The Peeler is a nickname for a police constable who was a member of the first modern professional police force, the Metropolitan Police in London, formed by Sir Robert Peel in 1829. The term Peeler can also be used to refer to all the first officers of the forces formed in what is now the Greater Manchester area. The very first such force was set up in Wigan in 1836. The force comprised seven officers, and they appear to have picked the seven most unreliable men in Wigan, as all seven were eventually sacked for different offences, including the Chief Constable, who was “beastly drunk” when attempting to serve a warrant. Other Wigan officers were sacked for giving ale to prisoners in the cells and one man refused to wear his uniform and was often found asleep in front of the charge office fire when he should have been out on duty.
Peelers were recruited primarily on their ability to obey orders and deal with violent offenders. Birmingham police summed up the qualities they needed in a recruit in the only three questions allegedly asked at the interview – can you read, can you write, can you fight? Indeed one Manchester officer actually joined the force because he kept getting into fights with the police on Saturday nights. In desperation they said to him: “Why not join the police – you will get regular pay and the guarantee of a fight on Saturdays”. Needless to say he joined at once!
The only training given to early recruits was to be put onto the beat with an experienced officer to learn the ropes. Often all the recruit learned was bad habits – for example, the officer’s number, carried on their collar, identified that man and so it was vital that the public should be able to see this clearly. Constables quickly learned that one way to disguise the number was by growing a long beard, which covered it up (many Chief Constables at this time discouraged shaving, as they thought it would lead to cuts and infection, and so encouraged the men to grow beards).
The men also learned where they could get beer at all hours of the day and night – these first officers were not allowed to sit down in a pub on or off duty, in case people thought they were drunkards. Discipline was very strict and men were only allowed to work in a set direction on their beats, and at a measured pace, so the supervising sergeant would know where everybody was at all times – but so too could the burglars, who would time officers on their beats, waiting for a chance to slip in unnoticed.
Equipment was very basic, a wooden truncheon, a simple pair of handcuffs and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm. For night duty an oil lantern, known as a bull’s eye or dark lantern was supplied. This was the most expensive item issued, costing in modern money about 25p – about a quarter of a week’s wage – to replace if lost or damaged by ill-use. The lantern was lit, and a flame burned inside, shining through the lens at the front. The lantern would then be placed on the officer’s belt on the front, so the light shone ahead. At the same time the smoke from the lamp drifted up one’s nose and soot settled on the uniform and face. The lantern also grew hotter and hotter, so that if the officer fell onto it when chasing a criminal, there was a fair chance it would explode and set fire to his trousers.
Duties were long and monotonous. In the early years there were no detective officers – the public were so afraid of police officers going around in ordinary clothes and spying on people that Peelers were obliged to wear their uniforms at all times, on or off duty – a duty band was worn on the sleeve to show that they were on duty. Shifts were usually 8 or 10 hours in length, and comprised foot patrol. Officers would walk an estimated 20 miles in a shift.
No notebooks were carried in this period, so officers had to remember information told to them by the public and relate this to their sergeants, who met them at set times on street corners or “Points”, for brief meetings. Officers were not allowed into the station for meal breaks, so food was carried in their top hat. At night officers sometimes carried a can of coffee with them and climbed a street gas lamp to heat it up when they wanted a hot drink.
Hardly any of these early officers treated the police as a career – most would resign and get a better job with less unsociable working hours after two or three years.