The British Bobby

The uniformed British police constable (PC), commonly known as a bobby or peeler (both after the founder of the Metropolitan Police, Sir Robert Peel), copper or busy, is similar in appearance and attributes in every police force in the country.

The constable is, for the most part, solid, dependable, patient, good-natured, calm and unflappable. He is courteous to people from all levels of society until they are insolent or cause trouble, whereupon he treats them firmly, but rarely violently. He may show more understanding and deference to those whom he perceives to be his social superiors, but if they break the law he arrests them too. The perpetrators of some ‘victimless’ crimes such as street betting regularly pay off the local beat men and also frequently their superiors as well, but the bobby can rarely be bribed to ignore a ‘real’ crime and will react angrily to any attempt to do so (and may well arrest the perpetrator). He will, however, usually accept a tip (although it is technically against regulations). In fact, some senior officers welcome their men being tipped and advance the careers of those who regularly receive tips, as it acknowledges they are doing a good job.

The bobby is tall. Minimum heights are set by individual forces, but by national regulations they are always 5’8” or more (at a time when the average young man is 5’7” tall). The minimum height in the Metropolitan Police is 5’9”, in the City of Glasgow Police 5’9½” and in the City of London Police 6’. New recruits are not permitted to wear glasses.

In general, the bobby is respected, admired and deferred to. Since he is effectively a civilian in uniform he is far more able to identify and sympathise with ordinary people. Unlike most other countries, he is a judicial official (in the ‘office of constable’) in his own right, responsible for his actions only to the law and owing allegiance only to the King.

Recruitment and Training

Unlike his continental counterparts, the bobby is rarely a former career soldier, although he may well have served in the Great War (policemen were exempt from conscription, but many serving policemen volunteered and many more join the police after their war service). This makes him more able to identify and sympathise with ordinary people than can the continental policeman who has spent his whole adult life in the army. Knowing he can reach the highest ranks of the force, which they cannot no matter how hard they work, he is generally keener in his work than they are. Some rural forces, however, do prefer to recruit ex-servicemen, especially former guardsmen.

Apart from those who come from police families (whose fathers and grandfathers also served as policemen), few men join the police as a considered career choice. Most fall into the job more or less by accident or join because it’s better than being unemployed, it pays better than being a labourer (although this has not long been the case) or it carries a reasonable pension. However, even many men in this situation end up making good careers and rising to high rank.

The bobby usually comes from the working or lower middle classes (it is very rare indeed for middle- or upper-class men to join the police) and is commonly recruited in his early to mid-twenties. The minimum age for recruitment is nineteen and the maximum is thirty.

The Metropolitan Police prefers to recruit from other areas of the country and only about one fifth of bobbies are Londoners, with another fifth from other towns and the remainder from rural districts across the British Isles, especially from the West Country, Ireland and Scotland (as the force considers that country boys are more honest and dependable and make the best policemen). About one quarter of municipal forces, including Birmingham City Police, point blank refuse to recruit men who originate in the town they police. Many Glasgow and Liverpool recruits come from the Highlands, and some speak fairly poor English, as Gaelic is their native tongue. The rural bobby, on the other hand, is likely to have been brought up in the county in which he works and to have a local accent.

The bobby is also, of course, white. It seems there were one or two black or mixed-race policemen in the 19th century, but there will be no more until 1966. He is required to be a natural-born British subject. Most policemen have no more than an elementary school education and almost none have been to university.

The smaller forces often give their recruits very little training, but larger forces usually have decent training, although much of it is on the job. Recruits to the Metropolitan Police attend an eight-week residential training course at the force’s own training centre, Peel House in Westminster. The training of the Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester forces is also highly-regarded. Some smaller forces send their new recruits on training courses run by larger forces. The head of training at Birmingham City Police, Inspector McWalter, is renowned throughout the Midlands for his tyrannical regime on the ten-week training course, which is attended by recruits from as far away as Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire. Once training is completed, the new constable immediately begins patrolling his beat alone.

Pay and Conditions

Pay and conditions are laid down nationally by the Home Office. The pay of £3 10s to £4 10s (about $17.50-22.50) per week for a constable is relatively good (at a time when the annual salary for a newly-qualified teacher after two years of college training is only £168), but he is not entitled to join a trade union or take industrial action. Moonlighting as a security guard when off-duty is forbidden from 1930. However, people are entitled to hire on-duty officers through official channels to police private functions or protect private property.

Candidates for promotion to sergeant and inspector are required by law, under the Police Act 1919, to pass an examination of some sort, but its exact nature varies from force to force. It takes an average of eight years to be promoted to sergeant, a further eight years for promotion to inspector and at least another four for promotion to superintendent (all promotions above inspector are by selection only), although some officers may be promoted much more quickly and many never gain (or desire) promotion above constable.

Every officer is entitled by law to one rest-day in every seven. The bobby looks forward to completion of twenty-five years’ service, when he can retire on a good pension (earlier if he is incapacitated through injury on duty). Most men do retire as soon as they are eligible for their pension and there are therefore very few serving policemen over the age of fifty.

The policeman must obtain permission from his superiors to marry. His prospective wife is vetted just as thoroughly as he was before he was accepted by the police. She may not take on any paid work except with the police.

The Metropolitan Police provides accommodation for its unmarried officers in barrack blocks known as section houses. These are slightly more private than military barracks, as the large barracks rooms are divided by partitions (which do not reach the ceiling) into cubicles for each man. Nearly one quarter of Metropolitan Police officers live in these section houses (there are 28 around London), which have canteens and basic facilities for the self-preparation of out-of-hours meals. Officers who do not live in section houses are usually paid a housing allowance to buy or rent their own houses, although the force also owns nearly 1,000 flats and houses for married officers. Section houses and married quarters are often attached to police stations. The City of London Police has six section houses and also owns a number of flats for married officers. Some larger borough forces, including Glasgow’s, have section houses similar to those in London, but in most cases policemen are paid a housing allowance. Many forces own houses or flats which they rent out to married officers, usually attached to police stations. In fact, most men in the county constabularies, both married and single, live in quarters attached to their stations. Unfortunately, much of this accommodation is old-fashioned and not of the highest quality.

In 1919, the Desborough Committee is appointed to look into police pay and conditions of service. It recommends substantial increases in pay rates, standardisation of pay and conditions across all forces, and the establishment of the Police Federation as a representative body for constables, sergeants and inspectors.

A national police strike is called on 31 July 1919 to call for recognition of the National Union of Police and Prison Officers (NUPPO). In light of the Desborough Committee’s expected recommendations, it completely fails. Only 2,364 policemen support it across the country, mainly in London, with over 1,000 strikers, and Liverpool, with nearly 1,000. In the latter city there is an orgy of looting, rioting and damage while the police are not on duty. The Army are called in to suppress the disturbances. All the strikers, however, are dismissed and never reinstated, although most of those close to retirement do eventually receive their pensions. The Police Federation is established at the end of 1919.

There are several unofficial journals published for policemen, including the Police Chronicle, which is published from 1866 to 1934 (although it was called the Police Service Advertiser from 1866 to 1873 and the Police Guardian from 1873 to 1888), the Police Review, published weekly from 1893 to 2011, and NUPPO’s The Bull’s Eye (named after the lantern carried by men on night duty), which first appears in August 1920.


The constable’s uniform is very dark blue, often almost black (in fact, Liverpool City Police actually wear black). His tunic, which may or not be worn with a belt depending on his force, has silver buttons and insignia and a closed, standing collar with his metal number and divisional letter displayed on both sides. If he is a sergeant, he wears three point-down silver or white chevrons on each upper sleeve (in some forces, acting sergeants wear two chevrons). When on duty, constables and sergeants in many forces wear a blue and white vertically striped armband (known as a ‘duty armband’) on their left cuff; this is a holdover from the days when a policeman was required to wear uniform at all times, even when off-duty. In inclement weather, the constable wears a heavy greatcoat or knee-length cape.

He wears a tall, conical helmet of felt-covered cork with a large metal badge on the front and a metal boss, ball, spike or comb on top, the design depending on the force. Officers in some forces, including the Metropolitan Police, wear their number on their helmet badge as well as their collar. In some seaside forces (most notably Brighton Borough Police), officers wear white helmets in summer. Many Scottish forces, however, have dispensed with the helmet, with their officers wearing flat peaked caps instead. These are also worn by vehicle crews in England and Wales, since the helmet would be awkward inside a vehicle.

Inspectors wear peaked caps, with their rank indicated by a system of Bath stars (‘pips’) and crowns on their collars. They do not wear a number. Superintendents and more senior officers usually wear open-necked tunics with shirts and ties and their rank insignia on shoulder straps.


The British policeman is generally unarmed except for a short wooden truncheon, which he keeps in a concealed ‘truncheon pocket’ inside his trouser leg. It is rarely seen by the public and many policemen have never even drawn their truncheon in anger; it is a last resort when the bobby feels his life is threatened. Many policemen even dispense with handcuffs and rely on the compliance of the prisoner and their own control skills to frogmarch him back to the station. The policeman’s cape, which is rolled into a tube about 3’ long fastened with a leather strap and hung on the belt when not in use, is often unofficially used as a club instead of the truncheon and can be an effective weapon, especially when wet.

Every policeman carries a whistle and chain attached to his tunic which is used to summon help if necessary. All officers within earshot will immediately come running when they hear a police whistle blown; it is one of the few acceptable excuses for a bobby to leave his assigned beat.


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