Alastair Dinsmor

Many books have been written on the history of the 'British' Police by generations of police historians, but it would appear that the vast majority have overlooked the contribution that the development of some Scottish Police forces played in the evolution of preventative policing in Britain.

Even today, in what we call enlightened times, video documentaries and books are being produced, using 1829 as the historical base line, discounting, with the exception of the Thames Police, the innovative and pivotal work of the early pioneers of preventative policing in the rest of Britain in general and Scotland in particular. There seems to be a tendency to dismiss any policing organisation before 1829 as not being 'real' policemen, just a collection of old night watchmen or bumbling parish constables. It may therefore come as a surprise to those dazzled by the radiance of Peel's police reforms in London, that preventative policing was evolving successfully in the majority of the eleven Scottish cities and towns who had their own Police Acts, prior to 1829.

There is no doubt that Peel excelled as a Statesman and Parliamentarian, demonstrating his belief in the preventative policing concept by his determination to overcome the many obstacles put in his way by the rich and influential merchants and bankers of the City of London. To their eternal discredit, they brought tremendous political and financial pressures bear, in an effort to defeat his proposals every step of the way. He also deserves the credit for re-organising the morass of parish constables, 'Charlies' and other miscellaneous agencies in the 108 Parishes that constituted London at that time, which was an immense task (1) . However, his 'New Police' were only new to the people of London and the majority of English cities and towns. His dream that they would spread, as a national organisation, throughout England did not happen. What he did achieve was that the 'New Police' obviously inspired, and provided an organisational template, for the many towns and cities who had not yet established police forces themselves.

The small number of police historians who have looked at the Scottish perspective have no hesitation in acknowledging that policing in Scotland developed much earlier than south of the Border and, despite the differing legal system, were more influential than most people think (2). The key is the connection between Patrick Colquhoun's civic duties in Glasgow and the contemporaneous establishment of a police force by the Council on which he served, that does not appear to have been linked before now.

The majority of serious students of British Policing history maintain that Patrick Colquhoun (1745-1820) was the first person to write down the concept of preventative policing in his book 'A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis' in 1795 (3). It is also well documented that the concept contained in his book, together with the practical expertise of John Harriot, resulted in the founding of the private Marine Police Establishment, on the Thames in 1798. The Marine Police Establishment was thereafter acknowledged as an example of the practical application and success of the 'preventative policing principle', when the establishment of preventative policing in London was being debated.

When we look closely at Patrick Colquhoun's life in Glasgow, apart from his service as a Baillie (Magistrate), his activities were concerned mainly with commerce, which included his founding of the Tontine Coffee House and the first Chamber of Commerce. He also used his business connections to secure work for the growing cotton and muslin industries, essential to the regeneration of Glasgow following the collapse of tobacco importation from America. With this background, we must ask ourselves where Colquhoun got the inspiration for his detailed concept of 'disciplined, preventative and proactive policing', so eloquently laid out in his 'Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis'.

It was while Patrick Colquhoun was active as a Merchant Baillie on the Magistrate Courts of Glasgow and as a Merchant Councillor in the Council, that deliberations on the establishment of a policing system in the City were taking place all around him. A Police force had been established in Glasgow in February 1779 and James Buchanan appointed Inspector, but it was not financially supported by a rating system. It was obviously a success in its first year, as on 12 April 1780, Inspector Buchanan was re-commissioned by the Council.

Unfortunately, James Buchanan resigned on 5 April 1781 for reasons unknown, but he was not replaced and it would appear that the policing system collapsed through lack of finance (4).

Following the failure of the first Glasgow Police, the City Council set up a 'committee of council' to consider the appointment of an inspector of police, his powers and other relevant details. As a result, this committee of six would produced an innovative and ground-breaking report which laid down, for the first time, the foundations of a disciplined, preventative and proactive police force for the City. This effectively established them as 'policing pioneers' although they have not, until this time, been recognised as such.

The six member committee was lead by John Campbell the Lord Provost, and included the Dean of Guild Alex Low, the Deacon Convenor John Tennent, Merchant Baillies John Dunlop and John Alston, and Trades Baillie Ninian Glen. The main recommendations submitted in the committee's report of 10 December 1788 were radical and innovative, laying down the basic regulations for a preventative Police force, a far cry from the old city guard, and militia.

The report recommended that the Council should appoint an 'Intendent of Police', eight uniformed police officers, who would also wear numbered badges with the word 'Police' inscribed thereon. They would swear an 'oath for the faithful execution of their duty' and lodge 50 for 'their honest and faithful behaviour' during the time they were in office. Their duties would include:

(a) patrolling the streets to detect and prevent crimes during the day, the evenings and at night.
(b) detecting house and shop breaking and theft by pocket picking.
(c) searching for stolen goods and detecting resetters (receivers) of stolen goods.
(d) gathering information on crimes, convicted persons and the public houses they frequent, recording it in a book for the purpose.
(e) suppressing riots, squabbles, begging and singing songs.
(f) apprehending vagabonds, vagrants and disorderly persons.
(g) Controlling carts and carriages.

From this short extract, it can be seen that the Committee were, whilst responding to the problems they were seeing in the city at that time, laying the foundation for the establishment of a police force with duties we could easily recognise as the basic duties of today's police service. (5)

It is interesting to note that in his 'Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis', Colquhoun gave examples of what he saw as the objectives of a preventative police and they included, in particular, the pursuit of thieves and receivers of stolen property, gathering and recording information on criminals, supervising licensed premises where criminals frequent, controlling carriages (6), some of the key points of the 1788 Glasgow Committee Report.

The Committee initially overcame the problem of finance, first encountered by the 1778 police force, by suggesting that the many Trades Houses could meet the cost of the police force from the coffers and maintain the payments until they obtained an Act of Parliament empowering the Council to levy a rate for that purpose. It was proposed that such an Act should be obtained as soon as possible. (7)

When the Council received the report on 19 February 1789, the main change instigated was that the force should be under the direction of the Lord Provost, three Baillies and 9 Commissioners. The Commissioners would be elected annually from the traders and merchants of the City. This concept of having the Police controlled by 'the people' and not, as in England, by a Magistrate in his Police Office, was another innovation far ahead of its time, and is the basis of the local government Police Committee system still in use in all parts of Britain (except the Metropolis). (8)

The second Glasgow Police force was established in April 1789 and the Council immediately set about the requisite procedures to obtain the Act of Parliament they needed for its upkeep. (9)

In the meantime, Patrick Colquhoun took his family to London in the hope of securing a Government post in America, but it was not to be. He accepted a post as a Magistrate with responsibility for Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Essex.

Although Patrick Colquhoun had not been an appointed member of the Committee of Council, as a Baillie and a member of the Merchant Council, he had access to all the proposals and meetings relative to the founding of the Glasgow Police of 1789. The members of the Committee were his friends and colleagues whom he met almost every day in his activities in the city. Before moving to London, he would also see the effectiveness of the Glasgow Police of 1789 for the first nine months of their existence, when they brought offenders before him in his court. There are therefore ample grounds for believing that Patrick Colquhoun used his knowledge of the regulations governing the duties and responsibilities of the Glasgow Police as a reference when he suggested the 'disciplined, preventative and proactive Police force' in his 'Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis'.

However, it was not until 30 June 1800, that the Glasgow Police Act received Royal Assent (10), (four weeks before the Thames Police Act of 28 July), after having been continually delayed by Parliament for eight years. This delay had contributed to the failure of the second Glasgow Police force, again due to lack of finance in 1790.

With the passing of the Glasgow Police Act of 1800, the way was clear for the City Council to levy each property to support the Police without fear of the previous crippling financial constraints, which brought the collapse of the two previous police forces. A merchant, John Stenhouse, was hired as Master of Police and nine police officers, including three sergeants, were taken on as the total strength of the force. They were divided into three reliefs, providing twenty-four hour patrols on the streets and the continuous manning of the police office, which was the Session House of the Laigh Kirk in Trongate (11). Watchmen still manned fixed points throughout the city as was customary, while the police officers patrolled. The success of this small force resulted in the removal to the suburbs of many of the city's criminal inhabitants, thereby prompting the citizens of Gorbals, Calton and Anderston to obtain similar Acts of Parliament in 1808, 1819 and 1824 respectively.

By 1829, there were preventative Police forces in ten other Scottish cities, on similar lines to the Glasgow Police. Glasgow Police had also progressed their organisational innovation by appointing its first detective in 1819 and a Criminal Department followed within two years. The Central Police Office in Glasgow was opened in 1825 (12) and, unlike the 'Police Offices' of the English Magistracy, functioned just as the police administrative and custodial centres we know today.

It is known that Peel was a frequent visitor to Scotland early in the Century, and it is more than likely that he was aware of the policing evolution that was taking place. The part played by Colquhoun in carrying the idea to London and incorporating some of it's principles in his acclaimed book, does provide the likely source of that portion of his work which dealt with his vision of preventative policing.

Seeing the process as a period of evolution from the end of the 18th. Century, through 1829 and beyond, is more realistic when account is taken of the changes and improvements taking place throughout the United Kingdom, rather than the insular view that all the important policing innovations were happening in London. It is also more accurate to conclude that the pre.1829 period was an integral part of the evolution of policing in Britain, than to credit Robert Peel with 'inventing' the policing system in 1829, as so many appear to do (13) . The 'New Police' were a pivotal point in the evolution of preventative policing in Britain, rather than it's beginning, and when viewed as a process of evolution, it is difficult to credit Peel with founding British 'preventative policing' over forty years after the idea was first put into practice elsewhere.

So, it becomes clear that whilst the Metropolitan Police of 1829 could, thanks to Rowan and Mayne, claim to be better organised and administrated than anything Londoners had known before, the pioneering work had been carried out during the preceding forty years in Glasgow and other British cities. The organisational lessons learned by the early forces were easily avoided in the setting up of Peel's 'New Police' and together with the financial backing of the Government, the financial problems which had been encountered elsewhere, were easily overcome.

The activities of the early Glasgow policing pioneers are reasonably well known to local historians in Glasgow for around one hundred years and the original minutes of the Committee in Council of 1788/9 have been available for research for at least that period (14). Therefore, it would appear that their significance, especially when compared with Colquhoun's Treatise of 1795, has been overlooked by police historians over the years, an oversight hopefully rectified by this article. It is, of course, important that the contribution of less well-known personages and forces in the evolution of the British Police is acknowledged and recorded, for the benefit of all.

  (1) Gash, Norman, "The Life of Peel", Ch.III, p.104, para.1.
  (2) Carson, "Policing the Periphery" p.210.
  (3) Babington, Anthony, "A House in Bow Street (Crime and Magistracy in London 1740-1881)", Ch.16, p.179, para.3
  (4) Mitchell Library, Glasgow, "Extracts of Records of Burgh of Glasgow" Vol.VII, 1760-1780, pp. 544, 545-7 and 589.
  (5) Mitchell Library Archives; "Minutes of the City of Glasgow Magistrates Committee" Ref.C2/1/1-2, p. 139-149, entry 10 December 1788 - Subject: Intendent of Police.
  (6) Babington, "A House in Bow Street", p.183.
  (7)Mitchell "Minutes of the City of Glasgow Magistrates Committee", pp.148-9
  (8) Ibid., p.174
  (9) Mitchell "Extracts etc." Vol.VIII, 1781-95, Entry 8 April 1789, p.295.
  (10) Georgii III Regis, Cap.88, 30 June 1800.
  (11) Corporation of Glasgow, "Municipal Glasgow - Its Evolution and Enterprises", Glasgow 1906, pp.287-8
  (12) Grant, D, "The Thin Blue Line", London, 1973, p.25.
  (13) Carson, W.G. "Policing the Periphery- The Development of Scottish Policing 1795-1900" , Aust. and NZ Journal of Criminology , December 1984, 17, p.211, para.3.
  (14) Ord, J, "Origin and History of Glasgow Police Force", Old Glasgow Club Magazine, Paper No.6, 1906, p.99




Glasgow can boast of not one, but two police museums. This is caused by the fact, that over time, there have been two police departments operating in Glasgow. The first, the Glasgow Police, ultimately merged with other departments to become the very large Strathclyde Police. The Strathclyde Police Museum is the official museum of the Strathclyde Police Department. The museum contains a number of exhibits concerning the history of the Strathclyde Police as well as famous crimes and information about forensics. The curator of the museum, May Mitchell, is pictured here with some of the police exhibits.

Click here to see some photos of the Strathclyde Police Museum

The second museum is the Glasgow Police Museum, run by Alastair Dinsmore (pictured here), a retired member of the police force, and the author of the Scotia News' lead story. This museum contains a number of exhibits of uniforms from around the world as well as information on the now merged Glasgow Police Department.

Click here to see some photos of the Glasgow Police Museum