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Sam Plank update 38: September 2021

The original boys in blue: the uniform for the Metropolitan Police in the early days

The adjective “uniform” first appeared in English in the 1530s, coming from the Latin "uniformis" (having one form or shape).  By 1748, it was being used as a noun, meaning distinctive clothes worn by one group.  And when the Metropolitan Police first stepped out onto the streets of London in September 1829, they were often referred to as the “new police” or the “uniformed police” – to distinguish them from earlier forces who wore their own clothes (albeit within set styles).  When then-Home Secretary Robert Peel was trying to persuade parliament to support the idea of a new police force for the metropolis, he was determined that his new officers should be visible and clearly identifiable in their distinctive uniforms – as a deterrent to crime, as a reassurance to citizens, and to demonstrate that police officers were not spies.

One of the most notable things about the Met Police is how quickly it was established: the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 received Royal assent on 19 June 1829, and on 29 September 1829 its first nearly one thousand recruits started their duties – that’s three months and ten days!  Just over a week before they started work, the recruits were summoned to report for training, to be allocated to their divisions, and to be fitted with their uniforms.  Thanks to the numbers of men and short timescale, they didn’t receive everything at once – but the first items distributed were the trousers (blue in winter, white in summer), blue single-breasted tail-coat, and black leather top hat.  Yes, a top hat: Pitt was adamant that his officers should look more like civilians than an army, and so they had civilian top hats rather than military helmets or caps.  That said, the top hats issued to the police were reinforced inside with wicker, so that a man could use his hat as a step to help him look over, or climb over, a wall.  (The top hats were replaced with – perhaps more practical – helmets in 1864.)

The colour of the uniform was chosen carefully: red, green, black and grey were considered too military, and so the more neutral blue was chosen – and remains the colour of police uniforms in the UK to this day.  The blue also gave rise to an early nickname for the Met: as soldiers in their red uniforms was known as “lobsters”, the new police in their blue coats were called “Peel’s raw lobsters”.  The tail-coats were both stylish and practical – the cutaway design meant that the wearer could run and climb more easily.  The coat was fastened with eight gilt buttons down the front, each button decorated with a crown and the words “Police Force”.  In a long pocket in the tail of the coat was a wooden truncheon – each officer also carried a pair of handcuffs, and a wooden rattle to raise the alarm (the rattle was replaced in 1884 by a whistle).  Cutlasses might be issued when dealing with a riot, and inspectors were allowed to carry pocket pistols, but the constable had to make do with his truncheon.
Gradually – as supplies came in – the officers were issued with other pieces of their uniform.  On the day they were sworn in – 26 September 1829 – they were given a four-inch wide leather stock, fastened at the back with a brass clasp, to be worn around the neck – to protect the wearer from garrotting, and to encourage him to hold his head up straight.  To the side of the stock was affixed a silver badge showing his unique identifier – his division letter and officer number – so that anyone could identify any police officer in the street (another attempt to defuse concerns about police being spies).  In 1830, serjeants and constables were issued with gloves – white for summer and black worsted for winter.  And in March 1830 they were issued with armlets, to be worn on the left arm when they were on duty (the armlets were taken out of service only in July 1968).  Now you might think that you could tell that a police officer was on duty because he was in uniform, but in 1829 officers were issued with an “Instruction Book” setting out their duties and obligations, and one “condition” of signing up was this: “He shall, at all times, appear in his complete Police Dress.”  At all times: if you were a police officer and out of doors, you had to wear your uniform, to allay public fears of being spied upon.  At least it solved those "what shall I wear today?" dilemmas.
PC Richard Clark wearing the uniform coat current from 1829 to 1864
Met Police Commissioner Sir John Stevens photographed in 2004 with an officer in the 1829 uniform
A broadsheet sold in 1829 to introduce the public to the "new police" - notice how the uniform is shown from all angles, for easy identification
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