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Sir Robert Peel is popularly credited with the formation of the first modern municipal police force, founded in London, in 1829.  Before him, what passed for policing was really a hodge-podge of part-time volunteers, night watches, “thief-takers” commissioned to hunt for criminals, and other iterations of private, fee-based security. Continental models, like the military-police set up by Louis XIV, were seen as absolutist threats in the Anglo-American world to liberty.

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But the Bobbies, as London’s coppers eventually were nicknamed (in tribute to Robert Peel, get it?), actually preceded Peel by a few decades. The Thames River Police were organized in 1798, by magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, a Scot from Glasgow, and master mariner John Harriot. This patrol was initially funded by merchants concerned about losses to theft along London’s docks, but the passage of the Marine Police Act of 1800 turned them into a public force. Renamed the Marine Police, these dockyard cops later were incorporated into London’s Metropolitan Police.

Colquhoun’s Scottish origins are significant because, as the British historian David G. Barrie forcefully argues, his police force was founded on the ideas of the Scottish Enlightenment. “The Scottish literati were largely preoccupied with protecting commerce and property,” writes Barrie. Colquhoun’s “self proclaimed ‘new science of policing’ was being discussed and debated at length in middle-rank circles in Glasgow several years before its appearance,” for instance in Colquohoun’s influential Treatise on Police (1800). Barrie continues:

He called for the creation of a centralised [sic] police force to prevent and detect crime, as well as the establishment of a public prosecutor in order to relieve victims the trouble and expense of prosecuting criminals.

A centralized police organization was not necessarily welcome in London. As Adam Smith said: “those cities where the greatest police is exercised are not those which enjoy the greatest security.” Smith argued that more prosperity would take away the need for policing. Many members of London’s ruling classes agreed, believing that a centralized state system would infringe upon their traditional prerogatives as justices of the peace and magistratesin short, their traditional control over local law.

Dock-workers, for their part, responded to the formation of the Thames River Police by rioting. The TRP’s very existence interfered with workers seeking to supplement their wages, appropriating resources from dockside employers that could have gone to the workers. The middle classes, however, turned out to be in favor of the protection of private property by the state. (Before moving to London, Colquhoun was Chairman of the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce.)

According to Barrie, it was David Hume, the foundational thinker of the Scottish Enlightenment who declared it necessary for “men of property to form governments, not just out of common interest, but as a form of collective security motivated out of self-interest.” In Hume’s eyes, property and civil government were dependent upon each other. But what flowed from these ideas of property and liberty—the liberty, as it turned out, mostly of people who already had property—was the practice of policing the unruly working classes. As Barrie puts it:

Improving the morality of the lower orders by general police superintendence was an underlying theme behind the thinking of both Colquhoun and civic leaders in the large urban centers of Scotland as a whole.

One class’s notion of reform is another class’s behavioral control. “Improving the common good,” when defined by the propertied, was a notion to be resisted by those targeted by this first police force.


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Crime, Histoire & Sociétés / Crime, History & Societies, Vol. 12, No. 2 (2008), pp. 59-79
Librairie Droz