A Marxist History of Police, Part II. – Experimenting on the Irish

By Stephen James Kerr

Today we are publishing the second part in a series “A Marxist History of the Police” dealing with experiments towards a police force in Ireland by Sir Robert Peel, up to the infamous Peterloo Massacre in 1819.

Part 1: Repression in the face of revolution, examined how the birth of the industrial working class and the tumult of the bourgeois revolutions drove the need for new forms of repression.

England in 1800: Poverty and crime but no police

The first notable history of police is called A History of the Police in England, and was penned in 1901 by William Lauriston Melville Lee, who would later go on to head up British spying operations against socialists under PMS2, Parliamentary Military Section 2 in WWI. This group was later absorbed into MI5. Lee would also later publish a periodical entitled ‘Industrial Peace’ which was in fact a black list circulated amongst factory owners, smearing suspected communists and labour organizers.

Melville Lee writes that in 1801 England, “the proportion of thieves and delinquents to other honest individuals must have been alarmingly high.” (196). Lee notes that between 1801 and 1811 the percentage of apprehensions rose 50%, while the population only increased by 16% in the same period.

“Night after night, undisturbed by watchmen or other peace officers, hundreds of urchins huddled together for shelter and company under the barrows and fruit stalls of Covent Garden Market. Day after day, these homeless and unhealthy vagabonds quartered the town street by street, alley by alley, in search of any prey they might be able to lay their hands on. Their pickings and stealings were turned into money with ease at the shop of any one of the six thousand receivers of stolen property…” [i]

Britain in 1800 was in the midst of enormous upheaval, mainly due to its wars with Revolutionary and then Napoleonic France. The spectre of invasion by an external enemy helped rally working people behind the British ruling class. At the same time however, the war wreaked economic devastation and many men were forced into enlistment as the only alternative to starvation. The British government enacted higher taxes to pay for the enormous costs of war, which placed a further burden upon the people.

The Plumb-pudding in danger , James Gillray, 1805, Pitt and Napoleon dividing the world between them

Lee hints at the resulting loss of state authority among the poorest. “John Sayer, the Bow Street officer stated before a Parliamentary Committee, that there were streets in Westminster, especially Duck Lane, Gravel Lane, and Cook Lane, infested by a gang of desperate men, and so dangerous that no policeman dared venture there, unless accompanied by five or six of his comrades, for fear of being cut to pieces.”.

Lee admits that despite a desire to check “the savage tendencies of the people” “offences against property were even more numerous than crimes of violence.” Sixteen robberies in the rich borough of Kensington in six weeks. Counterfeit banknotes distributed. Coachmen conspiring to “rob the traveling public.” The economic crisis of the Napoleonic Wars drove the desperate towards theft, and also towards a new political consciousness.

But though the Bow Street Runners were tasked with prosecuting theft, there was no police force to deal with social unrest. “Before 1830 there were only two methods of dealing with a riotous mob, the first was to leave it severely alone, the second was to allow a regiment of cavalry to trample it into submission.”

Keeping the Indians and Irish down: Imperialist experiments in policing

If the British ruling class was still squeamish about the threat of an organized police force to ‘English liberties’ at home, it felt no such inhibitions for the liberties of the Irish or the Indians.

In 1793, Lord Cornwallis abolished the system of local police forces in Bengal under the control of the local magistrate, and staffed by European officers. This greatly facilitated the main purpose of the British in India, which was the bleeding out of India of all of its wealth for export to Great Britain. 89% of the revenue from land taxes administered by local land lords called ‘Zamindars’ was appropriated by the British. British police and legal reforms were key to securing this revenue.

However, police experiments in Ireland were more crucial to establishing the police in England. Writing in 1885, F.W. Maitland, one of the first Police Commissioners, admits that “A full history of the New Police would probably lay its first scene in Ireland, and begin with the Dublin Police Act passed by the Irish Parliament in 1786.” This act was modeled on Pitt’s rejected 1785 police bill in the British Parliament.

The Irish were not immune to ‘the French disease.’ The formation of the United Irishmen in 1792 was inspired by the Revolution in France, and sought parliamentary reform as well as the “abolition of bigotry in religion and politics.”

Wolfe Tone was one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, and leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. He was captured and sentenced to death.. This is one of the inscribed flagstones on the steps leading to his grave.

Protestant versus Catholics: the divide and rule strategy

Where in England the ruling class had responded to the growth of corresponding societies by establishing their own vigilante group, the ruling Irish Protestant landowners responded by regularizing the Orange Order, which organized repression of Catholics by Protestants, further establishing British authority on a sectarian basis.

The failed Irish rebellion of 1798 resulted in particularly barbaric reprisals by the British military, including house burnings, widespread torture and rape, the burning alive of rebel suspects and targeted murders. One torture method involved the pouring of hot tar on the head of the insurgent, and then its removal, along with the skin.

The British Parliament also attacked Irish independence by dissolving the Irish House of Commons at Dublin and merging Irish “representation” with the Westminster Parliament in London through the Act of Union of 1800.

Lord Peel, who would later go on to establish the London Metropolitan Police, became Irish secretary in 1812, and devoted himself to maintaining the Act of Union and the repression of the Irish peasantry. By the time the young politician had finished with Ireland he was ready for the British Cabinet.

In 1813 Peel brought in the Irish Fire Arms bill, which prevented “improper persons” (the Catholic peasant majority) from owning guns. “The object of the Bill was to preserve the peace by means of the civil power, without recourse to the military” according to Peel. [ii] This would become a central rationale for professional police forces in England.

The bill was ostensibly a response to an upsurge of attacks by armed Catholics in Limerick and Waterford on local protestant authorities, in which Catholic militants had been freed from the gaol by the Irish people.

But despite Peel’s pretense to the “firm determination to conciliate all parties”, Catholic and Protestant in Ireland, he remained partial to the cause of the Orange Order, a semi-legal association led by the exclusively Protestant “nobility” of Ireland, and based in the Scots and English imported small holders who were settled in Ireland. [iii] The Order drew on the wealth of the gentry to fund its operations, which made the organization financially independent without having to solicit membership dues. Yet Peel firmly opposed the Catholic defense associations which relied upon small subscriptions from poor peasant households to fund opposition to British rule.

The oppressive characteristics of this rule merit some comment.

Ireland was a peasant society and economy, with agriculture being the basis of nearly all wealth creation. There were some industrial towns around Belfast in the north. But a tiny minority owned all of the land, and much production was exported, leaving an impoverished subsistence economy for the majority whose labour produced the wealth that enriched the tiny landowning class. This tiny minority were in the main protestant imports from England and Scotland, with a select few ennobled.

An eviction in the West of Ireland

These not only monopolized political life – Irish Catholics could not sit in the House of Commons – but also and most importantly Ireland’s economic life. The landlord extracted rent from the tenant farmer, and also tithes, payments from Catholics to the Protestant Church of England. Extractive rents and tithes to an “heretical” church were deeply offensive, and local disputes between landlords holding tens of thousands of acres, and peasants who paid to rent a half acre “potato garden” were the occasions of armed resistance by militant Catholic associations, who threatened to become engaged in larger, nationalist and revolutionary struggles. These disturbances threatened the stability of “civil order”, in reality a state of surrender to conditions designed to secure the flow of rent to the landlord class, and then back to England.

Robert Peel’s 1814 ‘Peace Preservation Act’: The specialisation of labor of repression

In 1814 Peel campaigned for a radical means to maintain state control in Ireland: an organized state police force, deployed throughout the country. The Hansard record of his apologia reads that “many parts of Ireland were in a disturbed state, excesses had been committed, and disaffection prevailed, which it was known that the ordinary powers of the law were insufficient to repress.”

Many of Peel’s Whig opponents in Parliament accused him of exaggerating the state of political unrest in Ireland in order to create these new powers.[iv] The Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool described Peel’s measures as “not English” referring to the well-established systems of organized police repression in Continental Europe. [v] But Peel won the day.

The main object of Peel’s bill was to establish the germ of a professional and permanent police force in Ireland, to repress agrarian disturbances, and also “political combinations” which “had for their object the overthrow of the government and the separation of Ireland from Great Britain.”

Peel was careful to note the class character of this nationalist movement, from the haughty perspective of his own class. “These combinations consist of idle, infatuated people, with little education…” he declared. Peel then entered the evidence that some of the leaders of the Irish resistance had sworn oaths to assist Napoleon should French forces land in Ireland. The attempt was prevented only by bad weather.

Peel also noted the intense solidarity of the Irish with each other. There was a “romantic sentiment” in the country which made the “name and character of an informer odious and was almost sufficient of itself to close the ordinary sources from whence information could be derived.”

“He proposed a Bill, which would give the Lord Lieutenant a power, when disturbances existed in any county, to proclaim that district to be in a disturbed state, to appoint a superintending magistrate with a salary, and special constables, with salaries.” These special constables would “keep watch and ward in the disturbed district.” These constables did not have special powers, and were responsible to and removable by the government, in theory. [vi]  In practice they could do whatever they liked, to whomever they liked, and they did.

This professionalization of the old “ward and watch”, which had previously drawn on local amateurs in their spare time, represented a technical advance, according to Peel. “Their minds being wholly turned towards one employment, they became more skilled in the mode of detecting and apprehending offenders.” In this, Peel was applying to the problem of policing the specialization of labour arising out of British industrialism. Peel himself was a wealthy owner of cotton mills in northern England.

Thus the specialization of labour deployed to enforce work discipline and extract profits in the Peel family cotton mills was now to be employed in the repression of organized political opposition to the state in a restive colony.

Peel also emphasized that removing the responsibility of self-policing from the local authorities would give the government the means to break through local solidarity; “they (the police) would have no local allurements to sway their judgment” he observed.

But Peel’s initial measures only radicalized the Irish poor. One month later, Peel declared that “in those parts of Ireland where the laws had been administered with the greatest severity, and where the greatest number of convictions had taken place, the terror arising from these convictions had scarcely survived the cause, when new combinations of a more extensive and dangerous character had given birth, and these combinations were carried on with a degree of secrecy which defied the operation of the law.” In plain language, Irish resistance was implacable, and new repression sparked fresh resistance. Peel requested that power be given to local Irish magistrates to sentence agitators to Transportation to forced labour in the British colonies, and to reinstitute the Insurrection Act.

Peel then criminalized the Catholic Associations which organized peasant resistance. It was a pattern Peel would repeat in England: exploit and oppress the poor, and declare their resistance to repression to be “illegal.”

England 1815-17: Years of hunger, rebellion and repression.

While Peel was busy reducing Ireland, conditions in England were worsening. Demobilized soldiers who had defeated Napoleon and assisted the British Empire in making Europe safe for the landed gentry were abandoned to their fate by the English government of the day. These impoverished men swelled the ranks of the indigent poor, and many could be found begging in the city streets.

In 1815 the British government passed the Corn Law, which protected British agriculture from cheap foreign imported grain. On the day the Law was passed, armed troops had to circle parliament to keep out a massive demonstration of enraged eaters.

Bread riot at the entrance to the House of Commons in 1815 as a result of the Corn Laws.

The Corn Laws kept the cost of subsistence high for the English poor, while guaranteeing fat profits for British landlords. The next year, 1816 was called “the year without a summer” due to the volcanic explosion of Mount Tabora in Indonesia (though the cause of the poor weather was not known in Europe at that time). The presence of volcanic dust in the atmosphere caused alternating frosts and heat waves in Europe during the summer of that year, resulting in crop failure and widespread famine. Worker’s wages had collapsed. People were starving.

The economic conditions combined with widespread hunger led people to rebel. On November 15, and then again on December 2nd, and 9th 1816 mass meetings of impoverished workers were held at Spa Fields just outside of London. These were some of the first open air mass meetings of working people in British history, and mark the birth of the labour movement.

The meetings were organized by “Spenceans” – the followers of the then recently deceased English Radical Thomas Spence, who had campaigned for the abolition of the landed gentry, the public ownership of all land, universal suffrage for both men and women, a guaranteed material standard of living, and for the rights of children since the 1770s. These mass meetings have become known to history as the Spa Fields riots as they were violently suppressed by the British military and what police forces existed at the time. The Riots also curiously played out some of the general features to be found at many modern demonstrations.

Caricature by George Cruikshank. The tricolor ribbon is inscribed “No God! No Religion! No King! No Constitution!” Below the ribbon, and its Phrygian cap with tricolor cockade, are two bloody axes, attached to a guillotine, whose blade is suspended above a burning globe. An emaciated man and drunken woman dressed in ragged clothes serve as heraldic “supporters”, gleefully dancing on discarded royal and clerical regalia…

The radical movement at the time was very poorly organized, and also infiltrated by police spies from the Home Office. The demonstrations were instigated by a radical faction, the Spenceans, but the more moderate reform leaders such as Henry Hunt were invited to speak. On December 2nd, radicalized sections of the demonstration broke away on various direct actions which failed due to their folly, lack of organization, leadership, coherent strategy, tactics and numbers. These included the raiding of various gunshops, an attempt to liberate inmates from one of London’s prisons, and an abortive attack on the Tower of London.

Some of these direct actions were originated by the spontaneous leadership of anonymous members of the London crowd. While these actions were taking place, the majority of the massive crowd remained at Spa Fields, listened to Henry Hunt’s moderate speech, after which they peacefully went home while the police repression of the incited crowd continued.

The jury at the treason trial of James Watson, one of the radical leaders of the meetings, found that the government had employed agents provocateurs, including the principal witness for the prosecution, and resulted in the acquittal of the accused. [vii]The revelation that the government was using paid agents to incite violence which it could then repress totally scandalized all of Britain. People simply could not imagine it, though the use of paid informants and provocateurs had long been a common, though heretofore hidden practice of the English government.

The public mood became increasingly revolutionary. The Prince Regent’s (later George IV) coach was attacked by rebellious workers on January 28th 1817, in an incident reminiscent of the attack on his father’s carriage in 1795.

The British government responded in exactly the same way as Pitt’s government had, by suspending Habeas Corpus on Feb 24, 1817, and by passing a new Treason Act, which declared that even to “imagine” the destruction of the existing political order was an act of Treason. This gave the government near unlimited power to repress the workers. [viii] 

The repressive measures only generated more resistance, to which the government responded with ever more repressive measures. Thompson notes that whereas Pitt’s repression in 1795 could be accepted by most Britons as a defense against continental style despotism, the repression of Regency London in 1817 was widely resented as the epitome of continental style despotism.

The rise of the industrial working class: a slumbering giant awakes

How did the same repressive measures of 1795 and 1817 meet such opposite reactions? What accounts for the total transformation in the attitude of the British public over the course of 22 years? The rapid growth and emergence as a distinct class, of the industrial working class over the same period.

Engels gives an account of it in his introduction to ‘The Condition of the Working Class in England.’ Of the condition of the pre-industrial craftsperson in England, Engels writes:

“Before the introduction of machinery, the spinning and weaving of raw materials was carried on in the workingman’s home. Wife and daughter spun the yarn that the father wove or that they sold, if he did not work it up himself. These weaver families lived in the country in the neighbourhood of the towns, and could get on fairly well with their wages, because the home market was almost the only one and the crushing power of competition that came later, with the conquest of foreign markets and the extension of trade, did not yet press upon wages. There was, further, a constant increase in the demand for the home market, keeping pace with the slow increase in population and employing all the workers; and there was also the impossibility of vigorous competition of the workers among themselves, consequent upon the rural dispersion of their homes. So it was that the weaver was usually in a position to lay by something, and rent a little piece of land, that he cultivated in his leisure hours, of which he had as many as he chose to take, since he could weave whenever and as long as he pleased. True, he was a bad farmer and managed his land inefficiently, often obtaining but poor crops; nevertheless, he was no proletarian, he had a stake in the country, he was permanently settled, and stood one step higher in society than the English workman of today.” [ix]

A working family who ‘had a stake in the country’ being ‘permanently settled’ could have imagined that their interests indeed did lie with ‘Church and King.’ And indeed in 1795 they mostly did.

“In short, the English industrial workers of those days lived and thought after the fashion still to be found here and there in Germany, in retirement and seclusion, without mental activity and without violent fluctuations in their position in life. They could rarely read and far more rarely write; went regularly to church, never talked politics, never conspired, never thought, delighted in physical exercises, listened with inherited reverence when the Bible was read, and were, in their unquestioning humility, exceedingly well-disposed towards the “superior” classes.” [x]

But the growth of the factory system created a massive class of workers who were permanently unsettled, who had no stake in ANY country, and certainly no stake in the ‘mixed constitution.’ The violent dislocation and displacement of craft workers, weavers, dyers, ceramics workers, etc resulted in a massive transformation in the consciousness of these layers. They awoke from the slumber in which they had long gestated.

“The industrial revolution has simply carried this out to its logical end by making the workers machines pure and simple, taking from them the last trace of independent activity, and so forcing them to think and demand a position worthy of men. As in France politics, so in England manufacture and the movement of civil society in general drew into the whirl of history the last classes which had remained sunk in apathetic indifference to the universal interests of mankind.” [xi]

The Peterloo Massacre: the limits of military violence

Displaced by the growing industrialization of their trade, starving cottage weavers in Lancashire and the North protested their conditions and the suspension of Habeas Corpus with the Blanket March. On March 10th 1817 as many as 20,000 spinners and weavers gathered at St. Peter’s fields at Manchester, hoping to march to London to present a petition for redress of grievances to the Prince Regent. Each marcher carried a homespun blanket, and was organized into a group of ten, which technically skirted then existing laws against illegal mass assemblies. But the marchers were broken up by the British military and 28 leaders arrested. Several were wounded by the swords of the King’s Dragoon Guards.

On August 16th, 1819 another political demonstration at St. Peter’s Field would be even more violently repressed, and mark a critical turning point. Alarmed by the increasing size of the crowd of protesting workers, the 15th Hussar brigade cut down 18 people, and wounded more than 500 others with swords. The demonstration had been led by women, with the prettiest girls in the community deliberately chosen to stand out in front as a deterrence to violent repression. Many carried banners inscribed with the demands “Reform. Universal Suffrage. Equal Representation”, and even simply, “Love.” Many were topped with the red ‘cap of liberty’ a symbol of the French Revolution, and of plebeian liberty since ancient Rome.  

The demonstration was repressed in the ‘traditional way.’ Six hundred Hussars, four hundred men of the Cheshire Cavalry, and an equal number of special constables attacked the crowd. The local Yeomanry, organized out of the wealthy shopkeepers and factory owners of the area, went about arresting the leaders.

Samuel Bamford was present, arrested after the massacre and imprisoned for one year. He wrote,

“On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…”

“Stand fast,” I said, “they are riding upon us; stand fast”.

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were plied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.”  [xii]

The Peterloo Massacre: ‘A print from Social England, edited by HD Traill and JS Mann, volume VI. , 1904.

The general revulsion at the repression turned public opinion decidedly against using the military and yeomanry to repress demonstrations.

This atrocity, memorialized as the “Peterloo Massacre” demonstrated to the British working class that the government was willing to kill them to maintain its control and the unequal distribution of power and wealth, and to the Government that additional and more subtle means of control were required to maintain that unequal distribution.  Peterloo is a crucial turning point in the struggle of the working class for the vote, and equally in the development of police repression.

As Lee notes, “The alarming frequency by which mobs appealed to violence to compel attention to their grievances, real or supposed, by force of arms, was one of the most dangerous symptoms of the age… Unless something better than the shoddy defence, which was all that the civil power could then muster, was quickly forthcoming, the mob would soon obtain a complete mastery, for the destruction of all law and order, just as had recently happened in France.” [xiii]

[i] Melville Lee, William Lauristen. A History of the Police in England. Page 197

[ii]  Op. cit. pg 22

[iii] Op. cit pg 24

[iv]  Op. Cit. pg 37

[v] Broeker, Galen. Rural Disorder and Police Reform in Ireland, 1810-1836 pg. 60

[vi] Op. Cit. pgs 28.29

[vii] Gurney, William Brodie, The Trial Of James Watson For High Treaso’At The Bar Of The Court Of King’s Bench On Monday 9th June to Monday 16th June 1817 (London, 1817) Vol. II, pp. 258–275

[viii]  See Treason Act, 1817. (repealed) http://www.statutelaw.gov.uk/content.aspx?LegType=All+Legislation&Year=1817&searchEnacted=0&extentMatchOnly=0&confersPower=0&blanketAmendment=0&sortAlpha=0&TYPE=QS&PageNumber=1&NavFrom=0&parentActiveTextDocId=1028887&ActiveTextDocId=1028887&filesize=3771

[ix] Engels, Op. Cit. Introduction.

[x] Op. Cit.

[xi] Op. Cit.

[xii] http://www.peterloomassacre.org/eyewitness.html

[xiii] Op Cit. page 101, Google Books edition, 2019

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