The Police of the United Kingdom

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Constable Apprehending-2.jpg

Knowing the occupation of an ancestor can be very valuable in family history research. But what does it mean if all that is known about an ancestor was that they were “in the Police”?

History[edit | edit source]

In the United Kingdom, there have been over 200 different organizations within the definition of police organizations. And today there are still at least 43 different organizations. Now, the politically correct term is “The Service” although for many years the term “The Force” was more commonly used. Through history, Special Constables were raised for certain occasions. One famous Special Constable was the future Emperor Napoleon III who, as a younger man, walked the beat in Kensington at the time of the 1848 Chartist movement. And Lord Nelson was, for a few years, a Detective Constable in Hertfordshire.

Prior to 1829, there were small local police forces, such as those in Glasgow and on the River Thames. In London, the Bow Street Runners were followed by the Horse and Foot Patrols who also served in London and outwards into the surrounding counties. Those large enough to survive independently used the title “Police”. The largest town forces retained the title for another 130 years with London’s two big services, the Metropolitan Police and City of London Police, always retaining this title.

Forces called “Constabulary”[edit | edit source]

Under the provisions of an 1839 Act of Parliament, Rural Police emerged. Where a larger county force amalgamated with a smaller Police or Constabulary, the title “Constabulary” usually survived. Constabulary records can be found in Quarter Session records, the supervising authority and originals are held in the Record Offices. Many records were also reported in the local newspapers. Later the supervising authority became the Standing Joint Committee now known as the Police Committee. Other counties such as Hertfordshire Constabulary (1841-to date) destroyed their records many years ago and painful reconstruction from newspapers will be required. The Kent Constabulary was not formed until 1857. Many of the 43 U.K. forces retain the word “Constabulary” and many others are still called it despite disposing of the name many years ago.

Other Policemen[edit | edit source]

All those referred to as policemen were not necessarily in a Town Police or a County Constabulary. In Essex, security men at Southend Airport were called Southend on Sea Constabulary Special Constables, and at Stansted Airport there was the British Airports Constabulary. On the railways, the London Transport Police served the Eastern Counties Railway pre-1947, the London Midland & Scottish, the London and North Eastern Railways as well as the London Tilbury and Southend Railway. In one instance, an individual was found in the censuses, first as a Detective Constable and then promoted as the Station Master which, at first, might seem implausible but was actually a natural promotion for the occupation. The Metropolitan Police positioned Special Branch officers at immigration points such as the port of Harwich. In the 1851 Devon census, there is a pocket of Metropolitan Policemen stationed at the Royal Docks in Portsmouth and Devonport. Royal residences like Windsor Castle also used a security force, and Commercial Docks had policemen. Now many of these police forces have become agencies.

Police Museums[edit | edit source]

Sadly, Police Museums come and go based on the whims of those in command, and many local collections have been mothballed including the one in Cambridgeshire, Cheshire and Cumbria though some parts of these collections may be in Record Offices. Many towns such as Huntingdon and Kings Lynn have excellent local police museums. Others have placed their collections within a tourist facility with Kent’s being housed at the Chatham Historic Dockyard. In Essex, the complete records of the former Essex Constabulary (1840-1969) were loaded onto a launch and ordered dumped somewhere off the Southend Pier in the early 1970’s. Fortunately, most of it was rescued and eventually placed in another museum in 1991. Many respected museums as in the case of Devon and Cornwall have been temporarily closed for lack of someone to manage them. There are also well-funded and independent museums in the Greater Manchester area and the West Midlands In London, the City Police have a museum with an excellent curator. The Metropolitan Police museum is in West London. Note that the Crime Museum, formerly the Black Museum at New Scotland Yard is not about policemen. It is the world’s oldest crime museum, mainly devoted to criminality and artefacts. At Weathersfield in Essex there is also an excellent museum for the Ministry of Defence Police (its forebears, the civilian police of Army, Navy and Air Force). Military organizations such as the Royal Military Police, the R.A.F. Police and the Navy (Chatham Dockyard) also have police museums.

The Police and Constabulary of Essex[edit | edit source]

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From an Act of Parliament in 1835, small towns with a Royal Charter began to employ policemen. In Essex they were Colchester, Harwich, Maldon and Saffron Walden. The early beat book of Colchester from 1836 has survived and is the basis of an index of officers of that town up to the 1947 amalgamation. Minutes of the Watch Committee, the controlling body of the town force, have survived as well. In Colchester each new officer was introduced by name to that committee, with their names being recorded in the minutes. However in 1857, as policing in all United Kingdom became compulsory, many small forces ceased to exist and Watch Committees disappeared in the 1950’s.

Harwich and Saffron Walden officers can be traced in the 1841 and 1851 censuses as well as the local newspapers until their small forces were eliminated. In Maldon, officers can be traced in a similar fashion until their amalgamation in 1889. The Essex Police assumed that title in 1974, when their former title, The Essex and Southend on Sea Joint Constabulary, became too unwieldy for administration and cap badges.

In Essex, it is believed that records exist for every Constabulary member serving since 1840. And, with the use of their Giggins Index, a biography can nearly always be produced. There is also an index of everyone who served with the former Southend on Sea Constabulary (1914-1969). The Bayliss Index is a strays register containing the names of men and women of other forces who were temporarily serving in Essex.

Research[edit | edit source]

Finding a marriage, death or census record indicating the occupation of “policeman” may be more difficult to research because there is no centralized record of policemen in England. In seeking police ancestors, it is advisable to first search a Rootsweb list supported by Bill Wood. You can subscribe to this list by e-mailing

Lists of officers serving in the Horse and Foot Patrols of London are available, but many often became members of the Metropolitan Police when it was formed in 1829. The National Archives at Kew hold many of the records of “The Met” and the other large forces, such as the pre-1922 Royal Irish Constabulary. National Archive leaflets on police subjects can be downloaded from the web site at

Identifying a Policeman from a Picture[edit | edit source]

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Senior officers, though few in number, were the most photographed. Both Wiltshire and Essex didn’t have even a dozen chief constables between them in over 320 years of joint service. There are still many Victorian uniforms around but the caution is that many of these uniforms were from ex-military senior officers so the uniforms can be confusing. For example, there is no known picture of the founding Chief Constable of Essex, John Bunch Bonnemaison McHardy, (served 1841-1881) in a police unform. This may be because he was a full Admiral and would have used that uniform instead.

Ranks were mostly denoted by military insignia. Constables wore numbers, a prime source for police humour. One Training Officer assigned “40 Watts” to a good friend, suggesting that, like the light bulb, he was not too bright. At one time “PC49” provoked laughter, the same name as a 1940’s radio show. PC 1001 was described as “Clean round the bend.” Also, in deference to the family, the number of a deceased constable murdered on duty, was rarely issued again.

A picture with the helmet or collar showing a number will be a prime source for identification. Acting sergeants had stripes and numbers while full and station sergeants had crowned stripes. Inspectors wore Bath Stars, and Superintendents and those ranked above wore crowns, “pips” and laurels. This of course varied between forces and eras. The Essex Constabulary in 1840 had only Superintendents and Constables with Inspectors being added later. It was only in 1855 that the rank of Sergeant appeared. In this force, all wore crowns to denote service to the crown and in different times there were also Chief Inspectors and Chief Superintendents. In London the chiefs of both forces were Commissioners. Some smaller forces had High Constables

When first formed, the police took a non-army profile with reinforced civilian top hats. But from the 1870’s the majority of working policemen wore helmets. There are three distinct shapes:

  1. Roman style comb from front to back. This was and still is worn by the City of London Police but the Victorian Metropolitan Police also wore it for several decades. It is presently used by Essex, Kent, Thames Valley and many others. The comb has a small filigree front, and, in the majority of these forces, it features a Maltese Cross. However in Essex the comb holds a cockle-shell in honour of the Southend Constabulary.
  2. A military looking spike & ball on the top. Those that wore this included Humberside, Devon, Cornwall and the Royal Parks Constabulary.
  3. A helmet with a rose-top and the most common. It is used by the present Metropolitan Police and many others.

From 1970, red, blue and green insignia arrived, pioneered by Greater Manchester, Metropolitan, Essex and Kent. Kepis were once the working headgear of Victorian senior officers, but with the advent of the car the peaked cap became fashionable. In Scotland, a cap with the black and white diced band replaced the helmet some 70 years ago, whereas in England caps were plain blue until about 1970, when diced bands were adopted (but not by Surrey for many years).

Heraldry identifies uniforms geographically and the period can be identified by the crown used. Not all forces used a crown; some forces, including Norfolk, did not use helmet badges. A good place to learn the difference between the badges is by studying old postage stamps. There are three types of crowns:

  1. Geulphic or Victorian - a distinct high-sided shape worn until 1901. In Essex they sawed these off when the old Queen died and soldered on #2.
  2. The Edward or King’s crown - much heavier but with a lower profile. Kings wore the Edward crown until 1952.
  3. The Queen’s crown – presently still in use, it is the most familiar.

The uniform jacket in pictures should also be examined. In London and some other places the wearing of the arm band indicated whether an officer was on duty. This can be a good identifier for the time period. The City of London still wear their jackets with a red & white vertical striped armband. The Metropolitan Police wore a blue & white vertical striped armband. In Colchester, the police armband was horizontally striped in blue & white.

Medals are another effective way to determine the date of a picture. Their configuration and shape identify either a military or police career. Those issued by the sovereign were worn on the left breast and those issued by other authorities were worn on the right breast. Victorian non-royal medals were awarded by the local authority for temperance, marksmanship and for bravery. Some of these local authorities would have been the Royal Society for the Protection of Life from Fire, the Royal Humane Society and other worthy groups. Registers for some of these awards are with parent organizations as well as the National Archives. Familiar Sovereign’s ribbons are the blue/white/blue of the Long Service & Good Conduct Medal, issued from 1952 and the red/white/black of the Special Constabulary medal, issued since the Great War, World War I.

Decorated truncheons, also known as a “billy” or baton, are a subject that follows many of the above rules but should be taken to an expert for analysis. They mostly pre-date Queen Victoria or were issued during her reign, although special presentations continue until this day.

Memorials and Diversions[edit | edit source]

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In Lancashire, former Sergeant Anthony Rae of Preston has created a National Role of Honour, charting the deaths of officers of all UK forces killed on duty. The Essex Police have a web site as a memorial to about 150 officers who died violently on duty or in the service of their country. There are Rolls of Honour in Chelmsford, Belfast, Scotland Yard and many others that will give details of an individual and many may be found online. Coventry Cathedral also houses the National Register and Memorial to all Special Constables killed on duty, sadly dominated by Reserve Constables of the Royal Ulster Constabulary. The earliest page is devoted to Henry Trigg, Parish Constable in Berden, Essex murdered in the course of a robbery in 1814. Each of the 43 present-day forces honours their deceased members in their own way. In Essex, there is a charitable trust named the Essex Police Memorial Trust, found online at

In Victorian times, senior officers held a prominent social position in the community but were not allowed to openly support political parties or frequent certain public houses. As a result, Masons provided one means of socializing with peer groups. Masonics at that time were often very open and “brothers” were named in newspaper reports of funerals and other events. To gain an understanding of this subject, read more in the small book, “My Ancestor was a Freemason” by Pat Lewis. Locating the Lodge and corresponding with them will be the key for successful research. The Library and Museum of Freemasonry is located near Covent Garden in London and found online at

Finding Police Sources[edit | edit source]

How to look for records of Police - The National Archives. This short guide provides advice on where to go to locate police records. Only the records of the Metropolitan Police, the Royal Irish Constabulary and transport police are held at The National Archives.

Contact the County or Town Record Office in the area in which you suspect your ancestor lived or served. Ask about local police records and if the local service has a museum.

Service sites, such as Lincolnshire, Merseyside and Bradford are available and written histories can be found in East Yorkshire and Sunderland. To mark the 150th anniversary of the foundation, many counties produced histories in 1989 &1990. Another place to look would be the Police Vehicle Enthusiasts Club.

For more information, write to one of the 43 UK services, the Garde Siocanna in Dublin, or other various agencies. Address your correspondence to the Chief Officer, enclosing a self-addressed envelope to encourage a quick reply. Ask about their facilities, a contact for their force history and whether anyone answers historical inquiries. If there is a photograph, enclose a clear copy of it with the inquiry. Note that the Police History Society is an academic society devoted to research on police subjects, and is not usually geared to accepting inquiries about individual officers.

It should be realized that the occupation of “Policeman” given in a family record could be a general term, and each individual will have to make research decisions based on the time period, the place, and the available records.

This information was furnished by Fred Feather, former Policeman and Founding Curator of the Essex Police Museum and Memorial Trusts.

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