How were the Metropolitan Police expected to deal with ‘suspicious persons’?

In my previous post, I explored the ways in which the policing agents before the Metropolitan Police were expected to deal with ‘suspicious persons’. I suggested that policing agents were granted a range of powers under the Vagrancy Acts to arrest those whom they recognised as previous offenders, ‘bad characters’, or saw behaving suspiciously on the streets of the metropolis. I also hinted that these ideas of ‘suspicious persons’ became much clearer under the Metropolitan Police. The Metropolitan Police force was established in 1829, and provided for a hierarchical policing structure covering much of the metropolitan area. I am mostly interested in Metropolitan Police Constables, since these individuals were responsible for most day-to-day patrolling.

Metropolitan Police Constables patrolled set beats in shifts, and there was a particular emphasis upon night-time patrolling, as 2/3 of the force were deployed at night. In 1838, the City Police was established for the City of London along very similar lines. Policing ‘suspicious persons’ was at the heart of the role of the Metropolitan Police; it was stated at the outset that the principal object of the force was ‘the Prevention of Crime’.[1] The instructions said further that ‘officers and Police Constables should endeavour to distinguish themselves by such vigilance and activity, as may render it extremely difficult for any one to commit a crime within that portion of the town under their charge’.


Victorian Police Constable, by Unknown

The instructions issued to the new Metropolitan Police Constables in 1829 set out in detail their powers to arrest those who were suspected of being about to commit a felony, those with housebreaking tools, those carrying ‘a bundle or goods’ after sunset and before sunrise that are suspected to be stolen, and also vagrants, ‘loose, idle, and disorderly persons’. The Metropolitan Police Commissioners also issued later instructions in response to specific experiences of crime; for example, in 1836, constables were directed to be careful to examine courtyards, gates and areas on their beats, as it was feared that offenders hid there until the constable passed by on his beat, and then continued their criminal activity.[2] The instructions given to the Metropolitan Police Constables reflect that they were expected to be concerned with policing ‘suspicious persons’, but also recognise that this was an area in which individual constables needed to use their discretion. The instructions state that in all cases, ‘the Constable must judge, from the situation and behaviour of the party, what his intention is’, before taking the suspected offender into custody. As I explained in previous blog posts based on evidence from the Old Bailey Proceedings and newspaper reports, discretion was always an important aspect of policing practices on the streets.

We can see here that the responsibilities of the Metropolitan Police do not seem radically different from those of their predecessors. There was certainly a clarification of what constituted a ‘suspicious person’, and clearer guidelines on making these arrests, but the underlying concern about the threats of criminal activity at night-time, and among a sub-section of the lower classes of society, remained constant. As we have seen, those liable to be suspected included those carrying bundles or objects, particularly at night, those with tools that could be used to break into houses, those who appeared idle or aimless (‘loitering’ or ‘lurking’), and those who were perceived to be intending to commit a felony or misdemeanour. These characteristics reflect the ways in which the authorities and the police created and fostered a distinctive and suspicious group of individuals, a sub-class of the lower orders of society, who were liable to be arrested and often re-arrested. I’m going to be exploring case studies of particular policing agents, and the repeat offenders they policed in the next stages of my research. I think these relationships between the police and the policed will shed light on the ways in which criminality was constructed and discussed in the early nineteenth century.

[1] The National Archives (TNA): MEPO 8/1: Metropolitan Police: Office of the Commissioner: Confidential Books and Instructions, ‘Instructions to the Force’ (1829), p. 1.

[2] TNA: MEPO 8/2, Metropolitan Police: Instructions, Orders etc (1836), p. 15.

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