There are plenty of police procedural and spy novels that include exploits of the British police, but when you see them on the street, they fit more appropriately into the speculative fiction genre. The police in London seem to live in two parallel universes.
There are the Guards, in their brightly colored uniforms with spiked helmets or tall bearskin (no kidding) hats. They are armed with swords and rifles; some of them sit on the backs of thoroughbreds so still they appear to be frozen in time.
The Guards assume Zen-like trances and stayed that way until the next shift of equally entranced replacements take up their posts in a mechanical,
slow motion ceremony. It looks as if they are under a magic spell. It’s too late for me to work guards like these into Owl Dreams—more’s the pity—but maybe I’ll put them in a future novel somewhere down the line.
The policemen who take care of law enforcement in the material world are the Bobbies. They walk the streets of London armed with nothing more than nightsticks, stern looks, and jokes that fit every occasion. Bobbies wear blue uniforms (not unusual around the world but they started the tradition almost 200 years ago). They also wear “custodial helmets” left over from the 19th century.
The Bobbies are a pedestrian police presence the way old-time beat cops used to be in American cities. Of course there are Bobbies in police cars too. There are even a few on bicycles and horses. Those funny looking, phenomenally effective London cops are everywhere people gather. They have been a fixture in the British capitol since the first ones hit the streets in 1829.
The London police got their name from their founder, Robert Peel. In 1822, while he was Home Secretary, Peel proposed that the House of Commons form a committee to investigate the potential policing of London.
The citizenry—and members of the House of Commons—were understandably unenthusiastic. During the reign of Charles II, London had the “Charlies”. That police force operated at the pleasure of the aristocracy, which didn’t please the common man at all. The “Charlies” were replaced by the Bow Street Runners in 1749, administered for a while by Henry Fielding, author of Tom Jones. The Bow Street Runners were better than the “Charlies”, but both police forces were intrusive in the private lives of citizens and were feared more than respected.
The public’s experience with London police was so bad that Robert Peel’s committee initially concluded that an effective system of policing could not be reconciled with a free society. To counteract this attitude Peel developed a standard of morals and behavior for the Bobbies known as the Peelian Principals. Using these principals he organized the London Metropolitan Police Force It was administered then, as it is today, from Scotland Yard.
The first 1,000 Bobbies wore blue tailcoats (as opposed to the traditional military red) and top hats to more closely resemble the “common man”. Each was issued a wooden truncheon carried in a long pocket in the tail of their coats, a pair of handcuffs, and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm. By the 1880s the rattle had been replaced by a whistle.
Peele’s Bobbies had to be six feet tall (or as near as possible) and have no criminal history. They worked seven days a week for the grand sum of £4 per month. They wore their uniforms even when off duty to allay the public’s fear of spying. They were required to seek official permission to get married or even to share a meal with a civilian.
Scotland Yard is now world famous for its investigative work, but Robert Peel’s original Metropolitan Police Force were forbidden to investigate crimes. The Bobbies were there to enforce laws and pursue perpetrators only when warrants had been issued or when crimes were committed in their presence. The Bobbies weren’t even permitted to ask the victim of a crime who he thought might have done it.
If investigative work was needed, citizens could employ detectives from the private sector. This situation may have given rise to Alfred Conan Doyle’s fictional super-sleuth Sherlock Holmes. Not quite in the speculative fiction genre, but close enough.