The earliest forms of law enforcement in the UK date back to the Middle Ages, where it was expected that all subjects of the crown helped to maintain law and order within their communities based on the ancient laws of Great Britain. This originated from the ‘Posse Comitatus’ formed during the 9th century coupled with the establishment of the Sherriff’s Office which committed all freemen of the country to bear arms to protect and maintain the laws of Great Britain and deliver offenders to the Sherriff’s office.
By the 1200s, these law enforcement officials were given the title of Watchmen, later followed by Constables. These were governed by individual town authorities. Watchmen and Constables were unpaid roles and each man took the post for a period of one year. However, all subjects of the crown were still responsible for reporting crime. If someone witnessed a crime, it was their duty to advise the watchmen/constable of the offence and it was then the duty of all men to assist to catch the offender and bring them to justice, this was called ‘Hue and Cry’ which was later abolished in the 1800s.
The first statutory police service in the UK was thought to be formed in Scotland in 1611. These were called the High Constables of Edinburgh. Their duty was to patrol the streets of Edinburgh to prevent crime and bring any perpetrators to justice. Today, High Constables of Edinburgh are still present within a ceremonial function in Scotland.
In England by the early to mid 1700s due to an increase in crime during the night hours, town authorities’ local improvement acts authorised for watchmen and constables to be paid to patrol the streets at night to combat increasing crimes rates. In 1737, a further parliament act was passed which improved and organised the night watch. This also specified the number of constables on duty each night.
Perhaps the first indication of a modern-day police service in England was first seen in 1749. Created by magistrate Henry Fielding, ‘The Bow Street Runners’. Formed initially of six men and working from no 4 Bow Street, (Bow Street Magistrates Office). The primary reason for their formation was to help prevent the growing issues of corruption, wrongful or malicious arrest within the current policing establishments. Although they did not patrol, the Bow Street Runners, acted as advocates to the magistrates and travelled the length and breadth of the country to locate and either serve writs or arrest offenders on the authority of the magistrates’ court. Over the next 80-90 years the Bow Street Runners will adapt and form the basis of the police service which we now know today.
In 1829 the home secretary Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act which formed the basis of the Metropolitan Police Force widely considered as the first organised English police service. The common nickname for police constables in the UK ‘Bobbies’ can be traced back to the formation of the MPS, as Bobby is short for Robert the Christian name of the founder of the MPS, Robert Peel. To a lesser scale police constables were also known as ‘peelers’ after his surname. The formation of the Metropolitan Police Force also see the disbandment of the Bow Street Runners, which became part of the new organisation.
In 1835, the Municipal Corporations Act was passed in parliament which required 178 Royal Boroughs to set up professional police services. This was followed in 1839 which allowed areas to set up their local police service at county level. The first to establish this was Wiltshire. Although not yet a legal requirement by 1851, at a local level 29 counties had established their own constabularies. In 1856 it was made law that each borough and county had its own police constabulary. During the years to come and by 1964 the basis of the modern police service in England and Wales is split creating 49 larger Police services by borough and county.
As of today, there are 48 police services in the UK. In England and Wales there 43 territorial police services. Scotland and Northern Ireland have their own nationally run police forces, and there are three specialised; British Transport, Ministry of Defence and Civil Nuclear police services.
In total the current personnel levels of police officers across the UK stands at; 135,301 police officers as of 31stMarch 2021. Since 2019 and the governments pledge to employ a further 20,000 police officers and the figure above includes a total of 12,896 officers from this pledge. However, this figure still falls short by 7,104 and at the time of writing the majority of police services in England and Wales are still recruiting for Police Constables.