The Police And The Public

Some of the most stinging criticism of the Victorian Metropolitan Police was to be found in the pages of The Pall Mall Gazette. 

Indeed, throughout the late 1880’s and the 1890’s, this newspaper subjected the London police force to a veritable barrage of vitriol in it pages, some of it, it should be said, richly deserved, some of it not really fair or accurate.

On Thursday the 8th of February, 1894, the Gazette published the following tongue-in-cheek article that highlighted some of the criticisms that were being levelled, once more, at the rank and file of the Metropolitan Police force:-


“Four or five of the party had been talking about the police in a manner that would not have pleased the police had they heard the conversation, when one of them turned to me and said: “Do you know the origin of the song, “When you want to know the time, ask a policeman?”

The reply was in the negative.

“Well,” said the speaker, “the song-writer had evidently heard the report that nearly every policeman in the West-end wore a gold watch, and the general impression is that a constable’s wages do not consist of a sufficient number of drachmas to enable him to buy a gold watch within a year or so of his appointment.”

It must be evident at a glance that no matter how baseless such an impression may be, its removal is surrounded by difficulties.

I am a friend of the police, collectively, but my personal acquaintances in the force are few, and I would pause in walking through the West-end before I asked a single policeman to tell me the exact time, even if my object was to discover whether or not he wore a gold watch.

The cover of the original music for "If you want to know the time ask a policeman."
The Music For Ask A Policeman.


I remember the first time I saw the Houses of Parliament. I supposed they were the Houses of Parliament, but I possessed no absolute knowledge on the point.

I saw a policeman, who, for the moment, was not employed in endangering the eternal salvation of hundreds by stopping the traffic, and I said to him, “What is the name of that pile?”

He looked at me carefully, and then said, with great deliberation, “What do you think?”

I said, “I think they are the Houses of Parliament, but I’m not sure: I’m not a Londoner.”

The scowl left that constable’s brow as if it wanted to catch a train, and the odds were the other way, and he said, “Beg your pardon, sir. I thought you was guying me.”

Since that moment I have been a friend of the Metropolitan Police, and I have often thought with a shudder of the fate that would have befallen me had I asked a question of the same character in some of the other great centres of the world.

Then on various occasions, I have asked policemen, all of whom were longer and wider than I am how to find certain localities in the smallest possible space of time, and on every occasion, the necessary information has been given, and I have escaped with my life.


It must be plain, therefore, why I am not inimical towards the police, and why I take up the cudgels in their defence on account of the various outcries that are now directed against them.

What I contend is that too much is expected of the police.

I was on Tower Hill one day listening to an orator – at so much per week – addressing a body of the so-called unemployed.

He referred to the police as “chawbacons.”

His audience roared with laughter.


Fifteen to twenty policemen heard the expression, and not one of them changed countenance.

This may have been the effect of discipline or because the description was accurate, but at any rate the speaker was allowed to leave Tower Hill in one piece, and neither his slouched hat nor picturesque cloak were rent into fragments.

I asked a policeman, who stood near me, if he enjoyed that sort of thing.

He said, “We’ll have our chance.”

Whether he meant an oratorical or some other kind of chance I am not prepared to say, but he looked at the time as if he might bite on small provocation.


Of course, in a sense, the orator was not untruthful.

It is well known that most of the Metropolitan Police are recruited from the country, but to call the force “chawbacons” was, in my opinion, coarse, to say nothing of its being almost equivalent to “fooling with a buzz saw,” and everybody who has seen a buzz saw knows how dangerous that is, as, in comparison with it, sudden death is protracted.

Why not keep in mind that the force is recruited from the country, or, if the reader prefer it, that they are “chawbacons”?

If that circumstance be kept well in mind, a great many so-called outrages will seem nothing more serious than idiosyncrasies.


How is a young man from the country, who is selected solely for his ability to fill a uniform of a certain size, to have the knowledge and experience of a man who has spent his life in town, or in knocking about the world in an effort to secure polish, if not wealth?

It’s simply out of the question.

The moment a “chawbacon” puts his uniform on he sheds his old personality.


The younger and more ignorant he is the larger amount of authority does he feel that he possesses.

When he says, “Move on”, he means it.

An “old hand” may say it mechanically, and not do anything to enforce the request until it becomes absolutely necessary.

A young hand does not say it mechanically, neither does he mean it in that way.

He does not wait until necessity prompts him to make a decisive move, but moves at once.

A good-natured growl is mistaken by him for a threat, and his greatest anxiety is to find a chance to make an arrest, so that he may show his superiors how active he is in the performance of his duty.

But, after he has made forty or fifty mistakes, and caused a great deal of trouble not only to a lot of innocent people but to his superiors, he grows careful, and he never arrests anybody unless he has a brother constable to corroborate his testament.


But the last howl is, mayhap, the most dangerous of all.

It is said that the police, not all of them of course, but a reasonable percentage, levy blackmail upon the proprietors of public-houses.

If this is not unreasonable I would like to know what is.

Is not a policeman to have any pickings?

It’s getting dangerous now to arrest innocent people on serious charges on account of “the row” the press makes, and the consequent chance that the highest authority may take some action; therefore are the police to be deprived of every opportunity of adding to their hard-earned store?

Besides, even if the charge be true, who is so well able to stand blackmailing, in the opinion of the teetotallers, as licensed victuallers?

Isn’t the constable on the beat always to be found in the immediate vicinity of some public-house, or in it? Is he not always ready to answer the call of the proprietor, and is it likely that such would be the case unless the policeman were remunerated?

Ask him, but, if possible, from the opposite side of the way or wall.

And is it reasonable to suppose that any publican would be allowed to keep his place open until one or two o’clock in the morning unless he fully appreciated the services of the police, and rewarded them for their vigilance in a manner satisfactory to them?

Certainly not.


The fact of the matter is that the public, while aware that the world is growing more “up to date” every day, forgets that the police are a part of the world.

The police of today are not the police of twenty years ago.

The latter were probably the finest in the world. They understood nothing but their duty, and they performed it.

The police of today see no reason why they should not follow in the footsteps of the police of some other countries when it means money, and until their superiors rise in their wrath why should the “chawbacons” stop?

Besides, why dance on the ordinary constable?

He may be dull-witted, but he knows his immediate superiors.

It may be assumed they know theirs.

Then why not strike at the roots and leave the small branches alone?”