Which is why they had no need of police. In fact, they feared the idea of police. The watch and a few Bow Street Runners were quite enough, thank you.
It is true that crimes were frequently committed during the years of the Regency, just as they had been in the centuries before, and would be in the centuries after. But the people of Regency England did not live with the constant threat of "crime" as many people perceive it today; a contagious social disease, a threat to the very fabric of our society. Of course, that concept will vary depending on when and who writes the history.
Records, including statistics, on crime in England began to be published in parliamentary papers, beginning in 1805. After intensive study of those early nineteenth-century crime records, modern researchers have determined that our current concept of "crime" had not yet taken hold of the public consciousness in the first couple of decades of that century. That did not happen until nearly a decade after the Regency was over, when "crime" as a significant social concern was, in fact, a means by which to articulate increasing anxieties about social change and the crumbling social hierarchy. Essentially, it was by playing upon these fears that Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary at the time, was able to build the necessary support to get a bill through Parliament in 1829 which established the Metropolitan Police Force.
The word "police" came to England by way of France, in the late Middle Ages. The word came to France through the Latin, politia, which in turn is a latinization of the ancient Greek term polissoos, meaning "someone who guards a city." Though the word was known in England, until the nineteenth century, it was used primarily to designate French and Continental "police" forces. But the concept of such forces was generally despised in England as it was perceived to be a symbol of foreign oppression. A form of London police was created in 1663, but were called "night watchmen." They were the first paid force, and were responsible for guarding the city streets, as an auxiliary to the larger force of unpaid constables which had been in existence long before. These watchmen were later known as "Charlies," as they had been founded during the reign of King Charles II. Nearly a century later, in 1749, Henry Fielding began organizing the Bow Street Runners, a quasi-professional group of constables who were paid by the government and were formally attached to the Bow Street Magistrate’s office. Fielding’s brother, John, who succeeded him in office, worked very hard to introduce more effective policing methods. But the term "police" was never applied to this force, until they were absorbed by Peel’s Metropolitan Police Force in the 1830s.
The first known use of the word "police" in Great Britain, was in 1714, in government documents for an appointment made for Commissioners of Police in Scotland. In 1798, the Thames Marine Police were created to protect the merchandise which was shipped in and out of the Port of London, in an attempt to curb the inordinately high rate of theft and pillage along the docks. In the very first year of the nineteenth century, on 30 June 1800, at the request of Glasgow city officials, the Glasgow Police Act was passed, which established the City of Glasgow Police. This was the very first professional, municipal police force in the British Isles. Other towns in Scotland also petitioned Parliament for their own police forces, and most of those petitions were granted. In 1805, with the success of the Thames River police, a Bow Street magistrate, Sir Richard Ford, established the "Robin Redbreasts," a mounted patrol working out of Bow Street. They wore blue coats and scarlet waistcoats, thus their nickname. All were armed with clubs, swords and pistols. They travelled in groups along the roads on the outskirts of London to deter highwaymen. In Ireland, the first organized police force was set up as part of the Peace Preservation Act of 1814. But not a single "police" force was created anywhere in England at any time during the Regency. Peel’s "bobbies" were not established until just a year before the death of George IV. Even today, the word "police" is used much less often in the United Kingdom than it is in other countries. The official term for a body of police throughout Great Britain is most often "constabulary."
The people of Regency England held attitudes closer to those of the eighteenth century than would the Victorians by the middle of the nineteenth century. Which means that they believed it was their responsibility to protect themselves and their families. It also meant those living in the Regency would avenge themselves when their honor was impugned, one of the reasons why gentlemen still considered duels were appropriate for settling personal grievances. They did not expect their government to protect them, in fact, they would have been horrified at the idea. They did expect the government, in the form of the army and navy, to protect them from foreign threats, such as Napoleon. But they did not want standing forces internally, which was the general perception of what a police force would mean. There was certainly a small faction, some in the government, and some out, who would have been quite pleased to have a standing internal quasi-military force, but they remained in the minority throughout the Regency.
When the French Revolution first broke out, there was some fear among the aristocracy in Britain that the same type of revolution might be taken up there. But that fear soon faded, for some significant reasons. Most importantly, relations between the English people and their monarch were very different than those in France. King George III, who had only just recovered from his first serious bout with madness the year before, was much loved by the people, who fondly knew "Farmer George" as a devoutly religious man, a faithful husband and father, thrifty and hard-working, just as many of them saw themselves. In addition, relations between the majority of the English aristocracy and landed gentry and their tenants was, for that time in Europe, rather egalitarian. Mr. Knightley, the hero of Jane Austen‘s novel, Emma, is a classic example. He is a wealthy landowner, with many tenants, but he does not play the high-and-mighty master with them. He is involved with their daily lives, and many, such as Robert Martin, consider him a friend. They are quite comfortable coming to him to discuss personal matters. Perhaps all the landlords of England were not quite so benevolent as Mr. Knightley, but most had very good relations with their tenants. Few people with a comfortable life wish to rise up an destroy the status quo, so the French Revolution had little chance of gaining a foothold in England. And very soon, Napoleon set the seal on that attitude, with his plan to invade England. However much the British might squabble amongst themselves, they pull together against a common threat. One might say the Little Corsican kept the Regent secure and comfortable on his throne, for as much as the people were coming to despise him, they hated Bonaparte more, making Prinny the lesser of two evils.
For all these reasons, there was little social unrest in England during the Regency, one of the most typical reasons used to establish a police force. There were occasional outbreaks of social violence, such as the Luddite Movement, during the Regency, but they tended to be restricted, both politically and geographically, and were quickly quashed by the army or simply faded away due to lack of general support. Outside the cities, a few highwaymen still occasionally plied their trade, most often along desolate areas of the London road. But, by the Regency, highwaymen as a breed were dying out, in part, due to the efforts of the Robin Redbreasts. By then, highwaymen were more likely to be seen upon the stage than on the roadside. Poaching was still a problem in the country, and the random cow or sheep still might go missing. The destruction of property in a drunken brawl was not infrequent, but damages were typically inconsequential and recompense was usually made promptly. Otherwise, there was little violent crime in rural England.
There were, to be sure, more crimes committed in the cities and towns, most especially London, but they tended to be isolated to certain areas. During the Regency, no one in his right mind would venture into the rookeries of St. Giles unarmed, or even alone, particularly not after dark, if they could avoid it. For the place was infested with various thugs, pick-pockets and prostitutes. But crime was not particularly organized there during the Regency. The majority of crime at this time was committed by those who were desperately poor, in an attempt merely to survive. Some orphan children, typically pick-pockets, did band together, but more for companionship and mutual protection than to systematize their thieving. There were few, if any, Fagin-like characters abroad in Regency London, organizing bands of children into a criminal force. That was to come in the years after the death of George IV. Prostitution was wide-spread during the Regency and was certainly a crime, but as men in even the highest reaches of government took advantage of the trade, there was little real effort to stamp out that particular crime. It was essentially non-violent, and ignored, or at least tolerated as a necessary evil by nearly everyone.
There was actually very little crime in London’s West End, particularly in fashionable Mayfair, during the Regency. Poverty was the root of most crime during the Regency, and yet, it was that very poverty which effectively curtailed most crime in the modish areas of the city. Those who could not dress the part were immediately exposed due to their impecunious appearance. They would have been instantly suspect by the watch and trailed or perhaps even taken up for questioning.
Through the years of the Regency, most English citizens were strongly opposed to the establishment of a police force. The two main reasons for their opposition was the importance every Englishman placed on his individual freedom and personal liberty, and the long-standing tradition of the preference for localized, rather than national government. The beginning of the end came with the Peterloo Massacre, in August of 1819. Increasing hardships after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, along with the deterioration of the country’s sense of unity with no common external enemy, led to growing civil unrest. The use of military force to put down this peaceful protest for reform generated great public outrage. It was clear to the conservative government that they had need of a non-military, "civilian" force to maintain public order. Though it took another ten years, in part by dint of an ongoing campaign to convince the public that "crime," that contagious social disease, was a growing threat to their peace and security, the bill passed Parliament which established the Metropolitan Police in 1829. And authoritarian bureaucrats, politicians, and police officials have been manufacturing political capital out of the concept of "crime" ever since. By fanning the flame of fear over the threat to the social order, particularly among the growing middle-class, which lacked the ingrained sense of power and tradition of the aristocracy, the growth of a disciplinary state has steadily increased, with the acquiescence of the apprehensive public, who continue to surrender more and more personal liberties for the supposed good of that disciplinary state. Our Regency ancestors would be appalled.
It is true that crimes were committed in Regency England, but the people who lived at that time did not see the occasional theft, public drunkenness or random property damage as a threat to their society. And so, they saw no reason for a standing police force, which was more likely to inhibit their liberties than to protect them. If someone stole something from them, they considered it their responsibility to regain it. There were routinely advertisements to be seen in the newspapers describing articles which had been "lost" with an offer of a reward for their return. Scholars believe that, in many cases, those items had been stolen and there was a good chance the owner was able to recover them by paying a small reward. It is very likely that the person who returned the item for payment was the person who had stolen it, but most owners were less concerned with prosecuting the thief than in regaining their property. Few people would agree with that practice today, but to those in the Regency, it seemed a logical and efficient means by which to recover their property, as it would have been to most people during the previous centuries. The same held true when a gentleman felt he had been insulted or injured by another of his class. They dealt with the matter on the field of honor, they did not seek out the authorities to settle what they considered a private matter. Yet again, the Regency was the end of an older way of thinking, in this instance, about "crime," which would eventually give way to what we now consider the modern concept of "crime" and the need for a standing police force.
For further reading on the history of crime and police in England:
Melville Lee, William Lauriston, A History of Police in England. London: Methuen & Company, 1901.
Smith, Lesley M., ed., The Making of Britain: The Age of Revolution. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987.
Wood, John Carter, Violence and Crime in Nineteenth-Century England: The Shadow of Our Refinement. London: Psychology Press, 2004.
Wrigley, Edward Anthony, Nineteenth-Century Society: Essays in the Use of Quantitative Methods for the Study of Social Data. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1972.