Of all the emergency services, the uniform of the police officer is the one that has attracted most interest and public debate over the past two hundred years. While the attire of the fire officer or paramedic has quietly developed and changed over time for functional and practical reasons, the uniform of the police officer has often been mired in controversy and public debate. From the beginning, the uniform of the police officer has carried great symbolic significance – the press and public have often raised concerns that a change in uniform signifies a change in the way that the police will interact with the public and how they will carry out their job.
The first lawmen
Whilst the first uniformed police officers in the modern sense are the Metropolitan Police created by Sir Robert Peel in 1829, it is important to remember that they were not the first law officers to carry out patrols in uniform. That honour probably goes to the Bow Street Horse Patrol, created by Bow Street Magistrate Sir John Fielding. By the early 1800s, the Patrol comprised around 50 officers, all of whom wore a blue coat and trousers, black top hat and a scarlet waistcoat.
Uniforms of the 18th and early 19th century
Outside London, the town or petty Constable of the late 18th and early 19th century was generally not provided with any official uniform – merely a decorated truncheon that acted as his “warrant card” – but he was assisted by other officials who were provided with uniform clothing.
In Manchester in the early 19th century the Watchmen who patrolled the streets of the township at night, were equipped with lantern, truncheon and alarm rattle and wore a low crowned hat with a yellow band and a great coat, (nicknamed at the time a “great tog”), upon which, each night, his number would be painted in ochre.
During the day, there was a small police force comprising Beadles, Lock Up Keepers and what were colloquially known as Runners, under the command of the Deputy Constable. They wore a brown uniform, with red collar patches. The Lock Up Keepers, who supervised the small lock-up cells around the town and carried out investigations, were distinguished with the letters “LK” on their collar patches.
Uniforms used in Salford in these early days are listed in an inventory that was produced by the Watch and Police officials just prior to the creation of the Borough Police force in 1844. Under Police Office is listed: “ 4 suits of Livery, Great Coats and Hat and Bands for the Beadles”, while the Watch Department shows: “ 1 Frock Coat, Great Coat and Hat for Superintendent of the Watch. 3 suits of Livery, Great Coats, Capes and 2 Hats each for the Inspectors of the Watch (one hat for night and the other for day). 18 Great Coats, 18 capes, 18 hats for the Watchmen”.
With the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829 came the start of a new look for policing. From the start, the uniform was designed to imply certain qualities about the wearer.
The first Police Force uniforms
Sir Robert Peel was keen to emphasise the civil, rather than military nature of his “New Police”, and he was well aware of the public’s mistrust of troops whenever they were used on the streets to put down riots. He also wanted to show continuity with the old system of locally appointed Constables, who carried out their duties in their everyday dress of top hat and tailcoat. Thus the “Peelers” or “Bobbies” first appeared on London streets in a uniform of top hat and blue tailcoat, with white trousers for day wear and matching blue trousers for night and winter patrol. The top hat was reinforced with cane struts inside and the top of the hat was covered with varnished leather, for weatherproofing and to give further strengthening – but whether or not an officer could stand on his top hat to look over a wall, as shown in an early cartoon, is open to debate!
Crucially, it was also decided that the peeler’s truncheon and handcuffs should be concealed in pockets, again to distinguish him from the soldier, who appeared in public visibly armed. It is interesting to note that this desire to keep equipment concealed was continued in the Greater Manchester area until the mid 1990s.
To identify the individual officers, a metal or embroidered number was worn on the collar of the uniform, which swiftly became known as the “collar number”.
The Greater Manchester area
In the Greater Manchester area, “Metropolitan” style, full time police forces were created once towns became “Incorporated” and had established elected town councils. The first to do so was Wigan in 1836. Interestingly, the first seven officers in the force were initially not supplied with a uniform, this came a year later and comprised a black top hat, black swallow tailcoat with brass buttons and off white trousers.
Manchester Borough Police was founded in 1839. The earliest photographs of the force show officers wearing top hats with frock coats and matching trousers. The uniform was blue with white embroidery and silver coloured buttons. A collar patch was worn comprising a circle and a diamond shape that contained both the collar number and the letter that showed in which geographical division the officer worked.
Another feature of these early uniforms is the wearing of a Duty Band. This was a cloth band with a buckle and horizontal blue and white stripes (the band was vertically striped in the Metropolitan Police). This showed that the officer was on duty. When off duty, the band was removed, but the uniform stayed on. Many sections of the public feared that the new police forces would act as informers and enforcers for central government. There was particular disquiet at the thought of officers going around in plain clothes “spying” on the public, which sadly, some actually did. So in the early years at least, the duty band was worn and the uniform only came off when it was time to go to bed or have a bath.
While all the forces formed in the Greater Manchester area followed the general style of top hat and tail or frock coat, there were some variations. The Lancashire Constabulary, for example, between 1839 and 1865 wore a dark green uniform with white embroidery.
Helmets and tunics arrive
The 1860s saw the introduction of the iconic police helmet, which was accompanied by a tunic. First worn by the Metropolitan Police, the new style of uniform was introduced to the Greater Manchester area by 1870. The truncheon, formerly carried in a pocket in the tail of the tailcoat, was now concealed in a modified trouser pocket. The police whistle, which replaced the rattle gradually at this time, was worn on the tunic, with the whistle chain hooked over the top button and the whistle itself tucked in between the buttons in a special hidden pocket.
Early tunics were often worn long, later shortening to a normal jacket length. For protection against rain and cold weather a full-length double-breasted greatcoat was issued and this could be worn underneath, or as an alternative to, a three quarter length cape, or cloak. The police cape was a familiar part of the uniform from the Victorian period to the 1960s –indeed the cape was so popular that some officers continued to wear it unofficially on nights until the early 1980s. Usually made of Melton cloth – a thick felted woollen material, it was fastened at the neck by a hook and chain fixing, decorated with a pair of lion’s heads. The chain was made of a soft metal alloy, so that in an emergency it could be broken, thus preventing the officer from becoming entangled. Capes worn by the Lancashire police had a useful additional feature – a large pocket on the inside, which could be used to conceal a pipe and tobacco, fish and chips or anything else that an officer might deem indispensable for his night duty!
This new uniform had been inspired by military fashion – for by now a whole generation had grown up with police on the streets, and the public were accustomed to them. Instead of trying to resemble ordinary citizens, it was now seen as important that the police were visible and looked authoritative, so that they could deter crime by their presence and the public could recognise a Constable quickly when required. Given that most of the Chief Constables at that time were former army officers and that by then the military were more admired than mistrusted, it is perhaps hardly surprising that police officers actively began to resemble soldiers.
Late 19th century
The numbers of police forces rapidly increased in the latter 19th century, until in Great Britain there were over 200 independent forces. We now begin to see a large degree of variation in uniforms, particularly in the choice of headgear, and the uniform becomes a symbol of local pride and difference across the country.
Also at this time we see many forces issue their officers with three uniforms: Best Day, Day and Night uniform. The Best Day uniform was just that, the newest smartest outfit, with silver polished buttons and helmet facings, worn with white gloves for parades and other special duties. Day uniform was the everyday version, still with silver buttons and facings, but with black wool gloves, while the Night uniform presented a complete contrast. Officers of the time were advised to patrol at night on the inside edges of the pavement, hugging the shadows, so as to prevent them being seen, and allowing them to observe and detain burglars. To assist them the Night uniform had black buttons, often made of pressed stained horn or an early form of plastic such as Bakelite. Belt buckle, helmet plate and helmet facings were also in black, to render the wearer less visible. The issue of a separate Night uniform continued in most forces until the very late 1960s.
Alongside the rank and file, the uniforms of the senior officers were also changing. The earliest senior and chief officers of a police force differed little in appearance from their colleagues. Inspectors and Superintendents appear to have often worn a civilian style broadcloth frockcoat with a silk top hat, completely devoid of rank insignia. Chief Constables, too, seem to have not worn a special uniform.
However, following the introduction of the helmet and tunic uniform in the 1870s, senior officers are now seen wearing “pill box” style peaked caps with a black braided tunic, which was a straight lift from military fashions. The tunic often had “frogging” – elaborate tassles, cords and flaps – which again were military in style and which were purely decorative, as the tunic usually fastened with discrete hooks and eyes. Superintendents wore three quarter, frockcoat style tunics which were longer and carried more elaborate decoration that that of an Inspector.
Late in the 19th century, a band of woven silver wire appears on the peak of the cap for superintendents, something that is still in use today. The cap badges for senior officers were generally either a simple crown for both Superintendents and Inspectors, or a version of the local borough coat of arms.
Chief Constables also begin to appear in ceremonial uniforms in the later 19th century. Often drawn from the pattern books of the general staff, the uniforms comprised very elaborate embroidered coats (often in an oak leaf and acorn pattern) with decorated sword belts and were often topped off by a bicorn hat with ostrich feather plumes.
Police uniforms of the early 20th century
Police headgear is perhaps at its most diverse in this period. Firstly we find the three styles of helmet that are still in use in the 21st century – the “County” style, the “Comb” style and the “Bobble” or “Ball Top” style. The county style is the simple dome shaped helmet, adopted by the Metropolitan Police and many county constabularies, such as Lancashire. The comb style has a ridge along the top and was worn by the City of London Police and in the Greater Manchester area by forces in Manchester, Stalybridge and initially in Salford. The ball top or bobble style is almost extinct today, and comprises a dome helmet topped off with a metal ventilator in the shape of a globe on a stalk.
Popular with borough forces such as Salford, Rochdale, Ashton, Hyde and Stockport and normally made of pressed hardened felt, a variation made from woven straw with a cloth cover was also worn by the Manchester Police in summer. A more fearsome variant, with the ball top replaced by a spike, was worn for a short time by Stockport police, but legend has it that the tram drivers in the town complained that when a tall officer boarded a tram, the helmet spike would score a line down the underside of the tram’s wooden ceiling!
Uniquely in the north west, Cheshire Constabulary officers wore a stiffened cloth Shako cap, with a peak at the back as well as the front, derived from the Infantry soldier’s hat and outside the Greater Manchester area, other, more exotic headgear could be seen – police officers in Devon sported at different times a helmet copied from the Prussian military “Pickelhaube” helmet and later a bush hat, turned up at one side, inspired by headgear worn during the Boer War in South Africa.
The early 1900s saw the development of Mounted Police units in many forces up and down the country, and special clothing was provided for these officers, again based on military uniforms. Riding boots with spurs were the most obvious difference, teamed with jodpur trousers and a standard tunic. No special riding helmet was provided – usually normal helmets were worn, sometimes with addition of a chin strap made of chain links, but Salford mounted police briefly sported a dashing pill box style cap in the early 20th century.
The humble police bicycle also makes an appearance in the late 19th, early 20th century. Cycle mounted despatch riders in Manchester wore a standard tunic with cycling “knickers” – three quarter length trousers – tucked into cloth gaiters that covered the shin and went over the tops of boots. A smart, peaked pillbox hat completed the outfit. Ordinary officers using their “Beat Bike” to get to their tour of duty merely made do with a pair of bicycle clips for their trouser bottoms.
Generally speaking the range of uniforms available to police in the early 20th century remained largely unchanged up to the First World War (1914 to 1918). However, senior officers had abandoned their peaked pill box hat in favour of modern looking peaked caps by 1918 and also around this time two new types of uniform were created – one for Special Constables, the other for Women Police.
Women and Special Constables
Formerly only recruited for temporary service, a change in the law in 1914 allowed the recruitment of thousands of Special Constables into permanent Companies, under the command of a Leader, who worked under a local Police Inspector. As with the Local Defence Volunteers of the Second World War, initially no uniforms were available for the Specials – armbands, whistles and an enamelled lapel badge were instead worn on civilian overcoats and trilby hats. The improvisation continued until the middle of war, by which time a blue, close neck uniform and peaked cap were issued. In later years the peaked cap, in contrast to the helmet, was to characterise the appearance of the “Special” on foot patrol.
Women also make an entrance in police work during the Great War. Uniforms were many and varied, although most were based heavily on the man’s uniform, buttoned the opposite way, and worn with full length skirts and lace-up boots. Hats generally were of the broad brimmed type and in many ways the silhouette of the first policewomen echoed that of the women serving in the armed forces.
The Interwar years (1919 to 1939) saw a huge rise in the numbers of motor vehicles on the road. The police also began to use motor transport, whether in the form of motorcycles, cars or vans in much greater numbers. The first motorcar drivers received little special uniform, as did the first police motorcyclists. Peaked caps, goggles and gauntlet gloves were provided, together with moulded leather leggings, which fastened around the lower leg and went over regulation boots.
But unlike today’s traffic police, there was little “high visibility” clothing provided in the early days – one exception being the white topped peaked cap, which was, and still is, synonymous with the “Traffic Police” and which made its first appearance at this time.
Instead, white coats, cuffs and sleeves to improve visibility were first issued to officers engaged in static traffic control, known as point duty. Busy junctions in cities were not the safest places to stand, especially in the frequent winter smogs, and from the 1920s onwards, white cotton coats and oversleeves that attached to the officer’s epaulette buttons became widely available. Salford City Police went so far as to provide a complete white uniform, from helmet to trousers, for its point duty officers.
At this point it is perhaps useful to mention waterproof clothing. Traditional fabrics, such as wool, used in uniforms were naturally water resistant and the wearer remained warm even if wet. But capes and greatcoats saturated by hours of pounding a beat in wet weather took ages to dry and officers often went on duty in damp clothing, which was identified in the 19th century as a potential health hazard. Early experiments with rubberised waterproof garments (often referred to as “oilskin”) were a mixed success, the product usually becoming stiff as a board in cold weather and soft and molten in high summer. However, by the late 1920s Metropolitan Police officers were wearing a waterproof cape, and at the same time waterproof overtrousers were issued to point duty officers in Manchester – for protection against the waste products from the numerous horse-drawn vehicles of the town! Similar items were made available to Motorcyclists by the 1930s.
Standardising police uniform
The Dixon Committee on Police Uniform Clothing, set up in 1932 and reporting in 1934, sought to standardise the appearance of UK police officers and recommended official styles for future uniforms and headgear. It was noted that the cost of providing uniforms to UK forces was over £500,000 per year and the Committee was concerned that the wide variations in uniform styles were a disadvantage when forces were working alongside each other – known as “mutual aid” operations. It sought to create a national standard for the cloth used for uniforms, felt that issuing open neck, as opposed to closed neck greatcoats could make the officers more liable to chest complaints and remarked that “in the matter of helmets, there is at present a bewildering variety of patterns”. They suggested all forces should wear the
Metropolitan Police “county” style helmet, and that a new standardised button should be introduced, with a crown at the centre and the name of the police force round the circumference. The latter idea was happily adopted, but the former was definitely not. Some progress was made however, with many forces changing the badge on their helmets, known as a helmet plate, to a standardised “star” background, surmounted by the King’s Crown, with the name of the police force encircling the centre, which contained either the Royal Cypher (then “G VI R” for King George VI), or an heraldic symbol of the borough or county.
The Committee also suggested the use of an open neck uniform jacket for Superintendents, worn with a white shirt and tie. However, it was reported that some Superintendents felt that in certain districts it would be difficult, if not impossible, to keep themselves turned out with a clean collar and shirt, without “inordinate expense”. The Service would have to wait until the early 1950s before open neck uniform jackets became the norm for all ranks.