Police commissioner elections in the nineteenth century

The elections for police and crime commissioners taking place later this week across England and Wales may seem a novelty, but in fact this is not the first time that British voters have been called upon to decide between rival candidates for the office of police commissioner. In the first half of the nineteenth century, in towns ranging from Blackburn to Edinburgh, the idea of electing police commissioners would have been a familiar one, although both the electoral process and the responsibilities of those elected were rather different from today.

Before the 1835 Municipal Corporations Act, which introduced town councils in a recognisably modern form, a patchwork of local government authorities was in existence, many of which continued their work even after 1835. Among the most significant of these were police commissions. These were known in many towns as improvement commissions or, as in Birmingham, as street commissions, titles which reflected the fact that their duties were not confined to matters of law and order. As the leading socialists Beatrice and Sidney Webb noted in their major history of English local government, these bodies had powers ‘for paving, lighting, cleansing, watching and otherwise improving the streets of the rapidly developing urban centres’. The Webbs’ research found that around 300 such bodies had been created by local Acts of Parliament prior to 1835.

The Manchester police commission provides a particularly interesting example. Established in 1765, it remained in existence until 1842 when it was absorbed into Manchester town council. Its members were co-opted until 1792, after which all those occupying a house with a rental value of £30 or more a year were entitled to take the oath to serve as commissioners. The police commission’s control of Manchester’s gas supply – and the question of how to use the profits from this municipal enterprise – generated immense political interest in the 1820s, and led to an expansion of the numbers taking up this right. It became common for as many as 800 police commissioners to attend each meeting, which meant that the system became unworkable. In 1828 the commission’s structure changed, allowing £16 ratepayers – around 2.5% of the population – to vote for police commissioners, and £28 ratepayers to stand for office as commissioners. The reconstructed police commission had 240 members representing fourteen different districts.

Several future members of Parliament were among those who gained political and administrative experience as police commissioners. The most notable of these was Richard Cobden. At the 1840 election, Cobden was joined on the Manchester police commission by John and Thomas Bayley Potter, whose father Thomas had been Manchester’s first mayor. John Potter followed in his father’s footsteps, serving three times as mayor of Manchester, and also sat as the borough’s MP from 1857 until his death in 1858. His younger brother succeeded Cobden in 1865 as Liberal MP for Rochdale, which he represented for thirty years. In the neighbouring town of Oldham, John Platt, another future Liberal MP, served on the local police commission.

Suggested further reading:

  • D. Fraser, Urban politics in Victorian England. The structure of politics in Victorian cities (1976)
  • B. and S. Webb, English local government: statutory authorities for special purposes (1922)
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