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The History of Kent

Copyright Kent Past 2010

Finally a County Police Force

Although Robert Peel started the Metropolitan Police in 1829, it required three acts of parliament over nearly 30 years, before the Kent County Constabulary was formed, with uniformed officers on the streets.


Robert Peel first attempted to form a police force in Ireland, where he was Chief Secretary, between 1812 and 1818, but found deep seated opposition in England. Many could not reconcile a police force with that of a free country, while others such as the Prime Minister Lord Liverpool felt it was 'not English'. The resultant Peace Preservation Force that he established in, 1814 was a compromise between a full centralised constabulary and the continued use of the military, as policemen.
Following the Peterloo Massacre, near Manchester, in 1819, concerns were raised for London, and with the success of the Irish Force, Peel was appointed Home Secretary in 1822. Within months of Peel's appointment, he had formed a House of Commons, sub-committee, which he chaired, to investigate how London should best be policed. Within three months, the committee had drawn the conclusion that an effective system of policing could not be reconciled with a free society.

Refusing to serve under George Canning, who replaced Lord Liverpool as Prime Minister in 1827, Peel resigned his cabinet post. He stayed out of office until the Duke of Wellington became PM in January 1828 when he returned as Home Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons.


In 1826, recession had gripped the country, with businesses needing to reduce working hours and wages to survive. Riots and a crimewave spread throughout the land, and with no police force, the military had to be used. Peel again set up a committee to look into the crimewave sweeping London and this time it recommended that a law enforcement agency should be formed for London, with the exclusion of the City of London. The new force would be responsible to the Home Secretary.


In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Act was passed and by 29 September of the same year, the first uniformed police constables, colloquially known as 'Peelers', were on the street. Peel has been credited with writing the following nine principles of policing. It is disputed whether he actually wrote them down, but he certainly referred to them in his speeches.

1. The basic mission for which the police exist is to prevent crime and disorder.

2. The ability of the police to perform their duties is dependent upon public approval of their actions.

3. Police must secure the willing co-operation of the public in voluntary observance of the law to be able to secure and maintain the respect of the people.

4. The degree of co-operation of the public that can be secured diminishes proportionately to the necessity of the use of physical force.

5. Police seek and preserve public favour not by catering to public opinion but by constantly demonstrating absolute impartial service to the law.

6. Police use physical force to the extent necessary to secure observance of the law or to restore order only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient.

7. Police, at all times, should maintain a relationship with the public that gives reality to the historic tradition that the police are the public and the public are the police; the police being only members of the public who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent on every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence

8. Police should always direct their action strictly towards their functions and never appear to usurp the powers of the judiciary.

9. The test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with it.


Robert Peel wanted the public conception of the police to be a civilian force rather than that of a militia. The uniform was of a civilian design, blue in colour, with a top hat, which differentiated them from the red of the army. The only weapon carried was a truncheon concealed in a pocket in the coat tails. Police also carried a rattle to summon help and a pair of handcuffs. Apart from the term 'Sergeant', no other military rank was used.

Following the success of the Metropolitan Police, the Municipal Corporation Act was passed in 1835, which required all boroughs to form a police force. The take up rate in Kent was slow, not least because the full cost had to be paid locally. Although by 1837, Canterbury, Deal, Dover, Faversham, Folkestone, Gravesend, Hythe, Maidstone, Ramsgate, Rochester, Sandwich, Tenterden and Tunbridge Wells, had all formed a real police force.

Before the Act of 1835, it was every citizen's responsibility, if they saw a crime being committed, to raise a 'hue and cry', and to help apprehend the criminal when the alarm was raised. Some towns employed watchman who patrolled after dark arresting vagrants and calming drunks, anyone suspicious would be reported. Canterbury charged an additional rate to cover the cost. In rural areas, a voluntary borsholder or constable would be responsible for arresting vagrants, bringing offenders before the magistrate and overseeing the punishment. Every year the officer was changed, although not everyone would accept the job.
Policing in the Metropolis, boroughs and towns quickly proved its worth, and the Government wanted it spread to rural areas. In 1839 the Rural Constabulary Act was passed, giving the power to the magistrates to form a police force for rural areas. The burden of cost would however, come out of the county rates. Such a force was proposed for Kent, but defeated by just one vote.

In 1842, the Magistrates had a police force under their control, by making use of the Parish Constables Act, the cost for which fell to the parishes whose responsibility it was to provide the constables, many of whom were volunteers. A Superintendent for each petty session division was selected, and paid for out of the county rate.

Finally, in 1856 the County and Borough Act ensured that all counties formed a police force, with a quarter of the cost being paid by the government. The borough police forces were unaffected and continued as before. The county had no option this time and the Kent County Constabulary was formed on 14 January 1857, although it would be another four months, before the force, of 222 men, was sworn in.
The new force was split into 12 divisions with the superintendents being transferred from the old parish system. They were issued with a horse and a two-wheeled cart, which amongst other things was used to transport prisoners. The uniform followed the lines of the Metropolitan force of a blue frock coat and a high hat. Constables were issued with a truncheon, and were expected to work a seven day week.

It had taken 28 years for a police force to reach all parts of Kent, from when Peel first established the 'Peelers' in the Metropolis. It was more than forty years since Robert Peel, when, as Chief Secretary for Ireland had a dream of a real uniformed police force.


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