Quercus Books Reviewed in 2009
The Great British Bobby
A history of British policing from 1829 to the present
Author: Clive Emsley
ISBN: 978 1847249470
Publication Date: 17th August 2009
Publisher's Title Information
The Victorians called him 'Bobby', after Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary who created the Metropolitan Police in 1829. The generations that followed came to regard the force in which he served as 'the best police in the world'. If twenty-first century observers sometimes take a more jaundiced view of his efforts, the blue-helmeted, unarmed policeman remains an icon of Britishness, and a symbol of the relatively peaceful nature of our social evolution.
In The Great British Bobby, Clive Emsley traces the development of Britain's, forces of law and order from the earliest watchmen and constables of the pre-modern period to the police service of today. He examines in detail such milestones in police history as the establishment of the Bow Street Runners in the 1750s, the Police Acts of 1839, the introduction of women police officers during the First World War, and the Macpherson Report of 1999 into the death of Stephen Lawrence. Threaded through his narrative are case-studies of real-life Bobbies, drawn from police archives, evoking the day-to-day reality of the policeman's lot over two and a half centuries: the boredom of patrolling on foot in all weathers, the threats to life and limb of policing rough areas, and the diverse historical challenges of industrial unrest, the growth of cities, the arrival of the motor car and the ethnic diversification of society. From Robert Grubb, patrolling the mean streets of Georgian London with rattle and cudgel, to Norwell Roberts, the first black officer to be appointed to the Metropolitan Police, The Great British Bobby presents a cast of mostly honest coppers performing a testing role to the best of their ability.
A distinguished historian and academic criminologist, Clive Emsley is ideally placed to tell - candidly but affectionately - the fascinating story of Britain's police force. The Great British Bobby is nothing less than a social history of Britain over the last 250 years, viewed through the prism of one of its most remarkable and distinctive institutions.
The name 'Bobby' comes from Sir Robert Peel who, as home secretary, oversaw the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829. In spite of his position as a national institution and his appeal as a solution to present-day concerns about law and order, the social history of the Bobby has rarely been explored. Yet his story (and since the beginning of the twentieth century it is also her story) is as exciting as that of his military cousin, Tommy Atkins.
Bobby served on the front line of what is often characterized as 'the war against crime.' He may rarely have fought in pitched battles and almost never with lethal weapons, but his life could be hard and dangerous. Up until the last third of the twentieth century he usually patrolled on foot, in all weathers by day and, more often, by night. The drudgery of the foot patrol fostered that other nickname, 'Mr Plod'; something that may, or may not, have passed Enid Blyton by when she chose the name for the policeman of Noddy's Toytown.
The period covered by The Great British Bobby saw massive economic, social and political change in Britain. The policing institution has shifted significantly in tandem, from having its primary relationship directly with the decentralized, local community, to becoming an instrument of the central state with, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, targets set and regulated centrally for the good of what politicians and policing professionals consider as the national community.
Criminological expert Clive Emsley is ideally placed to tell the story of this remarkable and iconic institution; his book is nothing less than a social history of Britain over the last 180 years.
Clive Emsley is Professor of History and co-director of the International Centre for Comparative Criminological Research at the Open University. He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society and president of the International Association for the History of Crime and Criminal Justice.
Part of the Author's Introduction
At Nightfall On 22 April 1944 Sergeant Air Gunner Ernest `Ernie' Emsley climbed on board a Lancaster bomber for his first operational raid over occupied Europe. Before him he could expect several hours of cold, dark and certain danger. Ernie was used to long shifts of night-time work. It was only ten months since, with hundreds of his fellows, he had transferred from the Metropolitan Police and joined RAF Bomber Command. Police officers in the 1930s and 1940s, like their forebears for the previous hundred years, had patrolled regular night-time beats in all weathers. The constant roar of a Lancaster's four Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, however, was very different from the usual silence of a night-time beat. And the hours of danger ahead were very different from the occasional adrenalin rush of confronting the violent or the unexpected on a dark London street.
Ernie was born in Battersea in January 1917. His father, a sailor, died in 1919 of wounds received during the First World War; his stepfather, Harry Jordan, was a market policeman in the City of London. Ernie left school aged 14 and for a few years worked as a clerk. He decided to go one better than Harry and on 12 October 1936, three months before his twentieth birthday, he joined the Metropolitan Police. After his initial training in Hendon he was posted to 'P' Division in south-east London. Ernie was never going to rise to the top of the police. He was a bit too much of a Jack-the-Lad. Shortly after joining he was suspended, without pay, for ten days; the reasons for this are not recorded in police orders or on his personnel file, though his wife, whom he married a few years later, always believed that he had been late for parade one morning because his landlady had failed to wake him.
Ernie was said to have known all the dodges. He knew where, while on his beat at night, he might snatch a few hours' sleep in one of the sports pavilions in his division. He knew how to use police connections to get free tickets for West End shows; in particular he loved the Crazy Gang - Flanagan and Allen, Nervo and Knox, Naughton and Gold - well-known for their seaside postcard jokes, slapstick and sentimental songs. He was an able sportsman; he won medals in the Metropolitan Police Divisional Cricket League and with the South East London Thursday Football League. He was a good dancer and he had met his wife Evelyn Ings, the daughter of a City of London carman, at a dance some months before he joined the police. He passed his exams as a Second Class Constable in August 1939 just a few weeks after getting married. In December 1942 he failed the exam for promotion to sergeant, possibly because he was keen to get into the services to do his bit. Or perhaps it was this failure that determined him to volunteer for the RAF as soon as the opportunity arrived.
Ernie's first operational flight ended in disaster. His body was one of two picked up in the North Sea; the other five crewmen of his Lancaster vanished with their aircraft. Three months after his death, his wife gave birth to their only child, a boy As Ernie had wished, I was named Clive, after Clive Road, West Dulwich, where Ernie and Evelyn had their flat.
The police look after their own. In addition to her pension Evelyn received an allowance for me from the City of London and Metropolitan Police Orphanage. I also received an annual Christmas Box from `P' Division and regular visits from a local inspector to see how I was doing at school. The visits stopped only when I went to university.
For around thirty years now, as a historian, my research has focused on crime and policing. Perhaps this is the result of a desire to know more of the father that I never met. But then policemen also play an important and prominent role in our society. They deserve a proper understanding of what they have done and what they do now. The British Bobby has been a witness to history and very often at the centre of it. But his collective experience is little known, and while most histories name commissioners, chief constables and occasionally an individual, low-ranking officer who has stood out for some reason, few focus in any detail on the lives of the ordinary Bobby, on his day-to-day duties and experiences. The aim of what follows it to help fill this gap with a kind of collective biography of the ordinary police officer.