Think I’m allowed to share this as it has now been marked… I will take it down if it is verboten…


Bloody Sunday, 1887

A key indicator that the working class arrived in the nineteenth century was the development of a nationwide modern state police force. I will investigate how the introduction of the New Police correlate with Marx’s dialectical theories about class development, as well as deviating theories of nineteenth-century social relations.

The working class came into existence, Marx theorised, when workers became conscious of their individual and collective exploitation by the capitalist, middle, or owning class.1 In his seminal 1963 work, The Making of the English Working Class, Edward Thompson argued this “historical phenomenon” of “human relationships” occurred between the 1790s and 1830s.2 The working class was formed subjectively (from self-identity), as a result of objective conditions (frenzied, laissez-faire, steam-driven industrial capitalism), in an antagonistic social relationship with the owners of capital, who had become de facto masters and profiteers on the backs of those who created the wealth. While “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles…” modern bourgeois society had established “new conditions of oppression” and “new forms of struggle”, and had simplified class antagonisms into a binary us vs them: “Society as a whole is more and more splitting up into two great hostile camps, into two great classes directly facing each other: Bourgeoisie and Proletariat,” rallied Marx and Engels in the Communist Manifesto of 1848.3

But David Cannadine claimed in 1998 the “working class was no more ‘made’ in the first third of the nineteenth century than it was ‘re-made’ in the last quarter”.4 The “working classes” and “middle classes” were just changes in language from “lower” and “middling” orders”, and the Elizabethan model of hierarchical society as a mutually dependent “Great Chain of Being” with everyone in their ordained place by God or nature, remained the prevailing concept among 19th-century people, he argued.5 The orthodox or Whig histories of the police, often written by policemen, also emphasise continuity – the New Police, formed between 1829 and 1856, according to the orthodox narrative, was merely a centrally-organised, professional upgrade of the parochial and minimal Old Police system of parish constables and watchmen, introduced in response to fear of increasing crime.6 One crucial difference between the old and new was a change in social arrangements. The parish constables were community mediators appointed by local elites, or a rota system between householders.7 They rarely imposed on the social life of their community, and often left the onus on victims of crimes to identify the perpetuators and bring a prosecution.8 Thieves and other offenders were, under common law and custom, apprehended collectively by passers-by answering a hue and cry.9 However, the new policeman was installed from outside the area and was answerable to a rigid class-based hierarchy that ended with the Home Secretary rather than local dignitaries and justices.10 His task was to patrol a community night and day and uphold by force draconian laws, including anti-trade union Combination Acts, to forcefully populate workhouses under the new Poor Law of 1834, the anti-prostitution Contagious Diseases Act, others preventing games, gambling and other recreational customs, and the Six Acts stopping “seditious” groups of people from gathering. These laws, and their enforcers, curtailed the autonomy, freedom and self-defence of workers, at work and at leisure. The police reforms could thus be seen as an act of class war – and in 1833, one writer claimed the police was “a political, not a protective force – that its object is not so much to prevent thieving as to watch political feeling, and give reports to the Ministers of the political movements of the working classes.”11

Patrick Joyce considers populism and nationalism shaped the nineteenth century more than class conflict.12 Before the 1832 Reform Act drove a wedge between the enfranchised and disenfranchised, radicals called for the ‘people’ to unite and fight against Old Corruption (aristocrats and government), appealing to patriotic constitutional ideas about freedom and anti-despotism. There was widespread resistance to a standing army, and the notion of a police force was regarded with French state tyranny by the gendarmerie (men at arms) as well as espionage.13 The earliest Peelers were the Peace Preservation Force, a mobile military unit Peel established as Governor of Ireland in 1814 with the objective of “pacifying a recalcitrant population”.14 The blueprint for the London Metropolitan ‘Peelers’ was designed in the wake of the Gordon Riots, in 1782 – they were to be dressed like smart gentlemen-about-town rather than soldiers, and wear blue rather than military red coats.15 Fifty years on, people seemed to see through the ‘soft’ branding – among the many violent nicknames given to the police was raw lobsters – blue when cold, but red when cooked.



Two handbills opposing the new Metropolitan Police from 1830 call for an arming of (above) and unity (below) of the people, rather than class, to “institute a Police System in the hands of the PEOPLE under parochial appointments”. SOURCES: The John Murray Archive, National Library of Scotland (‘Raw lobsters’), National Archives (‘Abolition of the New Police’)




A third handbill is opposing the roll-out of police in 1850 Aberystwyth, saying townspeople “do not require the surveillance of a couple of Bludgeon-men to keep them from becoming Pickpockets and Thieves”. It also emphasises parochial and civic concerns, rather than class. SOURCE: Wikipedia


The police were evidently seen as a coercive imposition on the “people” as a whole, but as Engels in 1845 presented the policeman’s truncheon as a “soothing” weapon for the bourgeois against the proletariat, this class dichotomy was present at the heart and start of the “preventive policing principle”.1 This policy of constant monitoring championed by Bentham and Peel, was developed and trialled by Scottish merchant and London magistrate Patrick Colquhoun, who may have stolen the idea from Glasgow.2 In 1798, Colquhoun persuaded the West India companies to fund “A River Police, for securing Commercial Property, in the Port of London, against the unexampled Depredations which have been heretofore experienced, and improving the Morals of the Maritime Labourers“.3 Colquhoun claimed £500,000 of goods annually were being stolen by 11,000 of the 33,000 dockers, sold openly in the street and bought by locals.4 Skimming off some of the booty from the triangular slave trade for neighbourhood redistribution was customary and not criminalised until the Marine Police arrived in July 1798. Within three months a crowd, demanding the return of 40s fines imposed for theft of coal, stoned the police station.5 A policeman and a rioter were shot and killed, possibly both by police as the crowd were unarmed. The coal-heaver who incited the riot was deemed responsible for murder, hanged and his body dissected as extra punishment.6 The class dimension was literally there from the start: A Metropolitan police, Colquhoun wrote in 1806, would reform “the depraved habits and loose conduct of a great proportion of the lower classes of the people”.7

Storch and others have shown animosity continued throughout the century – provoked often by intrusion into houses, being ordered to move on, and extinguishing social customs(from bonfires and drunken revelry to dice-playing and cock fights).8 Henry Mayhew reported on costermongers’ battle with police for their livelihoods, selling fruit from street carts, as law enforcement conflicted with parochial custom:

To serve out a policeman is the bravest act by which a costermonger can distinguish himself. Some lads have been imprisoned upwards of a dozen times for this offence; and are consequently looked upon by their companions as martyrs. When they leave prison for such an act, a subscription is often got up for their benefit. In their continual warfare with the force, they resemble many savage nations, from the cunning and treachery they use. The lads endeavour to take the unsuspecting “crusher” by surprise, and often crouch at the entrance of a court until a policeman passes, when a stone or a brick is hurled at him, and the youngster immediately disappears.9

Towards the end of the nineteenth century, the prevailing grand narrative is that the working class became consolidated as a social structure, forging a distinctive culture.10 The impression is one of accommodation, which Harold Perkin termed the “viable class society of Victorian Britain… Each class, the landed upper class, the capitalist middle class and the wage-earning working class… accepted the other classes’ right to exist and to bargain over their share of the national income and political power”.11 The share was hugely unequal, but would have been less had it not been for the strength of the trade union movement, co-operatives and clubs, mutual aid and bargaining tools made by and for the working class, in spite of the police’s relentless attempts to prevent people organising.12

The paradox of the policeman was that he was buffeted by class conflict on all sides, by his middle- and upper-class superiors, and also those he policed who regarded him as a “bluebottle” or “locust”, an unwanted, unskilled prole wearing smart clothes funded by the taxpayer.1 Yet policemen could express class consciousness. Buckinghamshire policeman John Pearson reflected:

“As poor men we cannot find much to live for ours is a life of heavy toil to get a bare living and to amas money and Whealth for the great men of the day… should you be so unfortanate as to be out of work you and the Family have much to suffer…”2

The police ensured the working class remained downtrodden by their omnipresence, and divided, between those who resented police and those who accepted them. Many urban communities remained in a state of perpetual class war with the police. This validates Marx’s dialectic class theory. A populist and patriotic vein also ran through the nineteenth-century, as Joyce argued, which manifested itself earlier in the century as libertarian, anti-government and anti-police, but by the end of the century proudly viewed the Great British Bobby as emblematic of Great Britain and Ireland and Her Dominions. Populism and nationalism ignored or neutralised class struggle, in capitalism’s favour. Among nineteenth-century working-class autobiographies, compiler John Burnett found, “there is a sense of patient resignation to the facts of life, the feeling that human existence is a struggle and that survival is an end in itself.”3 Survival meant acclimatising to conditions, including a siege mentality generated by constant surveillance and presence of police. This is how the working class endured.


TIME – Saturday Night. SCENE – A London Slum.
Punch, April 21, 18771
1George du Maurier, Cartoon from Punch Magazine (Punch, 1877) (accessed 25/11/18)

1  Churchill, Popular Animosity Towards the Police... (2014), pp. 16-18.

2  Carolyn Steedman, The Radical Soldier’s Tale: John Pearman, 1819-1908 (London: Routledge, 1988), p. 25.

3  Harold Perkin, ”The Condesceension of Posterity’: Middle-Class Intellectuals and the History of the Working Class’ in The Structured Crowd (1981), p. 178.


1  Friedrich Engels, Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) (English edition 1887, Marxists Internet Archive, 2010), p. 157. (accessed 25/11/18)

2Alastair Dinsmor, Glasgow Police Pioneers (The Scotia News, Vol. 2, No 1, Winter 2003) (accessed 25/11/18)

3Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Commerce and Police of the River Thames (London: H. Baldwin and Son, 1800), p. 14. (accessed 25/11/18)

4Author unattributed, Thames Police: History – Establishment (Thames Police Museum website), (accessed 25/11/18)

5PC Bob Jeffries, The Wapping Coal Riot of October 1798 (Thames Police Museum website), (accessed 25/11/18)

6James Eyres, 9 January 1799 (The Proceedings of the Old Bailey, London’s Central Criminal Court, 1674 to 1913) (accessed 25/11/18)

7Patrick Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis (London: Bye and Law, 1806), p. 17 (accessed 25/11/18)

8See Robert D. Storch, The Plague of the Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840-57 (International Review of Social History, Vol 20, Issue 1, 1975, pp. 61-90) (accessed 25/11/18), and The Policeman As Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England 1850-1880 (Journal of Social History, Oxford University Press, Vol. 9, No. 4, Summer 1976, pp. 481-509) (accessed 25/11/18); David Churchill, ‘I am just the man for Upsetting you Bloody Bobbies’: popular animosity towards the police in late nineteenth-century Leeds (Social History, Vol 39, No. 2, pp. 248-266) (accessed 25/11/18); Francis Dodsworth, ‘Men On A Mission, Masculinity, Violence and the Self-Presentation of Policemen in England, c. 1870-1914’ in Barrie / Broomhall, A History of Police and Masculinities, pp. 123-140;

9Henry Mayhew, ‘Of the Number of Costermongers and Other Street-Folk’ in London Labour and the London Poor, 1851, 1861-2 (Victorian London website) (accessed 25/11/18)

10Jose Harris, The Penguin Social History of Britain: Private Lives, Public Spirit: Britain 1870-1914 (London: Penguin, 1994), pp. 6-7.

11Harold Perkin, ‘Social Change and the Novel, 1840-1940’ in The Structured Crowd: Essays in English Social History (Brighton: The Harvester Press, 1981), p. 90.

12Harris, Private Lives, Public Spirit… (1994), pp. 144-147.




1E. P. Thompson, Eighteenth-century English society: Class struggle without class? (Social History, Vol 3. No. 2, 1978), pp. 147-150. (accessed 25/11/18)

2E. P. Thompson, ‘Preface’ (1963), in The Making of the English Working Class (London: Penguin, 1980 edition), p. 8.

3Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848) (Marxists Internet Archive, 2010) pp. 14-15. (accessed 25/11/18)

4David Cannadine, Beyond Class? Social Structures and Social Perceptions in Modern England (Raleigh Lecture On History, The British Academy, 1998), pp. 98-99. (accessed 25/11/18)

5Ibid, pp. 100-101.

6Tim Newburn, Revisiting the Classics: Robert Reiner: the Politics of the Police (Policing and Society, London School of Economics, 2016), pp. 3-4. (accessed 25/11/18). Example of a typical orthodox police history stressing continuity: Captain W. L. Melville Lee, A History of Police in England (London: Methuen and Co., 1901)

7Robert D. Storch, The Old English Constabulary (History Today, November 1, 1999), p. 45. (accessed 25/11/18)

8Ibid, p. 47.

9A. M. P. , ‘The Old-Time Constable as Portrayed by the Dramatists’ (1981), in Clive Emsley (ed.), Theories and Origins of the Modern Police (London: Routledge, 2017), pp. 223-224.

10Storch, The Old English Constabulary (1999), p. 52.

11Ibid, p. 64, quoting the Destructive And Poor Man’s Conservative, November 2, 1833.

12Chris Waters, Review: Visions of the People: Industrial England and the Question of Class, 1840-1914 by Patrick Joyce (Social History, Vol. 17, No. 3, October 1992), pp. 513-516.

13Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (1963/ 80), p. 89.

14William N. Grigg, Policing Was Militarized From The Start (Atlanta [USA]: Foundation For Economic Education, 15 July 2016) (accessed 25/11/18)

15Matthew McCormack, ‘A Species of Civil Soldier’: Masculinity, policing and the military in 1780s England’ in David G. Barrie and Susan Broomhall (eds.), A History of Police and Masculinities, 1700-2010, pp. 66-67. (accessed 25/11/18)