The Difficulties Of The English Police

At the height of the Jack the Ripper scare, with more and more outcry for the police to be given more powers in order to bring the perpetrator of the Whitechapel outrages to justice, The St James’s Gazette, on Thursday the 18th of October, 1888, published an article about the probable reception of additional police powers in England:-


The temper which boasts that Britons never will be slaves: that Britain is the land of the free where the hunted and proscribed of other lands may find rest and an asylum and the protection of equal laws; where each man may do what is right in his own eyes, provided he respects the rights of his neighbour; where public opinion, the law of supply and demand, the survival of the (commercial) fittest, and the certainty of things finding their own level, are better rules of life, economic and politic, than State regulation or police interference.

But it has its disadvantages. All things have two sides; and the independence of the individual is not exempt from the general law.

The waste-ground where the Continent shoots its rubbish, and all but notorious criminals find a resting-place, is our broad breast. The scum, which boils over its own pot, pours itself into our cauldron, not to the advantage of the native contents.

Having no registration of any kind, we demand no papers; and receive with impartial hospitality the clever escroc who has managed to obliterate his traces, the pauper labourer who grows fat on rations where our own men would starve, the keen man of business who sails past our denser, slower, more deliberate traders, and the specialist whose scientific knowledge overlaps our home-grown attainments as the skin of mutton would overlap that of a Welsh ewe-lamb.


The motley population down by the docks and in the East-end generally contains waifs and strays of every kind and from all countries. No one knows who they are nor what they have done.

With a record as black as night, England gives them the frankest welcome; and men from the east and the west, the north and the south, stained with every crime that can disgrace humanity, find work or victims as it may chance, with no questions asked and no precautions taken by the society into which they have flung themselves.


So it is with our own villains. They circulate freely with the very least “shadowing” possible by the police.

Only in the case of ticket-of-leave men are they under direct supervision, and even then we have piteous tales of how honest scoundrels, doing their best to redeem themselves, are hunted out of every employment they may get by the diabolical machinations of the Force, bent on ruining them and preventing their rehabilitation.

Why they should be so bent is mystery to every one: which does not make the piteous tale less mournful nor lessen the sympathy and belief of its readers.


If our detectives are, as is sometimes alleged, the worst in Europe, whose fault is that? Ours, who will not suffer them to have the threads of our social polity of our private lives in their hands? or theirs, unable to make bricks without straw, to track without a scent, to discover without a clue?

We must take the bad with the good of our own arrangements. We will not suffer ourselves to be policed. We will not submit to any form of registration, save for the purpose of party and the elemental circumstance; of birth, death, and marriage.

The Punch Cartoon Blind Mans Buff showing a blind-folded police officer being taunted by criminals.
Blind Mans Buff – A Punch Cartoon From 1888.


Our criminal classes, male and female, are as free as our heroes and saints; and only when they have overtly offended against the law are they brought within its jurisdiction.

Prevention by any form of legislative repression is against the genius of the nation; and if, as has lately happened, common sense and the general good framed certain enactments, hysteria, sentimentality, and class partiality tore up the paper and flung the fragments to the winds.

For to this hysteria, this sentimentality, all coercion is anathema maranatha. Even the poor dear bacilli of disease and corruption ought to be as free as the rest, and it is doing violence to the liberty of the individual to confine them to their own domain, so that they shall not swarm and ravage the land at their will unchecked.


How, then, can we have a sharp-sighted detective police, when we put them into blinkers and will not let them see beyond the straight line of their one beat and the open street?

If we want them to be more acutely trained, we must give them more facilities for learning; and if we want them to catch criminals, we must give them more means of detection.

As things are it is too much to expect of them second-sight and the clairvoyance of “sensitives.”


With a floating, unregistered, and absolutely free population, ebbing and flowing like the tides -coming no one knows whence, living no one knows how, going no one knows where nor when – how can an astute murderer be discovered: one who has evidently thought out the whole subject, and calculated the chances of fortuitous detection against the long odds of systematic laisse-faire?

If he is a foreigner, he has an absolutely free hand; if he is a native, whatever his past may have been, failing a ticket-of-leave, the police have no business with him.


It is not part of their duty to know who are the lodgers in a “respectable” house; and any man with a little money and a due mixture of reserve and histrionic power, may live like Mr. Jekyll through the day and be worse than Hyde himself through the night.

There is no overlooking of the individual, and the Englishman’s house is his castle and his lodging is his fortress.

This liberty of the individual goes all through the order of our life.


The conseil de famille which keeps things together in France, and by which the interests of the children are protected and the aberrations of parents and guardians prevented, this, too, is a thing to which we would not submit.

A man is, master of his own household and the proprietor of his own money. If he chooses to gamble away all his means or to drink himself into a state of bestiality, he may. No one has the right to thwart him. If he chooses to leave all his fortune from his wife and legitimate children, that too he may.

The law gives him absolute freedom of action, and the restrictions accepted in Scotland and the United States – free countries as they are – would not be submitted to in England.


Those who know life as it is know how often this freedom of willing away property is abused by the surly, the crotchety, the unjust, the unforgiving.

It less frequently used perhaps, than might be expected; but that any man can disinherit a child and leave his wife penniless, for the gratification of his own humour, is a blot which should not be possible in a rational set of laws.


We have chosen the way of absolute independence of the individual, and we must accept the consequences.

These consequences are:- a large percentage of undiscovered criminals; less personal safety than would exist under a stricter police surveillance and a closer social organisation; the public display of vice, such as no country in Europe would tolerate for a night; the destruction of families through the folly or the wrong-doing of the irresponsible head; enmity carried beyond the grave, or the delirium of senile dotage giving to an artful interloper the natural inheritance of the heirs; and freedom to do illimitable wrong outside certain absolutely necessary restrictions.


On the other hand, we have more self-dependence than the more strictly organized nations; and, like children turned into the streets to pick up a living from among the horses’ hoofs and the wheels of wagons, we have learned to look after ourselves.

But we must pay the price for these advantages.”