home Secretary in London was the Metropolitan Police. Each police force had a Chief Constable, officers and constables.

Responsibility for policing now firmly rested in the hands of central and local government departments.

Grainy black and white photograph of six policemen posing for the camera wearing police uniform
Members of the Glamorgan Constabulary in 1901 CREDIT: Ross Mather