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Roger Swift, Provincial Police Reform in Early Victorian England: Cambridge, 1835-1856

Book Review

Published onMay 23, 2022
Roger Swift, Provincial Police Reform in Early Victorian England: Cambridge, 1835-1856

Law, Crime and History

Volume 10, issue 1 (2022): 141-144

© The Author(s) 2022

ISSN: 2045-9238

Book Reviews

Roger Swift, Provincial Police Reform in Early Victorian England: Cambridge, 1835-1856, London: Routledge, 2021; 170pp: ISBN 978-0-367-68869-1, £96 (hbk) £29.59 (eBook).

Reviewed by: David J. Cox, University of Wolverhampton, UK

Professor Swift's book is a welcome addition to the increasing canon of work based around provincial policing developments in the early-to-mid nineteenth century. It provides a detailed account of the often piecemeal and fraught creation of Cambridge Police, together with an overview of the wider moves to introduce the 'New Police' (often, though not always, based on a Metropolitan Police model) to the boroughs and counties of England.

The book begins with an investigation of the unreformed system of law enforcement within Cambridge, which occupied an unusual position in that such policing was required to meet the requirements of both 'Town' and Gown, as due to the presence of academia, a large percentage of the population was based (at least temporarily) in the numerous university colleges. It then discusses levels and types of crime present in Cambridge, which despite being a place of great privilege with regard to the university population also had pockets of considerable poverty and deprivation; as Swift states, 'the Barnwell district […] acquired an unenviable reputation as the haunt of criminals by mid-century'1, with a local newspaper reporting in 1853 that 'Barnwell is still the focus of villainy, the receptacle of dishonest spoil, the refuge of the petty thief and the full developed scoundrel'.2

The next two chapters are devoted to an examination of the development of the Cambridge force from 1836-1847, when the town was largely under the control of a Tory hegemony, and then from 1847-56, when political allegiances switched to a more Liberal-dominated structure. The remainder of the book provides a rich and detailed account of the daily work and stresses of Cambridge police officers, their dealings with different types of crimes and criminals before ending with a debate about the ways in which the Cambridge force (which existed as a separate entity for over a century, finally being amalgamated into the short-lived Mid Anglia force in 1965) was perceived by the public whom it served.

Swift reminds the reader early on that 'The historian is, of course, dependent on the range and quality of the available source materials, and in the context of the study of crime and policing in Cambridge during the period, it should be emphasized that primary source materials are at best limited and patchy, rendering a comprehensive study of the subject problematic'.3 However, despite these limitations, he has produced a meticulously researched and detailed study of the origins of a provincial police force, and his book fits in well with the growing number of research monographs, chapters and journal articles based around research into the early history of provincial policing. It is refreshing to see that the former preoccupation of 'traditional' police historians with the Metropolis appears to have diminished (though conversely a comprehensive study of the creation and work of the London Police Offices created as the result of the Middlesex Justices Act 1792 remains long overdue).

Cambridge, together with Oxford, was unusual in that it possessed both a borough police force and a body of policing agents under the control of the University authorities. Swift ably demonstrates how this division of responsibility for law enforcement could cause serious problems and rifts between the two bodies; in the case of Cambridge, this largely seems to have been about financial responsibility. I was reminded of the similar differences of opinion and problems with regard to the Worsted Inspectorate ( a private form of policing agents) and the local borough police forces throughout a similar period in the Yorkshire cotton towns.4

The book also reminded me of the impact of the ever-increasing regulation of everyday life in early and mid-Victorian England. Swift provides details of the banality of many offences dealt with by the police which were related to everyday nuisances such as unmuzzled dogs, emptying night soil at an improper hour, causing an obstruction with a horse and cart, and the unfortunate case of 'Daniel Norton, a hairdresser, fined for keeping his shop open, and shaving two persons on a Sunday morning'.5 Such examples serve to illustrate that the police were increasingly being used as arbiters of social decency and moral guardians as well as a purely preventive force to deal with overtly criminal behaviour.

In many ways both the nature of offending behaviour and its policing in Cambridge appears to have been fairly typical of many provincial towns and cities in the Victorian period; similar trends and patterns that Swift finds within the university town are reflected in other studies of the period.6 Low-level offences largely focused on petty theft, begging/vagrancy, and alcohol abuse, whilst more serious offences were overwhelmingly property-based; Swift finding that 96% of the offences tried at Cambridge Borough Quarter Sessions between 1836 and 1856 were property-related, with only 4% being related to crimes against the person.7

Perhaps one of the few anomalies that Swift mentions in passing is the lack of rioting (Swift dismisses the annual Town and Gown fracas as 'hardly "riots" in the conventional sense'8, and it would have been useful to have more discussion of this interesting finding; as Swift recognises, this period of English history was marked by several serious riots in many provincial towns and their absence in Cambridge is somewhat anomalous.

It is also revealing to see how national decisions were viewed and dealt with in a small provincial town; for example, Swift discusses the unease felt by Superintendent Jaggard and the Cambridge Association for the Prosecution of Felons ( a type of private insurance scheme designed to offset the often large expenses involved in the prosecution of offenders in court) at the introduction of a 'Ticket of Leave' system (an early form of parole) for convicted serious offenders in the mid-1850s. Such a decision was feared to have 'deluged the town with criminals'9, and it would have been interesting to read what effect this decision did actually have on crime rates within the town.

Swift states that the book is based on research that began some two decades earlier and I feel that this long gestation period shows in places; for example there is only one online source listed in the bibliography, and in his discussion of convicts sent from Cambridge to Australia, Swift makes no mention of important research developments such as the Digital Panopticon ( or the major database of Tasmanian convicts to be found within its website. Similarly, I was also somewhat disappointed to see no mention of Beattie's recent seminal work on the Bow Street Office10 in Swift's discussion of the debate about the 'newness' of the 'New Police'; whilst Paley's and Reynolds' work is mentioned, Beattie's is not, and this I feel is something of an oversight.

I also feel that a discussion of other more recent publications such as Stevenson et al's 2017 edited collection of the history of Chief Constables11 or Barrie's excellent account of the development of policing in Scotland between 1775 and 186512 would have added to Swift's argument and discussion about the problems faced by senior officers when dealing with recalcitrant Watch Committees or politically motivated individuals. For example, one of Swift's central arguments is concerned with the ways in which political wrangling and in-fighting hindered the development of the Cambridge force, and several chapters in Stevenson et al reflect this with regard to Yorkshire and Northamptonshire respectively. Similarly, Stevenson's work on Chief Constable Joseph Davison Sowerby of Plymouth Police13 shows interesting parallels with Swift's examination of Superintendent William Jaggard of the Cambridge force; both men were clearly hewn from the same 'flawed hero' mould, and both appear to have embarked on something of a personal moral crusade with regard to public drunkenness and prostitution, and it would have been interesting to have seen some comparative discussion about the ways in which a single officer could influence the direction and moral probity of a force. Swift's detailed study of Superintendent Jaggard's time as head of the Cambridge force reveals a dedicated man of stern moral probity who also was not averse to using controversial methods of policing; the Superintendent's use of plain-clothes officers in the late-1840s was unusual at a time when such methods were still seen as dangerously 'Continental' (despite the fact that Bow Street Principal Officers had operated without uniforms a century earlier).

A minor but nonetheless irritating error (of the copyeditor's making rather than that of Professor Swift's, I am sure) is the frequent absence of the possessive plural apostrophe when reproducing the length of prison sentences; for example, on page 116 we find the correct form 'ten years' transportation' given, but then we get the incorrect from 'ten years transportation' reproduced twice, all in the same paragraph. The absence of the apostrophe is repeated throughout the book.

The above fairly minor criticisms apart, Provincial Police Reform in Early Victorian England is a welcome addition to the growing canon of research into early policing history. It is a highly readable and often fascinating account of the problems faced by the introduction of new (or at least often radically altered) systems of law enforcement and ably charts the often ad-hoc and piecemeal development of a small provincial police force. It can stand proudly with other recent studies in the development of provincial policing in ably serving to finally lay to rest the ghost of a more traditional and simple teleological view of such developments.

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