A number of histories of UK police forces begin right at the beginning of policing with rich information about parish constabularies, early reform and the establishment of the Metropolitan Police. For some, by the chronological ending of the book, information tends to get thinner or peter out. The reasons for this could be three-fold. First, that regional force histories were often written at the point of amalgamations instigated by either the 1964 Police Act or the 1972 Local Government Act, in order to preserve a perceived loss of history. Or they may have been written to mark other major landmark events such as force centenaries many of which occurred in the mid-20th century. Secondly, this, in turn, indirectly influenced the chronology of national histories – for example, T.A. Critchley acknowledges that he made use of ‘forty or so’ local police force histories. The third reason feeds into a reliance on secondary material (published books) which may indicate a lack of primary material (original records). Again this is particularly pertinent for regional forces whose records have never been incorporated into the Public Records Act and consequently were less protected.
This, then, really forms the crux of my blog: whether writing about police history, history of crime, or wider criminal justice history, and whether under the umbrella of academia or personal research, it all relies on the ability to access primary material held in record offices or by police force museums. I’ve written about this now on a number of occasions, most notably in my PhD thesis, but I’ll continue to beat the drum because here in 2021 I feel there is an under-represented concern about the health of historical writing and the ability to be able to create a balanced, current and relevant history of policing in the UK. This blog, then, will set out to explore these challenges.
Recognition by police forces that their records have research and historical value
The Amazon page for The English Police by Clive Emsley provides a clue to the first of these challenges in describing the book as: “A comprehensive history of policing from the eighteenth century onwards, which draws on largely unused police archives ….” Professor Emsley, as the doyen of policing history, undoubtedly had the necessary contacts to access those largely unused police archives. He also had insider knowledge in that in 1989 he and Dr Ian Bridgeman published their comprehensive survey of archival material held by police forces in force museums, archives, cupboards, store rooms or in offices at headquarters.
One outcome of Bridgeman and Emsley’s survey was L.A. Waters’ Towards a records management policy for provincial forces in England and Wales which was published by the Police History Society in 1992 and circulated to all UK police forces. It was hoped this would at least draw attention to the plight of many of the records identified by Bridgeman and Emsley and provide a simple guide to assist forces in recognising and archiving valuable historical material. In 2003, Emsley and Dr Chris Williams sent out a survey to UK police forces in order to ascertain whether the guide had improved the situation. The responses to this survey identified one key problem which remains relevant today: only ten per cent of responding forces appreciated what sort of material was of future historic value with many archiving ‘a narrowly defined and static group of “historical” records.’
The flow of records from police forces into the public domain
To an extent, Bridgeman and Emsley’s 1989 survey only told half the story because it didn’t touch on what police records were already sitting in the public domain in record offices. With finite funding and time and limited to just six record offices, my PhD research at least offered a glimpse of this missing narrative. By conducting surveys of online catalogues, corroborated with more direct contact with archivists, it showed that all six archives received large collections of policing records between the 1940s to 1980s. However, post 1980s there was a drop in all cases to near zero deposits being made by those same forces today. The surveys also revealed some important pointers around why police force records were entering the public domain:
- Just over fifty per cent of the records currently held by archives could be described as ‘informal deposits’ in that they were presented to the record office by retired police officers, families of police officers, individual officers acting on their own initiative rather than any force agreed deposit.
- Included in this were significant quantities from closing force museums;
- Large quantities of records were deposited with record offices during periods of amalgamation as a result of closing station and department clear-outs, but also perhaps triggered by more emotional responses of removing material from the perceived subsuming force.
- Much of the later material – post 1980 – tends to be of a more curated nature: annual reports, newsletters, photographs, histories of the force; this again reflects not only a lack of understanding around what is important to preserve, but insecurity around what can safely be preserved.
- More recently some police forces have removed collections from their local record office – notably Cumbria and Surrey police forces.
The reasons for the demise of historical police records entering the public domain is complex: of course computerisation and a reduction in paperwork needs to be viewed as a major contributor. But legislation such as Freedom of Information and Data Protection (GDPR) and PACE have all led forces to apply additional layers of control over their records and to view them as ‘high risk.’ One clear contributor has been the Management of Police Information (MoPI) which by narrowly defining and closely adhering to the DPA, FOIA and other legislation and policing protocols, has overshadowed and neglected the historical importance of the UK police.
The future of policing histories
Writing history is a complex balance of processes which involves access to a good range of primary material and the ability to interpret the material that is presented: who selected it; why is it there; what are the voices that are not represented? The section above clearly illustrates that what is selected is often tempered by emotional responses or control. The intellectual landscape of deposits is changing: layers of acts and policies not only started to plug the leaking fifty per cent of records flowing unofficially out of police forces and into the public domain, but reassessed the remaining fifty per cent.
As a good news story to end on: with work from the Home Office, the College of Policing and a number of key advisors, MoPI is being redrafted as a new Code. Perhaps the long beating of the drum has finally been heard because it will now have a greater emphasis around archiving records which is hugely welcomed. However, there are two critical points to monitor: first will this create greater access to records for researchers – and without access there is no history? Second, if it does encourage forces to archive more material, what sort of material will be preserved? It takes skill and courage to select representational cross-sections which tell the entire story and whether forces have the expertise or resources to do this only time will tell.
Notes and further reading:
There are some recent and great success stories of important policing collections being deposited with local record offices, for example, Northamptonshire and Devon & Cornwall and it is hoped this trend will continue in the light of the new code. I would also like to recognise all those force museums who often work in difficult circumstances and yet provide excellent research facilities.
The National Police Chiefs’ Council have recently launched a Heritage Portfolio with the aim of supporting and protecting policing heritage
Bridgeman, Ian and Clive Emsley, A guide to the archives of the police forces of England and Wales (The Police History Society, 1989) (available here)
Sutton-Vane, Angela (2021) Investigating the murder file: A biographical analysis of creation, survival and impact (PhD thesis: The Open University) (available here)
Willlams, C.A. (ed) Giving the past a future: Preserving the heritage of the UK’s criminal justice system (London: Francis Boutle Publishers, 2004)
 For example Critchley cites histories of Swansea, Anglesey, Kent, Leeds and Cheshire Constabularies. T.A. Critchley, A history of police in England and Wales: 900-1966 (London: Constable & Co. Ltd, 1967)
 Emsley, Clive, The English police: A political and social history (Harlow: Addison Wesley Longman, 1996)
 Waters, L.A. Towards a records management policy for provincial forces in England and Wales (Police History Society, 1992) (available from the Police History Society)
 Williams, Chris A. and Clive Emsley, Police records archiving policy in Great Britain: interim report, The International Centre for the History of Crime, Policing and Justice (Milton Keynes: The Open University, 2003)
Images: Header image: Metal boxes on the shelves of the AySA archives (image in the public domain); File: East Sussex Record Office, R v Field and Gray, 1920, SPA 10/51/1; Graph: showing opening and closing dates of police records held at Cheshire Archives & Local Studies, created by Angie Sutton-Vane.