“There’s nothing wrong with this country that we couldn’t cure by turning it over to the police for a couple of weeks.” – Governor George Wallace

Policing before the police

The Saxons brought the idea of policing to Britain. They divided people into groups of 10 called “tythings”. One tything man represented the group, 10 tythings made up a larger group under a “hundred-man” who reported to a Shire-reeve of the County (“reeve” meant an official). This evolved into the parish constable (from the Latin comes stabuli, “officer of the stables”, and originally the person who looked after the gentry’s horses) and the Sheriff or Justice of the Peace. Until the 18th century this system worked well. Each parish had an unarmed constable and towns had additional paid men called “The Watch” to guard the gates and streets at night.

River police

The oldest serving police force in the world is the Thames River Police, which was formed in 1798 with the help of an Essex JP, farmer and inventor called John Harriott. The force of 50 men had rowing boats and their Superintending Surveyor had his own galley with a crew of four. They were busy: a third of the 33,000 or so people who worked on the river were suspected of being engaged in criminal activity.

Drunken police

By the mid 1800s, drunkenness was the primary cause of police dismissal in England. In 1863 alone, 215 officers were sacked for drinking.

Call the police!

999 is the world’s oldest emergency call service. It was first used in the London area in 1937 after Norman Macdonald, a dentist living in Wimpole Street, wrote an angry letter to The Times telling how he watched his neighbour’s house burn down while kept on hold at the telephone exchange as he waited to speak to the fire brigade. 999 was chosen because it was thought to be easy to remember and to dial, and because call boxes could easily be adapted to allow free calls on that number. Apparently MPs laughed that the number would be 999 because it sounded like a German saying “no” three times (it was 1937 after all). By 1950, the number of 999 calls had reached 80,000 a year (which, coincidentally, is the number of accidental emergency calls the Metropolitan Police receive each year from mobile phones).


In Spanish the word for “wives” and “handcuffs” is the same: esposas. Most handcuffs in Britain and the United States can be opened with the same universal handcuff key.

Traffic police

In 2008, Romanian policemen were given twice weekly lessons from ballet dancers to improve their style and grace.

“The aim is to develop an ability to regulate traffic and achieve elegance in their movements, which will not only be agreeable to the eyes but could also help drivers waiting at a red light get rid of their stress or sadness,” said Dorel Cojan, the head of the community police in the town of Timisoara. In the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, district police are paid a monthly bonus of 30 rupees to grow a moustache because bosses say it helps them to command more respect when they are on patrol.

Automatic police

Only one in 10 police speed cameras are operative at any given time. Your car would have to be going 28,000mph to avoid being caught by a loaded camera. This is the same speed Jupiter rotates on its axis.

Literary police

The original title of T S Eliot’s 1922 poem “The Wasteland” was He do the Police in Different Voices, a quote from Charles Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend, where the elderly Mrs Higden asks the sinister boy called Sloppy to read to her from the newspaper: “You mightn’t think it, but Sloppy is a beautiful reader of a newspaper. He do the Police in different voices.”

Suspect devices

In 2001, Police, the journal of the Police Federation, reported that a suspicious box was found outside a Territorial Army centre in Bristol. The TA called the police, who called an Army bomb-disposal unit, which blew up the box – to find it was full of leaflets on how to deal with suspicious packages.

Dead fact

When Oliver Cromwell was a baby, he was abducted by his granddad’s pet monkey and carried on to the roof of Hinchingbrooke House.

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