A to Z

This section explores an A-Z of the themes that reoccur throughout the images that we gathered for this project. 

J is for Justice

The British criminal justice system underwent seismic changes through the nineteenth century. Changes in infrastructure led to the addition of new crimes (train fare dodging, stealing water from public standpipes), while at the same time a number of crimes were downgraded from capital offences and prisons focused on rehabilitation through hard labour.

One of the biggest developments was the establishment of a regulated police force in The Metropolitan Police Acts 1829 and 1839 – by 1857 all of the country had local forces. Set up as an alternative to the repression of  the military and the punishment of the court, successful policing involved prevention and would be demonstrated through the absence of crime and disorder, not the ‘visible evidence of police action in dealing with them’ (‘General Instructions’, 1829). Although the public broadly supported ‘policing by consent’ – that the police and pubic work together to maintain the observation of the law – ‘police interference in everyday life was repeatedly perceived as unwelcome’ in many poor urban areas (David Churchill, 2014). 

The cartoonist of ‘The Police (of the Future)’ imagines a much more aggressive police force that is equipped to pre-empt and suppress any hostility or resisting of arrest. Rather than reassure the public by walking a beat, this police officer is heavily armoured, ready to defend themselves (the shield) but primarily ready to attack and detain. Taking advantage of electrification, the constable of the future is part machine with ‘electric wires up sleeve to shockopponent’ and an ‘electric rattle’ on his head, updating the recently retired hand rattle, and freeing up his hands to hold a spiked staff. His knee spikes are labelled ‘mob-persuaders’ – an ironic comment on the Peelian guidelines given to police officers ‘to use physical force only when the exercise of persuasion, advice and warning is found to be insufficient to obtain public co-operation’ (‘General Instructions’, 1829). Violence here is the first option, not the last resort.

The cartoonist’s comic vision of a future police officer is prescient in predicting the more authoritarian aspects of policing today. His electrical wires transform into tasering suspects and arrestees, while the shield and ‘water-tank and hose-pipe’ predate kettling and water cannons to detain and remove protestors assembling in public spaces. Dystopian fiction at the turn of the century envisions societies entirely organised through and dominated by vastly expanded punitive police state. For example, in EM Forster’s short story ‘The Machine Stops’ (1909), those who seek to venture outside their subterranean dwellings are punished with ‘homelessness’ – expulsion and presumed death on the surface of the earth. In David Parry’s Atlantean The Scarlet Empire (1906), citizens are constantly surveilled by not-so-secret police ‘Inspectors’—who make up a quarter of the public—and receive punishments for complaining about rations or not praying long enough. Pre-empting the paranoia of totalitarian societies later in the century, the Inspectors themselves must be policed by a ‘Department of Inspectors of Inspectors’ and ludicrously a ‘Department of Inspectors of Inspectors of Inspectors’.

Caption: ‘The Police (of the Future)’, Punch, 27 February 1886, Hathi Trust.