Policing the poor: a brief introduction to Patrick Colquhoun

This is the text of the paper I delivered at the Annual Conference of the European Group for the Study of Deviance and Social Control in Torino on the 8th September 2022

My interest in Patrick Colquhoun originated with his role in the development of London policing. He is, quite rightly, a significant figure in this history. But to fully understand both why he was involved and the shape this involvement took we need to understand his background. So although, in this paper, I start by looking at his involvement in shaping London’s criminal justice system in the 1790s, I then look at his involvement in other aspects of social policy during this period, before looking at his life prior to his move to London. This fuller picture is intended to place Colquhoun’s criminal justice interventions in context – as part of a larger project of fabricating the British state in the interests of his class.

In November 1788 Colquhoun was appointed the London commercial agent for the city of Glasgow and its chamber of commerce and in 1789 he relocated to London. In the 1790s prime minister Pitt’s most trusted colleague was Henry Dundas, a close friend of Colquhoun’s who he had worked with in the 1780s in Scotland. Dundas was appointed Home Secretary in 1791 and one of his initiatives was the 1792 Middlesex Justices Act which sought to place the Bow Street model of policing on a statutory basis and extent it across London by the establishment of full-time paid Police Magistrates. One of the Magistrates he appointed was Colquhoun who quickly established a reputation for protecting property, particularly commercial property, and and a willingness to assertively suppress the customary rights of workers. 

In 1796 Colquhoun published his Treatise on the Police. Using his experiences as a magistrate, and his skills as a statistician and lobbyist, he sought to set out the extent of crime in the metropolis and propose his radical solutions – a re-engineering of the capital’s policing. Although his statistics, and indeed his skill as a statistician, have long been discredited, they were believed at the time and gave his approach a scientific credibility. Among the propertied and political classes the book was a hit. To illustrate this a quote from a note to Colquhoun from the then Home Secretary, Lord Portland.

“I am commanded to express to you the high satisfaction with which his Majesty observes your unremitting and zealous attention to all the objects which come within the scope of your official situation, and to the means of establishing a system of morality and good order in the metropolis”

King George III was a fan. 

The Treatise on the Police is a plea for a better policed society. But ultimately it is not about crime but order. And not just any order, but an order conducive to the interests of the capitalist class. An order which privileged property and profits. An order the kept the mass of the population in their place. An order that disciplined labour.

In the Treatise Colquhoun had focused on the Port of London and particular the alleged losses “suffered” by the West Indian Merchants.  The West Indian Merchants were slavers and the losses were a very small part of the profits they made from enslaved African labour. Unsurprisingly they took the bait and contacted Colquhoun, who with their financial support and his political connections was to establish a river police in 1798. I have written about Colquhoun and the Thames river police for Abolitionist Futures so will only briefly summarise. The river police were a corporate/state partnership. The Home Office funded a court house, two magistrates (one of whom was Colquhoun) and court staff and the Slavers funded a uniformed police force. Colquhoun’s river police targeted the moral economy of the river, criminalising long established practices and perks and set out to replace them by imposing a new political economy of disciplined wage labour. 

In the mid 1790s Colquhoun started working with Jeremy Bentham. He supported Bentham’s Panopticon and Bentham supported his policing initiatives. Bentham drafted two bills for Colquhoun which were considered by the British parliament in 1799.  The Board of Police Bill was a highly ambitious attempt to establish a ‘police’ in London and nationally which failed to pass. It was a very different vision of police to that which emerged in the following century, and as part of my wider research project I will explore these differences and in particular the similarities Colquhoun’s proposals have with Beccaria’s political economy writings. The second bill was successful. The Depredations of The Thames Act 1800 effectively nationalised the river police making it the first police force in Great Britain directly funded by the central state, a police created to discipline the London poor and increase the profits of slavers. Colquhoun, its architect, was appointed its first receiver.  

Colquhoun continued in this role until 1813 and as a Magistrate until 1818. He died in 1820. As well as his treatise, which ran to 6 editions, he also published a number of other pamphlets on policing.

Managing the poor

During the period he was involved in London’s criminal justice system as a magistrate, as the architect of the river police and an advocate for policing reform Colquhoun was also deeply involved with a number of other initiatives concerned with the management of the poor. London in the 1790s was the most important centre of trade in the world. It was characterised by both great wealth for the few and poverty for the many. Over time this division was increasing and a combination of rapidly rising prices, particularly of food, and static or falling wages meant London in the 1790s was experiencing a cost of living crisis. Events in France warned the propertied classes of the dangers they faced. 

Colquhoun was involved in a number of charitable initiative, he organised schools and soup kitchens, campaigned against public houses, published advice to the poor on budgeting, and sought targeted state intervention on a scale previously unimaginable. At a time when capitalism was seeking to establish its dominant position, Colquhoun’s genius was in understanding the extent to which this required the state being radically rebuilt, its local parish institutions dismantled, its central functions dramatically expanded, all to ensure the infrastructure that would protect capital, discipline labour and facilitate the dismantling of the old moral economy and its replacement by the new political economy. There is often an implied presumption that (to use Marxist terminology) the institutions of the superstructure emerge, as night follows day, from the economic structure. In reality capitalism’s economic development went hand-in-hand with the need for changes in the law and the creation of new institutions. In Colquhoun’s A Treatise on Indigence we see a blueprint for the modern British state.

For example, Colquhoun argues for a national system of ‘Education for the Children of the labouring People’, expressing concern that the emerging initiatives of the working class to educate their own children risked ‘those destined for laborious occupations … (becoming) discontented and unhappy in the inferior situations of life, generating insubordination and disloyalty.’ He was concerned about Friendly Societies, another working class innovation, on the grounds that they were self-organised and that their meetings ‘of ill-informed individuals, open to seduction, and heated by political frenzy, artfully worked up … may alarm and afflict the peaceful subject’. He suggested they were effectively nationalised into a system of National Insurance. He advocated the licensing of a wide range of business, the surveillance of the poor and a dramatically expanded and beefed up state. 

Colquhoun’s ambition is impressive. He sought not only repression of the emerging working class but to mould them. But why? At its heart Colquhoun’s project is about recognising the critical importance of labour to the capitalist project. Labour firstly needed to be as cheap as possible, the working class, he argued, needed to be poor ‘since without poverty there would be no labour, and without labour there could be no riches, no refinement, no comfort, and no benefit to those who may be possessed of wealth …’. If wages were above the poverty level labour discipline suffered. Paying workers high wages led them to ‘corrupting their minds and enfeebling their bodies, in alehouses, trusting to the earnings of three or four days of the week, not only as a source of maintenance to their families, but as a fund sufficient to defray the still greater expense incurred at the ale-house.’ Secondly, although labour needs to be poor, it shouldn’t starve. In general the old poor laws meant people didn’t, but this safety net was for Colquhoun an incentive to shirk work. He argued for a much tighter regulation of poor relief, anticipating many of the changes that were to characterise the New Poor Law in 1834. His priority was for the poor to help themselves, although not through trade unions, friendly societies or other working class organisation which could have challenged his class’s hegemony. Thirdly, outside the workforce, the ‘large proportion of the working classes (who) are improvident, careless, unthinking, and dissolute in their manners’ needed disciplining. His involvement in charity work and shaping social policy was entirely consistent with his policing initiatives. They were two sides of the same coin. They were also a continuation of his work before he moved to London

Father of Glasgow and Lobbyist for capital.

Colquhoun had been born in Dumbarton, Scotland on the 14th May 1745. His family was well-to-do, with backgrounds in business and law. When he was 15, his father died and he emigrated to the British slave colony of Virginia. I have been unable to establish much about his time in Virginia, although it appears he had success in business, established a network of contacts he was to call on in subsequent decades and established a reputation for being a reliable agent others could trust with their business. This was at a time when other agents were often less reliable, a significant problem in an environment in which it was often impossible to enforce contracts or to ensure the security of property. This I suspect may have impressed on the young Colquhoun the importance of having a state willing and able to enforce the rule of law, insofar as this involved capitalist market relationships.

After five years he returned to Scotland for health reasons and based himself in Glasgow where he used his American connections, alongside both old and new Scottish ones, to establish himself in business. Through a series of partnerships he established himself as one of Glasgow’s Tobacco Lords and as a significant cotton and linen merchant. He also, in 1771, secured the government contract for transporting convicts from Scotland to the North American colonies. It was under this contract that he arranged the transportation to Virginia of the last person in the British Isles, Bel or Belinda, to be declared a slave by a court.

The American War of Independence clearly disrupted business for Colquhoun and other Glasgow merchants. Although making loud patriotic noises in Britain it appears that Colquhoun conducted business with both sides during the war. It was around this time that Colquhoun became involved in municipal politics. He was elected to Glasgow City Council in 1778, becoming Lord Provost of Glasgow in February 1782. Not only did this establish his political leadership of the council but made him the city’s chief magistrate. Policing and the need for a police were major topics during Colquhoun’s time on Glasgow City Council. The council used it limited funds to establish policing initiatives in 1779 and again in 1788, both of which were short lived as they were financially unsustainable. In 1783, when Colquhoun was Lord Provost, the council sought to introduce a police bill which would have allowed them to fund a police by levying a rate, but opposition in the city meant it was never presented to parliament. Colquhoun, surprising, doesn’t appear to be have been central to these initiatives and it appears that rather than Colquhoun influencing Glasgow’s policing policy that it may be that Glasgow’s policing policy that subsequently influenced Colquhoun.

He was however central to another initiative in the city. Historically those involved in trade and those involved in manufacturing had had a difficult relationship. But particular with the growth of manufacturing in Glasgow, Colquhoun was clear they needed to work together. To achieve this he established Britain’s first Chamber of Commerce in Glasgow, and was soon elected as its first Chairman. It was through the Chamber of Commerce that Colquhoun was to emerge as an important political lobbyist in the 1780s and early 1790s. He used his position to correspond with parliamentarians setting out the Chamber’s views on existing and proposed laws which impacted on members profits. The Chamber also allowed him to seek out alliances with capitalists in England. He was particularly successful in establishing a partnership with the Lancashire cotton industry. It was during this period that Colquhoun developed his skills as a pamphleteer; promoting the interests of the British cotton industry. 

The key focus of much of his lobbying activities was the relationship between the British and Indian cotton industries. Briefly, he argued that the Government should intervene to effectively exclude Indian cotton products from the European market. Despite India historically producing massively more textiles than the relatively tiny British industry Colquhoun wanted the manufacturing market rigged in favour of British capitalists and for India to dismantle its manufacturing industry and become a producer of raw materials.  This is what subsequently happened, causing massive damage to India’s economy and massive profits for British capitalists.  I need to get into the archives to establish to what extent, if any, Colquhoun’s lobbying influenced these developments.


There is a thread running through Colquhoun’s varied careers – an acute awareness that, from his class’s perspective, the late eighteenth century British state was inadequate. Capitalism was in the ascendancy, but its rise was not unproblematic, uncontested, or as inevitable as its looks in retrospect. Looking back it is possible to underestimate the precariousness of its position at times, particularly in the last decade of the eighteenth century. Colquhoun consistently sought arrangements that favoured his class’s interests. In particular he understood the potential of the state and argued for a much larger, more interventionist central state able to effectively police the poor and protect the interests of capitalists. In respect of the poor, the police were only one of the instruments required for their policing. All state welfare (and indeed charity) had at its centre, the policing of the poor.

As well as helping us understand how the capitalist state was fabricated in the past the career of Colquhoun suggests to me important lessons for today. The capitalist state didn’t just happen. It had to be imagined, agitated for, and built. As Ruth Wilson Gilmore makes clear in a number of the essays in her recent book, Abolition Geography, abolition is not just about what we are against – what we want to abolish – but also, and more importantly, about what we want to create.  What social relations and organisations do we need? How do we build them? How do we develop mutual aid projects that are emancipatory? Liberal theorists had to both imagine their capitalist utopia and through moral entrepreneurs, such as Colquhoun, build it. Radical abolition faces the same task today. Utopian thinking is not about imagining something that is impossible, but about imaging a future that is possible if, and only if, we escape the limitations of possibility imposed by our current social structure. To do that requires us to not only imagine that future but to start building its institutions, relationships and culture now.

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