Origins of the Modern Police and the History of Criminal Investigation









Origins of the Modern Police and the History of Criminal Investigation







This paper will discuss the history of the modern police force and the development of the modern detective and criminal investigation. Through human history there has been a need for police however until the industrial revolution a true police force as we know it was not known in the western world. This paper follows the development of the police force from ancient times to the development of fingerprinting by the head of Scotland Yard.


Origins of the Modern Police and the History of Criminal Investigation


“How often have I said to you that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth? We know that he did not come through the door, the window, or the chimney. We also know that he could not have been concealed in the room, as there is no concealment possible. When, then, did he come?” (Doyle, 1890) When Sherlock Holmes uttered these famous words to his assistant Watson he did not have all of the fancy gadgets we see today on CSI Miami. In fact when Sherlock Holmes was fighting crime in London during the Victorian Era he was only 200 years removed from Sir Galileo popularizing the scientific method.  Those 200 years however had done remarkable things for the advancement of both science and thought. The era of Queen Victoria brought about remarkable changes in the western world. The rise of industrialization and the invention of cultivation equipment allowed for a shift away from the agrarian society of previous ages to an industrialized society that would run on the backs of the populace of the newly emerging city. No longer was the small subsistence farmer planting the land to feed his family, but instead workers of the landed gentry planted crops to be sold in the markets of the big city thereby feeding the industrial workers and the industrial machine itself.

The Victorian age brought the common man to the urban jungle. Once cities had been places of trade and places where the wealthy went to congregate and to have their lavish desires fulfilled. Just as there has always been poverty and class struggle, there has always been the poor and seedy underbelly of the urban city. The arrival of so many workers led to the development of slums in London in the early 1800’s where the criminal element developed out of both necessity and hunger. It was in these early days of The Victorian age that the first organized police forces began in England. These police forces are the fore runner of our modern day police department. This paper will discuss the origins of the police from the dawn of humanity and how our modern police force developed from the early detectives of the Victorian Age and their reliance on criminal investigation.

There have always been police. The earliest examples are known to the modern researcher as “kin policing.” (“History of Law Enforcement”)   Under this form of justice, the perpetrator was punished by the victim or victim’s family. Sometimes tribal elders or spiritual leaders would play a part in the role of judge or mediator. As a society became larger the tribe or familial group merged with others policing became the responsibility of the king or ruler. Kings and rulers have always had personal body guards and soldiers and for much of history it was their job to take the role of the police.

During the middle ages the role of the police was carried out by local sheriffs in England. (Crown) These sheriffs were appointed by the local lord or appointed by wealthy local merchants and carried considerable power. The sheriff often had a group of unpaid constables, usually made up of shop keepers and well to do local businessmen who helped to keep the peace.  Night watchmen were paid and appointed by towns and were in charge of keeping the curfew.  All citizens during the middle ages were expected to answer a “Hue and Cry” which was kind of like a primitive 911 where a townsperson or member of these early police powers would scream out for help and all citizens who could hear were expected to come quickly to help. This system was very effective in the low crime towns of the time, in fact the most often Hue and Cry would be about a fire. These fires often started in the middle of the night and countless lives were saved by night watchmen and others who would scream out and wake their neighbors. Toward the 1300’s however a new menace emerged in England and that was of the armies of mighty lords that would go from town to town pillaging. These armies of course met little resistance from the rather defenseless town so the King of England made The Justice of The Peace Act in 1301. This act appointed “Justices” who would protect the towns of England and since these positions were appointed by the King himself, the mighty lords no longer dared to send their armies to raid towns as doing so was as traitorous as attacking the kings army. It was during this time that the King Richard Coeur de Lion who most today know as Good King Richard from the Robin Hood Legend came into power. King Richard fired most of the Sheriffs and in fact prosecuted many who had used their power to persecute the people. King Richard was not English by birth and brought to England the Coroner system of his native Normandy.   Coroners had actually been appointed by previous Kings in many towns in England but before King Richard these Coroners were Knights who had scribes and busied themselves with local paperwork. The coroners under King Richard had a great many responsibilities but one of their chief jobs was the investigation of serious crimes. These coroners investigated everything that would result in a possible penalty or fine especially when a huge fine might be levied on the guilty. It was not uncommon when someone died unexpectedly for people of the middle ages to hide or conceal the body so zealous were the coroners at collecting fines. (Knight) The fourteenth century brought many changes to England. The sheriffs were replaced by Justices of the Peace and Coroners provided investigation even if just for the sake of making money for the king. Other changes were also afoot in England not the least of which was the formation of The House of Commons.

The House of Commons of England was formed from non-royal wealthy or influential English people. These people were often clergy or merchants and represented the bourgeois yet non royal peoples of England in Parliament. From the 1300’s through the 1700’s the House of Commons and indeed Parliament itself had varying degrees of power depending on which royal held the throne. During the reigns of some kings Parliament was almost useless while during others they exerted great influence and even declared war on King Charles I in 1648 and won. It however was undoubtedly influence from four hundred years of The House of Commons that gave non nobles a better life throughout England. It is often cited that the better treatment of the commoner helped to save the Kings head when revolution swept through France in 1789.  It is actually from the French that we get the word “police.” The French police before the revolution were a totalitarian force under the control of the nobility of France. The people of England saw how their neighbors across the channel had suffered under the Gestapo tactics of the pre-revolutionary French police and this made England very nervous about having what we would consider a modern police force.

In fact it was not till the English began having problems with the mass influx of workers needed to fuel the start of the Industrial Revolution during the Victorian age that many Britons believed a police force necessary. During the 1700’s private bounty hunters called “thief takers” made a living in England by both catching criminals for profit and extorting criminals who did not want to be turned over to the courts. (Roth, 2001, p. 351) Originally empowered by The Act for Encouraging the Apprehension of Highwaymen  these bounty hunters received 40 Pounds for the apprehension and successful conviction of any highwayman. Thief takers also were able to keep any horses or personal effects of the convicted so long as they were not stolen.  One particularly resourceful thief taker named Jonathan Wild also was the head of a criminal organization based in London. Though he was hanged when finally caught, Wild played both sides of the law for many years often capturing and turning in rival criminals. On the whole the thief takers barely made a dent in the crime that was plaguing Brittan during the 1700’s.

In 1749 the successful author Henry Fielding established England’s first true police force. Unlike the thief takers who were more like unorganized bounty hunters, The Bow Street Runners were actually paid by a London magistrates office to apprehend criminals. The Bow Street Runners however did not do any criminal investigation, and instead merely served writs and warrants and would travel across England to apprehend criminals. In 1754 Henry’s blind half-brother John Fielding took over and started neighborhood foot and mounted patrol. The Bow Street Runners became the first detectives for the courts of London and were directly responsible for cleaning up the docks which had before been a haven for crime. The Bow Street Runners which cleaned up the docks of London became known as The Marine Patrol and are still housed in the same place they were when founded by The Bow Street Runners in 1796. (“London Metropolitan Police”)

In 1829 Robert Peel became Home Secretary of England and urged Parliament to pass a universal police system. Much like universal healthcare today, many people were afraid that having a police force was a bad idea and it was rejected and resubmitted many times before The House of Commons finally passed The Metropolitan Police Act of 1829. According to the London PD’s website the first street patrols took place three months after the act became law. Though no one has a clue where its name came from, the London Police were housed in a building called Scotland Yard.

Robert Peele is the father of the modern police force as we know it today. The original officers from Scotland Yard were affectionately known as “Bobbies” a reference to Peele’s first name, or unaffectionately as Peeler’s both terms though antiquated are still in use today. Scotland Yard set a very high standard for these early police forces. (Swanson, Chamelin, Territo, & Taylor, 2009, p. 5)  During the first three years 6,000 resignations and 5,000 forced dismissals were the result of the high standards upheld at Scotland Yard. In 1842 a plainclothes detective branch was added to Scotland Yard however the public was still very concerned with plainclothes detectives being spies for the police. In 1903 Sir Edward Richard  Henry became head of The London Metropolitan Police and brought many changes to the police force. One of Henry’s first official duties was the allowance of police dogs on the force. Unlike dogs used to intimidate suspects today, a very special police dog had endeared itself to the people of England. In the 1830’s a Skye Terrier named Bobby would accompany his owner John Gray on his patrol. For fourteen years after Officer Gray’s death his dog continued to patrol the same route once a day and go back and sleep on the officers grave at night. Henry’s second official duty was to enhance Scotland Yard’s criminal investigation techniques by using fingerprinting. Henry came up with the idea of fingerprinting while serving in the English army in India. Henry noticed that those Indians who could not read would sign documents by dipping their thumb in ink and use their thumb print as a signature. Finally Henry came up with an until recently used classification of finger prints. This was called The Henry System and before there were computers to compare prints, someone had to go through all known prints to figure out who the perpetrator was. Edward Henry’s Fingerprint Classification System helped with this very tedious task.

In conclusion the police force has come a long way from its early form of kin policing. Through the early years of the hue and cry system where all Britons were expected to come to the aid of the night watch to the formation of Scotland Yard and the invention of criminal investigation, many changes have taken place. Early peasants and towns were once an easy target for the merciless lord who had a mighty army. The corrupt sheriffs of medieval times would steal not only from the populace but from the king as well.  The Justice of the Peace and Coroner system helped England tremendously and led to less corruption and actually started the process of criminal investigation if only for the benefit of the crown’s taxes and fines. The early thief takers paved the way for The Bow Street Runners by establishing at least crown payed bounty hunters. The Bow Street Runners became the first paid police force in England and eventually starte not only foot but horse patrols, they also cleaned up Londons seedy wharf district and established the Marine Police still in use today. Finally the changes brought about by Robert Peele and Scotland Yard paved the way for true criminal investigation .  This investigation was furthered by both the policies and inventions of Sir Edward Henry when he developed the fingerprinting system that was used all the way up till the advent of computers.




Crown. Medieval Law Enforcement. Cambridgeshire England: Cambridgeshire criminal justice board. Retrieved from

Doyle, C. (1890). Sign of the Four. New York, NY: Doubleday.

London Metropolitan Police Historical Archives. London England: Metropolitan Police. Retrieved from

History of Law Enforcement. Real Police Dot Net. Retrieved from

Knight, B. CROWNER: The Medieval Coroner’s Duties. Britannia History. Retrieved from

Roth, M. (2001). Historical Dictionary of Law Enforcement (p. 351). Post Road West, Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Swanson, C. R., Chamelin, N. C., Territo, L., & Taylor, R. W. (2009). Criminal Investigation (10th ed., p. 5). New York, NY: Mc Graw Hill.





About criminality

Hello my name is Brandon Stacker and I am a graduate student at Wayland Baptist University studying Criminology and Business Administration. This blog deals with Criminal Justice topics that affect both society as well as the law enforcement professional.
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