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The history of law enforcement in the United Kingdom charts the development of law enforcement in the United Kingdom from the creation of the United Kingdom in 1707 up to the present day.

David Kirkwood being detained by police during the 1919 Battle of George Square
Eurocopter EC 135 T2 providing law enforcement and medical assistance in the Avon and Somerset Police, and Gloucestershire Police areas, based at Bristol Filton Airport.


18th century

With the notable exception of the famous Bow Street Runners, established in 1792 under the Middlesex Justices Act 1792, virtually all the fledgling police forces were established by attesting special constables, a procedure conducted by two or more Justices of the Peace and having its roots in an Act of Parliament of 1673. Further Acts of Parliament started to appear piecemeal, sponsored by local members of parliament and Peers who represented certain social or industrial interest groups (for example, Metropolitan Police Act 1829, and the Bute Docks Police Act 1839). It was not until 1847, when two significant pieces of legislation were enacted - the Town Police Clauses Act 1847 (in the case of town police) and the Harbours, Docks, and Piers Clauses Act 1847 (in the case of port police) - that national legislation appeared to support the widespread attestation of professional constables.


England and Wales Scotland Ireland/Northern Ireland
1707 at the time of the formation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, only Edinburgh had any sort of police force - the Edinburgh Town Guard that had been formed in 1682 to police the city and enforce an initiated curfew.
1726 Edinburgh Town Guard gained notoriety when its Captain Porteous became the trigger for the Porteous Riots
1749 London's Bow Street Runners established - considered the foundation to all modern police forces
1779 Glasgow Magistrates appoint James Buchanan as the first Inspector of the Glasgow Police, with an establishment of eight police officers, though it was disbanded in 1781 due to a lack of money
1788 The Glasgow Police re-established, but failure to succeed in getting a Bill before Parliament meant that the force again failed, in 1790
The Marine Police was established, based in Wapping - a localised force with a limited remit
1800 The Glasgow Police Act, the first such Act in Britain was finally passed through the persistence of Glasgow city authorities. This allowed the formation of the City of Glasgow Police, funded by taxation of local citizens, to prevent crime. This was quickly followed by the setting up of similar police forces in other towns.[1]
1812 A committee examined the policing of London, and made several suggestions on their findings to help evolve the existing state of affairs
1814 The Peace Preservation Act creates the first organised police force in Ireland, becoming the Irish Constabulary in 1822, and was awarded the Royal prefix after putting down the Fenian Rising of 1867 |
1817 Edinburgh Town Guard disbanded
1818 Another committee examined the policing of London
1829 Based on the committees' findings, Home Secretary Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan Police Act 1829, prompting a rigorous and less discretionary approach to law enforcement. The Metropolitan Police was founded on 29 September 1829[2] The new constables were nicknamed 'peelers' or 'bobbies' after the Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the latter nickname continuing to this day.
  • 1831: Special Constables Act 1831 passed.
  • 1835: Municipal Corporations Act 1835 passed. Among other matters this required each borough in England and Wales to establish a watch committee, who had the duty of appointing constables "for the preserving of the peace". The jurisdiction of the borough constables extended to any place within seven miles of the borough.
  • 1839: First county police force created, in Wiltshire.
  • 1842: Within the Metropolitan Police a detective department was founded.
  • 1856: County and Borough Police Act 1856 made county and borough police forces compulsory in England and Wales and subject to central inspection. By then around thirty counties had voluntarily created police forces.
  • 1857: The General Police Act (Scotland) 1857 required each Scottish county and burgh to establish a police force, either its own or by uniting with a neighbouring county, the latter was usually the case if the area in question was small and had little means of aquairing such manpower.
  • 1860: By this year there were over 200 separate forces in England and Wales.
  • 1878: As a result of the 1877 Turf Fraud scandal, the Metropolitan Police's Detective Department was reorganised and renamed the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) in 1878.
  • 1914: Special Constables Act 1914. Allowed for the appointment of Special Constables during wartime, due to the fall in numbers of regular officers.
  • 1918 and 1919: The police went on strike over pay and working conditions, because of this the polices' right to strike and form a union was revoked.
  • 1919: Police Act of 1919 passed in response to the police striking. It criminalised the police union, replacing it with the Police Federation of England and Wales. The act also guaranteed a pension for police; previously it had been discretionary. The fragmented nature of the police was resistant to change, and there were still over 200 separate police forces before World War II. During the War, resignations were not permitted except on grounds of ill-health.
  • 1923: Special Constables Act 1923 throughout the UK is passed.
  • 1964: Police Act 1964. This created 49 larger forces in England and Wales, some covering two or more counties or large urban areas.
  • 1984: Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 (PACE). Regulated the actions of the police in England and Wales, particularly in relations to arrest and searches/powers of entry. Also instituted the PACE Codes of Practice. PACE did not extend these matters to Scotland but dealt with other subjects there.
  • 1999: Most police powers and functions in Scotland are devolved to the Scottish Parliament as a result of the Scotland Act 1998.
  • 2006: Major provisions of the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 come into effect including the overhaul of powers of arrest, institution of the Serious Organised Crime Agency and extension of powers available to PCSOs; these (other than SOCA) applying in England and Wales. The majority of the Act applies only to England and Wales with only a few sections applying to Scotland or Northern Ireland. In Scotland, the Police, Public Order and Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 2006 comes into force.


See also



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