A Short History of London’s Metropolitan Police | History Hit

A Short History of London’s Metropolitan Police

Members of the Metropolitan Police conducting a survey on the streets of London.
Image Credit: Philius / CC

The Metropolitan Police Service in London is one of the largest and oldest police forces in the world. The Met, as they are commonly known, were the first modern police force in England and the organisation enforces the law across London’s 32 boroughs. They also lead on numerous national policing issues such as counter-terrorism strategy, protection for diplomats and important figures like members of the Royal Family.

Although there were already police in London by the turn of the 19th century, it was only through the founding of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 that launched policing as we know it today.


Crime has been dealt with differently throughout history: often it was down to landowners and gentry to oversee the meting out of justice to those who broke the laws. Whilst some parishes could afford some form of police force in the 18th and 19th centuries, they were often inefficient and rife with corruption. However, as urban centres in Britain grew in the early 19th century, so did crime.

Poor living conditions, overcrowding and poverty saw crime become rife, and the upper classes began to see this new underworld as a threat to the stability of society. When Robert Peel became Home Secretary in 1822, he pushed for the idea of creating an organised police force, and in 1829, his Metropolitan Police Bill received parliamentary approval.

This bill established a full-time, professional and centralised police force for greater London. Those employed by it – the constables – would wear a uniform to make them recognisable and it was hoped that their presence would help prevent crime and keep the streets safe. They were paid reasonably: more than a labourer but less than a skilled worker. They also had to pay for their new uniforms out of their wages and many constables would walk up to 10 miles a day across their ‘beat’ in London.

Warren Street Police, Stockport, 1901.

Image Credit: Stockport Image Archive / CC

Rapid growth

Peel’s Metropolitan Police were not welcomed with open arms on the streets of London: they were kicked, spat at, heckled and sometimes even killed in the line of duty. However, they were deemed a success. In the 1830s, police forces were established across Britain’s towns and cities, stretching into rural areas by the end of the decade thanks to the Rural Constabulary Act.

By 1851, there were around 13,000 police across England and Wales, along with potential thousands of special constables – ordinary citizens who were appointed as temporary police officers by magistrates in times of emergency.

Solving crime, not just preventing it

In 1842, the first detectives were employed by the Met in its newly established ‘Detective Branch’ and achieved an early and newsworthy win when they tracked down the murderers Frederick and Marie Manning. They were found guilty of murdering Marie’s lover, Patrick O’Connor, and burying him under their kitchen floor: they were later hanged in Southwark.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing. The Detective Branch was wracked by scandal when three of its highest ranking officers were found guilty of corruption in 1877, and drunkenness on duty proved to be a recurring problem. Over 200 officers were found guilty of this offence in one year. The failure to catch Jack the Ripper following a spate of murders in Whitechapel also dented confidence in the Detective Branch.

It was only towards the end of the 19th century that officers were allowed firearms on duty: one of the chief concerns in the early days of the police had been that it would become used as a military force, hence why officers did not have weapons prior to this.

Historian Paul Stickler focuses on the murder of Elizabeth Ridgley in Hitchin, in 1919.
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Female officers join the force

Although women ran voluntary police patrols, including those to assist the Metropolitan Police, during the First World War, they had no official status until 1919, when they were allowed to fully join the ranks of their male counterparts.

The first female officers did not have the same rank or responsibility as their male counterparts. They were not allowed to carry handcuffs, had to call for a male colleague if they saw a crime being committed, and were generally only permitted to help with crime relating to women and children.

By 1923, an officer called Sofia Stanley challenged the Met’s discrimination against women and won, giving women the power of arrest and allowing them to join Special Branch and the Criminal Investigation Department, although they were still required to leave the police force if they got married.

Changing Britain

During the Second World War, police reserves and recently retired officers were called up to help out where necessary. However, the chaotic nature of wartime London meant crime was on the rise, providing a serious challenge to the already short-staffed police.

By 1948, the levels of recorded crime had risen ten-fold since the 1920s. The police abolished the marriage ban for women and recruited intensively. Norwell Roberts was the first black officer enlisted by the Met in 1967, and the following year Sislin Fay Allen became the Met’s first black female officer. In 1973, the Women’s Department was finally fully integrated into the main Metropolitan Police, and the following year men and women within the Met were awarded equal pay.

Despite this, the Met began to receive more and more serious allegations of institutional racism: the 1993 murder of Stephen Lawrence saw this come to a climax as the police failed to arrest, charge and convict several suspects despite compelling evidence.

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In 2000, the newly created Greater London Authority began to oversee the running of the Met through the Metropolitan Policy Authority, although the Police Commissioner remains appointed by the Home Secretary. In 2016, the Met moved into its new headquarters at New Scotland Yard. Dame Cressida Dick was appointed commissioner in 2017, becoming the first female and gay officer to lead the Met.

Sarah Roller