Reading Colquhoun’s A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis

First published in 1796 (my reading is of the 3rd Edition, also published in 1796) Patrick Colquhoun’s A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis is an important contribution to the development of both policing and the police. Colquhoun has been described by Michael Brogden as ‘the patron saint of the police institution’, and Police of the Metropolis undoubtably helped shape the develop of modern policing and indeed wider social regulation.

Writing at the end of the eighteenth-century Colquhoun lived in a time of great social and economic change. English society was undergoing radical change. In the countryside where the overwhelming majority of the population had previously lived (and where customs and traditions had provided social certainty and, if only at a very basic level, economic security,) enclosure and improvements in farming techniques made life unsustainable for many. The industrial revolution and the dramatic expansion of commercial activity, largely driven by the spoils of colonialism meant a massive expansion of urban populations. The mechanisms that had maintained the old, rural and settled, order were increasingly perceived as inadequate for the new, urban and changing, order. It was this that Colquhoun was addressing.

Policing or the police? Crime or Order?

Colquhoun was writing over 30 years before the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in London and the reader hoping to find the blueprint for this subsequent development in Police of the Metropolis will be disappointed. Colquhoun’s concern is policing, how to regulate society in a way that both facilitates the development of the emerging capitalist social structure and subsequently maintains it. Although the book articulates it concerns through discussing crime it is clear that Colquhoun’s major concern is order, and specifically how to establish an order that facilitates commercial society and regulates the labouring poor. As such Police of the Metropolis provide valuable context about the concerns and aspirations of London’s bourgeoise, which were to lead, subsequently, to the establishment of the Metropolitan Police.

Crimes against capital

If Colquhoun is to be believed London in the 1790s was suffering an epidemic of crime. But only certain types of crime. Specifically, the crimes Colquhoun details are directed at property and those who own property and are perpetuated by those without property – the labouring poor. Police of the Metropolis focuses particularly on protecting the ‘wonderful extent and value of floating property’ to be found in the port of London. Britain’s main entry point for the goods extracted from its empire, the port was, Colquhoun feared, being subjected to ‘immense plunder and pillage’ which was ‘exceedingly hurtful to the Commerce of the Country, and deeply affecting the interest of the West-Indian-Planters’. Colquhoun concern was for the profits of slavers which he feared were being stolen by dock-workers’ appropriation of spilt sugar, recovered from the holds of ships!  [Colquhoun was shortly after the book’s publication to establish, with slavers’ funding, a police force on the Thames.]

As well as chapters on the Port of London and the Royal Docks there are ones focusing on ‘small thefts’, robberies and burglaries, base money and forgeries and fraud. Colquhoun’s focus is on protecting property and ensuring the integrity of the market.  He sees the threat to property coming from both the unregulated poor and the unregulated market.  He locates the origins of ‘Crimes of every description … in the vicious and immoral habits of the people’. His response is to advocate a policing plan that puts (and keeps) the poor in their place. This extends beyond criminal justice reforms and incorporates a wide range of other regulatory responses; his agenda is to develop a ‘plan for regulating the morals of this useful class of the community.’ The ‘usefulness’ of the poor was for Colquhoun (and his class) located in their labour, crucial to capital’s profits, and disciplining it was the key policing task. The link between crime and work was direct. By declaring that ‘Idleness is a never-failing road to criminality’, Colquhoun endorsed the new bourgeoise ideology that work was a moral good and no longer a means to an end, to be undertaken only in so much as it was economically necessary.   

Policing the Poor

A contradiction faced by Colquhoun and his class was that despite their commitment to a free market for capital this freedom was problematic when extended to the lower classes. The state, whose regulations they had successfully escaped, was viewed ambiguously. Whilst it offered the opportunity to regulate and subjugate the emerging working class, it also had the potential to be deployed against their interests. For many of Colquhoun’s class strengthening the state, and its policing capacity, was too dangerous to be entertained. Robberies, thefts and the occasional riot were preferable to the risk of a national police. Colquhoun, however, saw the potential of a strong state and  Police of the Metropolis consistently argues for granting the state extensive regulatory powers. Some are obvious, such as the greater regulation of London’s 5,204 pubs (‘haunts of idleness and vice); others are much more radical, such as the registering and regulation of a wide range of wholesale and retail businesses with the potential to trade in stolen goods. Also, in his chapters on base money and fraud he identifies that only the state can have the powers necessary to ensure the integrity of currency and financial markets, both critical for capitalist society.  

Although Police of the Metropolis does not anticipate or advocate for a police force along the lines of the Metropolitan Police, it does consider policing, punishment and criminal justice reform in some detail.  Clearly influenced by Beccaria (whom he cites) and Bentham, Colquhoun argues for extensive reform. [Although he doesn’t cite Bentham, Colquhoun was in fact working closely with him at this point – a relationship I am currently researching.] Much of his agenda is similar to other moral entrepreneurs of his class, reduced use of the death penalty, the building of Penitentiary Houses, increasing the range of offences for which rewards were payable and improved the effectiveness of courts. He is particularly keen to exploit the labour of convicts arguing that ‘many of these unhappy people have been bred to useful mechanical employments, which might render their labour extremely productive’. Other reforms are more innovative, for example, he argued for the crown to take over prosecutions, anticipating the CPS nearly 200 years before its establishment.

Colquhoun saw the key to a preventative police not in patrolling the streets but in collecting intelligence. Looking enviously to France where ‘the Lieutenant-General of the National Police …had upon his registers the names of no less than twenty thousand suspected and depraved characters, whose pursuits were known to be of a criminal nature’, he argued for the establishment of a ‘general Police of the Metropolis’ whose function would be to compile ‘a complete history of the connections, and pursuits of all or most of the criminal and fraudulent persons who resort to the metropolis; either natives or foreigners; forming from such materials a general and complete register of every known offender’.

Police of the Metropolis is long, very wordy and often repetitive. It is not an easy read. But it is an important book in which Colquhoun sets out an agenda for his class to establish its order through strategies of policing the emerging working class. Understanding this perspective allows us to see the subsequent establishing of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 within the context of ‘order’ rather than ‘crime’ and equally important, to link it to a range of other initiatives to police the working class all anticipated and to some extent advocated in Police of the Metropolis – updated Master and Servant laws (1823); the 1824 Vagrancy Act and possibly most importantly the New Poor Law of 1834.


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