Today (June 19) in London History – Here comes the Met

June 19th, 1829 was the birth of the Metropolitan Pollice Force (“Scotland Yard”) – this Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

I don’t know if you have had the same experience, but the snag I always come up against when I’m telling a story is this dashed difficult problem of where to begin it. It’s a thing you don’t want to go wrong over, because one false step and you’re sunk. I mean, if you fool about too long at the start, trying to establish atmosphere, as they call it, and all that sort of rot, you fail to grip and the customers walk out on you. 

Get off the mark, on the other hand, like a scalded cat, and your public is at a loss. It simply raises its eyebrows, and can’t make out what you’re talking about.

Not me, needless to say. That was the greatest prose stylist of the 20th century doing his thing. P.G. Wodehouse opening his comic masterpiece Right Ho, Jeeves.

But, in the way of these things, the passage came to mind when I was weighing up how to get this June 19th whirligig going. 

Do I take the scalded cat approach and say, “Today is raw lobsters and blue devil’s day in London.” 

Imagine. Eyebrows going en masse. And the beginnings of the slow clap that says, ‘we can’t make out what you’re talking about.’

Or – establishing atmosphere – Sunday was a rest day. They needed it after six days of twelve-hour shifts. For which they were paid, in today’s money, about £105 a week. 

If I were a criminal, I know which day of the week I’d be earning my keep.

Fails to grip, doesn’t it? Though there might be just a little of adhesive in that last sentence.

In short, who did maintain law and order on the day of rest? And did criminals – professional and amateur – immediately come to the same conclusion I did? Ah, Sunday, the Lord’s Day – the cat’s away, time to play. Or at least burgle. Housebreaking as it was called then.

Then being 1829. Ok, have I strewn enough clues, is it coming into focus? If not, let me spell it out. June 19th, 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act received Royal Assent. Which turned the bill into an Act of Parliament. Made it law in other words. Aside here:  the phrase “turned the bill into an Act of Parliament” is faintly giddying usage here because Old Bill is old British slang for the police force or indeed a single police officer. 

So many possibilities here. Including that phrase royal assent. We could go harrying after it. You know, let’s give chase to the royal assent fox we’ve just started. But we’re not going to. Just get it said that royal assent is pretty much a formality these days. The last time a monarch refused assent was 314 years ago.

No, what we’re after here is that Act that received Royal Assent on this day, June 19th, 1829. It established the Metropolitan Police of London. Scotland Yard, in other words. It’s often cited as the first modern police force. Previous to the 1829 Act, the legislation, such as it was, regulating the policing of the country, such as it was, went back to the Statute of Winchester of 1285. Yes, you got it in one. The wheels of change can turn slowly in merry old England. 

Anyway, so we get the Act on this day. And then, come September 29th, the newly recruited policemen are in their distinctive uniform, they’ve presumably had a modicum of instruction, and there they are, out and about on the streets of London. As is well known, they were called bobbies – or sometimes Peelers – because the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel was the driving force behind the enterprise.

And that brings us to the near riverbank of this podcast. And what do you know, I can see three stepping stones that’ll get us across to the far shore. Or, if you prefer, three fun bullet points. Stuff that’s neat to know.

  1. Scotland Yard is often taken to be the first police force. That’s a misconception. The River Police – the Marine Police – preceded them by over 30 years. And there you go, there’s yet another pointer to the importance of the River Thames. First, last, always until maybe 70 years ago or so, this was a river town. Policing London’s river was more important than policing London’s streets.
  2. Yes, they were called “bobbies” and “peelers” but they were also called “raw lobsters” and “blue devils”. You’ll remember those terms from the beginning of this podcast. Blue devils because of their blue uniforms. Red was the military colour at that time. The Home Secretary wanted a police force that came across as civilian rather than paramilitary. Indeed, to complete the look, they wore top hats. Wore them until 1864. And they were unarmed. The tools of their trade were a truncheon and a rattle. All of that becomes much more significant when you remember that most burglars at the time – housebreakers as they were known in the parlance of the day – were armed. Worth bearing in mind as well, the 1689 Bill of Rights. empowered members of the public who were protestants to own and use firearms. Hard luck if you were a Catholic or a Jew. Anyway, given those circumstances, it wasn’t long coming – barely a year later – before a policeman was killed in the line of duty. That wasn’t a one off. Those first police officers were physically assaulted – they were impaled,  blinded, and on one occasion held down while a vehicle was driven over them.

Those were the extreme cases. But generally Londoners didn’t like Peel’s Bloody Gang as they were sometimes called. 

This despite the considerable steps Peel took to give the force a civilian cast. And it wasn’t just criminals – though god knows how many Londoners earned a living through crime. The place was sometimes described as a thieves’ kitchen. But even amongst the better sort there were fears that Peel’s Bloody Gang would be a paramilitary force. And the army was equally loathed and feared by just about everybody. But also just generally, there were misgivings that freeborn Englishmen and civil liberties would be in the firing line of a police force. 

An 1830 handbill that made the rounds of London  was headed ‘Peel’s Police, Raw Lobsters, Blue Devils.’ It spelt out that the public will be distributing ‘staves of superior effect’, which could be used if the police begin to attack people.

3. The name Scotland Yard. It’s of course synonymous with policing in London. You say Scotland Yard Londoners know you’re talking about the police force. The Met in short. The Met because London has several police forces. The big one, the main one is Scotland Yard – the Metropolitan Police.  But, for example, the City of London has its own police force. Quite distinct from the Met. But that’s another story. Which I’ll get to one of these days. 

Anyway, the name Scotland Yard comes from the location of the original Metropolitan Police Headquarters. It was at 4 Whitehall Place. 4 Whitehall Place had a rear entrance on a street called Great Scotland Yard. This is just down from Trafalgar Square if you want to do a bit of mental orientation. The Scotland Yard entrance became the public entrance to the police station – and in time, by one of those curious processes of linguistic osmosis, the street name became synonymous with the main London police force.  

Ok, that’s On this Day in London History. How about This Day in London? The recommendation in other words.

Surely it has to be a visit to the Thames River Police Museum down in Wapping. But, fair warning, it’s housed in a working police station. so visits have to be arranged by prior appointment. As their website says, “Visits are normally conducted by the Honourary Curator, a retired serving officer with many years experience of policing the river.” Sounds good to me. 

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just the right size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you can’t get world-class guides – let alone accomplished, distinguished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a blockbuster question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do what you have to do to attract and keep elite, all-star guides. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason we’ve got a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality – it’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished professionals: 

barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, Guide of the Year Award winners… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. GoodLondoning one and all. See ya tomorrow.

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