Filth, Fuzz and Flatfoots
Police officers have more than their fair share of nicknames … the Filth, the Rozzers, the Bizzies, Flatfoots, the Boys in Blue, Mr Plod ... but where did these names come from? Who was Old Bill? Why are police officers Pigs, Bobbies or Cops? And are they really Fuzzy?
There is a written reference from 1811 to ‘china street pigs’, meaning the Bow Street Runners, the first proto-police officers. A popular pastime was to ‘floor the pig and bolt’ – to knock the officer over and run away.
In 1829, the newly formed London Metropolitan Police picked up the nickname of ‘Peelers’ after their founder, Sir Robert Peel. Thankfully, this soon fell out of favour and they became ‘Bobbies’. Well, it’s better than ‘The Roberts’.
The name ‘Fuzz’ may have come from the early officers’ large beards and whiskers but is more likely derived from common street slang when ‘fuzzy’ meant unmanly, incompetent or soft.
‘Cop’ and ‘Copper’ both come from the verb ‘to cop’ meaning to seize or get hold of (which in turn evolved from the Latin capere, which means to catch or capture). The term first appeared in print in 1846. It is definitely not an acronym of ‘constable on patrol’ as nearly all acronyms date from the 20th century.
The origins of the term ‘Old Bill’ are less easy to nail down. Among the most popular of the various competing theories are:
The name was arrived at by associating the police with The Old Bailey law courts by way of the music hall song ‘Won’t you come home, Bill Bailey?’ It has nothing to do with Klingon-lookalike comedians.
Many moustache-wearing police officers looked like the cartoon character ‘Old Bill’, a wily old soldier created by Bruce Bairnsfeather. Old Bill appeared dressed as a Special Constable on wartime public information posters with a caption that started with ‘Old Bill says …’
The original cars used by the Flying Squad had registration plates bearing the letters BYL.
Foreign slang words for the police include Bears, Jacks, Dog Catchers, Po Pos, the Barney Fife, Scuffers, La Chotas, Poulets, Omars, Snuten, Bängen, Pekkas, Bullen, Woodentops, Grünmütze, Titheads, Spassbremsen, Fun breakers, Sorte svin, Flics, Poggu and Donut Digesters.
Foxes and Fingerprints
The ‘Twin Foxes’ – the unimaginatively-named Albert Ebenezer and Ebenezer Albert Fox –were born in Hertfordshire in 1857 and at birth were so similar that their father tied a blue ribbon around the arm of one and a red ribbon around the arm of the other. But the ribbons soon got mixed up and, until death, neither of the Foxes was ever quite sure what their proper name should be. They grew up to be notorious poachers and petty thieves who, between them, notched up over 200 convictions. However, they often escaped justice by providing each other’s alibis. They also made frequent claims for compensation for wrongful arrest, claiming that the wrong brother had been arrested. As reported, tongue-in-cheek, by the New York Times of February 9th 1913: ‘For years they have borne these mistakes in silence. But now the soul of each burns at the thought of the injustice done to his brother’.
Sir Edward Henry (Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police 1903-1918) used such cases of incorrect or difficult identification as an argument for throwing out older discredited fingerprint systems. Instead, he advised the use of a new system developed by the Indian police officers Azizul Haque and Hem Chandra Bose. It became known as the Henry Fingerprint Classification System after its sponsor and was introduced to British policing in 1901 along with a national fingerprint identification bureau. The system remained in use until the 1990s when computers allowed for even more complex and accurate matching systems.
Fuzzy Firsts and Lasts
1830 - PC Joseph Grantham becomes the first police officer ever to be killed on duty. Three years later, the so-called Coldbath Fields Riot in Grays Inn Road, London result in the death of PC Robert Culley. However, during the subsequent trial, those involved were acquitted of ‘justifiable homicide’ because of alleged excessive force used by the police. A small trophy, the Culley Cup, was presented to the jury by the defendants.
1858 – The first British police van - a horse-drawn lockable cubicle – comes into use. These quickly become known as ‘Black Marias’. Allegedly, the name commemorates a large, fierce, black hostel manager from Boston, Massachusetts called Maria Lee, who would frequently wade into the fray to assist her local police in conveying violent drunks to the station. Sailors brought stories of Ms Lee’s exploits to the UK.
1863 – In the mid 1800s, drunkenness was the primary cause of police dismissal, and in 1863 year alone, the services of 215 officers were dispensed with. The offending officers’ lack of sobriety is perhaps understandable when you note that 50,000 Londoners died of cholera in 1849 due to drinking dirty water. However, that hardly excuses one PC Cleares’ behaviour when he was found drunk and ‘absent from his beat and asleep with his head through a pane of glass in a greenhouse.’
1868 – The last public execution takes place in the UK. From now on, the only people to die in front of audiences would be comedians.
1898 – After PC Baldwin is murdered in Kingsland Road, there are calls for the police to be armed. Over a hundred years later, it still hasn’t happened. Bureaucracy. Tchah.
1910 - Dr Hawley Harvey Crippen becomes the first person to be arrested as the result of electronic communication. After allegedly murdering his wife, Crippen attempted to flee the UK on a ship bound for Quebec, Canada. The captain of the SS Montrose suspected that he had some wrongdoers on board when he spotted some ‘unusually affectionate behaviour’ between a passenger called Mr Robinson and his son, John. Further observation convinced Captain Kendall that the boy was actually Ethel le Neve, Crippen’s mistress, in disguise. Both she and Crippen were on Scotland Yard’s most wanted list and their descriptions had been widely circulated. Kendall used the wireless to voice his suspicions to the ship’s owners back home. Detective Chief Inspector Walter Dew was immediately put on a faster boat, the SS Laurentic, and was waiting in Quebec to arrest Crippen and le Neve as they disembarked.
1915 – The first female police officer, Mrs Edith Smith, is sworn in at Grantham, Lincolnshire.
1919 – The Flying Squad is formed. Their name comes from the fact that they were mobile and could be deployed very quickly, plus the fact that their first two Crossley cars were formerly owned by the Royal Flying Corps. Their nickname of ‘The Sweeney’ derives from the Cockney rhyming slang (Sweeney Todd = Flying Squad). The opening credits of the 1970s TV series The Sweeney featured a fingerprint. This belonged to Pamela Green, a model and pioneer of nudist films. The credits were created by her partner, photographer Douglas Webb who, during the Second World War was an air gunner during Operation Chastise - the famous Dambusters raids.
1952 – The Kray Twins, Ronnie and Reggie, become two of the last prisoners to be kept in the Tower of London. They were banged up for refusing to do their National Service.
1967 – The Metropolitan Police HQ moves into a 20 storey office building on New Broadway, near Parliament Square. The original Scotland Yard was neither in Scotland nor in a yard. It was a building in Great Scotland Yard, a small side-street off Whitehall. Little of the original building remains as it was blown up by the Provisional IRA in 1973. In 1890, police headquarters were moved to purpose-built offices on the Victoria Embankment. This became known as New Scotland Yard. During the building of this new HQ, a woman’s dismembered torso was found buried. She was never identified. Then, in 1967, the whole kit and caboodle was moved to New Broadway.
The name travelled too … so, technically, the current building should be called New New Scotland Yard.
Carry on Constable
England and Wales have 43 police forces between them. Scotland has eight. Before the creation of the police, the role of peace-keeper was performed by privately-funded watchmen and thief takers. Then, in 1737, George II began paying some of these watchmen with tax money, thus sowing the seeds of a government-sponsored police. By 1828, there were policing teams in 45 London parishes, all publicly funded.
The word ‘police’ was borrowed from French but was not popular at first, which is why many of the earlier forces used the word ‘constabulary’ which hinted at elected parish constables rather than some kind of foreign oppressor.
The word ‘Constable’ is from the Latin comes stabuli (count of the stables) and originally meant the person who looked after the horses of the gentry and royalty. Later on, constables also took on responsibility for armaments. While watchmen were used in the city, constables administered the law in the countryside.
The first proper police force arrived in 1800, with the arrival of the City of Glasgow Police. The Royal Irish Constabulary appeared in 1822. Then, in 1829, the Metropolitan Police Act was passed by Parliament, allowing Sir Robert Peel to found the London Metropolitan Police.
I’ve Met the Met
When they were founded, the Met’s original establishment was 1,000 officers who policed an area within a seven-mile radius of Charing Cross. London’s population was then less than 2 million.
Today, the Metropolitan Police Service employs 31,141 officers, 13,661 police staff, 414 traffic wardens and 2,106 Police Community Support Officers (PCSOs), and covers an area of 620 square miles and a population of 7.2 million. That’s a population density of 4,540 people per square km. One in four are from an ethnic minority and 300 different languages are spoken. The population swells during the working day as commuters and tourists flock to the city. 471,400 commuters arrive daily by train and 29,000 by car. And 27-30 million tourists visit London every year.
In 1847 London saw 14,091 robberies and 62,181 people were arrested. In 2007, London saw around 37,000 robberies and over 200,000 people were arrested.
It is illegal to die in the Houses of Parliament.
It is an act of treason to place a postage stamp bearing the British monarch upside-down.
In Liverpool, it is illegal for a woman to be topless except as a clerk in a tropical fish store.
Mince pies cannot be eaten on Christmas Day.
In Scotland, if someone knocks on your door and requires the use of your toilet, you must let them enter.
In the UK, a pregnant woman can legally relieve herself anywhere she wants, including in a policeman's helmet.
The head of any dead whale found on the British coast automatically becomes the property of the King, and the tail of the Queen.
It is illegal not to tell the tax man anything you do not want him to know, but legal not to tell him information you do not mind him knowing.
It is illegal to enter the Houses of Parliament in a suit of armour.
In the city of York it is legal to murder a Scotsman within the ancient city walls, but only if he is carrying a bow and arrow.
Taken from The Strange Laws of Old England by Nigel Cawthorne (with thanks to the QI Elves). 'I've Met the Met' sticker circa 1984.