Articles on the History of Essex, Researching your Ancestors, and British History

The Peelers

Punch cartoon: a Peeler
A Peeler or Bobby
Image from Punch, 1845, courtesy of the Harold B. Lee Library on Flickr NKCR

The origin of the nickname for the first police officers.

Peelers was the name given to the first police officers. They were named after Sir Robert Peel who introduced them, first in Ireland, and then in England. They were also known as Bobbies in England.

Peel was the Chief Secretary for Ireland from 1812 until 1818 at a time when Ireland was a troubled country with a disaffected country population suffering from agricultural depression, secret societies, gangs and sectarian violence.

Peel introduced the Peace of Preservation Act 1814 which established a Peace Preservation Force. The Force acted more as a security and paramilitary force than a force to prevent crime and protect property as it later became in England. Its main aim was to deal with any form of unrest and rioting, particularly in the country districts. A mobile unit of officers and a magistrate which would be dispatched to an area to quash any trouble. The officers soon became known as Peelers. Later in 1836, after a number of changes, the force became known as the Irish Constabulary.

General Matthew speaking in Parliament in 1817. Peel was present, hence the aside.
".. while the former was liable to be carried off without a moment's notice by a set of fellows well known in Ireland (he meant no disrespect to the Right Hon. Gentleman) by the name of Peelers and then to be harried before a set of intolerant and bigoted Orange magistrates."
Report on Parliament - Caledonian Mercury, Thursday, June 19, 1817 on the British Newspaper Archive.

In 1822, Peel was appointed Home Secretary of the British Government and he introduced a number of changes to the criminal law; and in 1829 in London, he founded a civil police force for the preservation and maintenance of law and order: The Metropolitan Police. Similar forces soon became established across the country.

The London officers were also called Peelers, and were also known as Bobbies. The origin of the latter is generally accepted as being named after Peel's first name, but some suggest that the name came from Bobby the Beadle. Before the foundation of the police, these were guardians of some of the London squares. Armed with canes, they kept order and made sure the squares were only used by residents and their guests.

Since then the police have been called many other names including: copper, cops, slops, scufty, bulky, rozzers, old bill, and crushers.

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