The British Bobby: On the Beat

The urban bobby usually patrols alone, walking a set beat at a steady pace (the regulation beat pace is 2½ mph). Beats in shopping areas are smaller, allowing the constable to pass down every street several times every shift. In residential areas the beats are larger and he usually passes down every street only once or twice every shift. This does, however, make it predictable, and many criminals get to know when the constable will pass down each street. Often, therefore, there are four different starting points, routes and refreshment times for the beat, the specific pattern determined by the sergeant or inspector at the beginning of the shift. It is still fairly certain, however, that once a constable has walked along a particular street he may not return for some time. Some beats are ‘discretionary’ – as long as the constable arrives at set points on time he can walk his beat however he likes – but most have rigid schedules, although these become less common as the era progresses.

The constable records anything of significance in his pocket notebook and at the end of his shift any of these notes considered important by the sergeant are copied into the station occurrence book. He is entitled to a refreshment break (‘refs’) halfway through his shift, which he usually takes at the police station. He usually telephones the station, either from a police telephone or a public callbox, twice every shift at a set time, once before and once after his ref break, in order to receive any information his superiors need to pass on. At set points and times he also meets his sergeant. This may be up to two or three times an hour, which allows the sergeant to mount a search if the constable is not at the meeting point. In order to get through his rounds, the sergeant’s regulation pace is slightly faster than his men’s, at 3 mph.

Some men are instead assigned to beat or reserve patrols, which cross two or more beats and are used to give extra cover to vulnerable areas. These patrols are set on particular streets, parts of streets or busy junctions which require constant police presence. Some beat patrols parade an hour after the beats to provide cover during shift-changes.

The Metropolitan Police and most other larger urban forces work a three shift (or relief) system. In the Inner London divisions, early turn works 6am-10am and 2pm-6pm, late turn works 10am-2pm and 6pm-10pm, and night turn works 10pm-6am. The outer divisions work a simpler system: early turn works 6am-2pm, late turn 2pm-10pm and night turn 10pm-6am. The standard reliefs are augmented in the central divisions by men on point duty (early turn 9am-1pm and 5pm-9pm and late turn 1pm-5pm and 9pm-1am), mainly stationed at busy junctions, reserve patrol duty (10am-7pm, with a 1-hour break for lunch), covering busy streets, and evening patrol (7pm-3am). If possible, an extra relief is put on from 6pm to 2am. Some forces vary their duty hours immensely and some, such as Hertfordshire Constabulary, have abolished urban beats altogether, with officers patrolling as and when needed.

Beats (or point duties) are usually changed every month, and in about three years the constable will have worked every duty in his division. It serves both to thoroughly familiarise him with his division and to prevent him getting too close to undesirables or tempted into protection rackets.

Most larger urban forces have police call boxes attached to walls or posts at regular intervals, sometimes fitted with a bell, red light or disc recall system (which rings, flashes or is raised respectively to signal that the constable should contact the station). A few forces, including the Metropolitan and Glasgow, use full-sized iron telephone boxes. True police boxes (made famous by Doctor Who) are first introduced by Sunderland Borough Police and Newcastle City Police in 1923. In Sunderland, their introduction leads to five of the six police stations being closed, and in Newcastle six of the nine stations are closed (leaving only the three divisional stations). Each beat has at least one box, which are situated ½ mile apart. The constable never visits the central police station on a normal shift, but books on at his box. If he arrests someone he phones the central station, which despatches a van to pick up the prisoner and constable, and then takes the constable back to his beat after the prisoner has been dealt with. Each sergeant has six or so constables under him and visits them regularly. The constables ring in every hour, as well as when they book on and book off. Each division has a motorcyclist on patrol at all times, and every morning at 8am he delivers duplicated printed material to each box. Reserve officers are based at division and can be sent out as necessary. The boxes are wooden and 4’ square and each contains an electric light (or is next to a street lamp) and a radiator. A cupboard containing a telephone and first aid kit is also accessible to the public through a small external door. Many constables are issued with bicycles and some of the boxes have attached bicycle sheds. This system still has not caught on in the rest of the country by the end of the 1920s, but in the following decade many urban forces will adopt police boxes, although most without the fully decentralised systems used in Newcastle and Sunderland.

The rural bobby has much more freedom than the urban bobby. He is often the only officer for miles and patrols the village in which he is based and the surrounding area on foot or bicycle. He is supposed to patrol for at least eight hours a day, six days a week. He knows his ‘patch’ intimately, usually has a good relationship with the law-abiding locals and is a respected man in the area. Meetings with his section sergeant, who probably works in another village or small town some miles away, are usually scheduled every day or two, often at a set point midway between the two men’s patches that both can reach by bicycle, although the introduction of telephones has made this less necessary. Some rural police houses are still not connected to the telephone system, however.


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