The Police Federation was founded in 1919, ninety years after the Police Act 1829 brought the Metropolitan Police into being. In that period, policemen were denied the right to form any kind of association to protect their interests. Not surprisingly, the pay and conditions of Victorian officers were deplorable, even by the standards of those times. In 1890, for example, the top rate of pay of a Metropolitan Constable was one pound and thirteen shillings a week, compared with three pounds a week for a coal porter. Until 1890, the police had no statutory right to a pension, even though they were required to contribute to superannuation funds. In some forces no pension was paid to a retiring constable unless he was unfit for further employment, in which case he got a small gratuity.
The Government and the police authorities did their utmost to ensure that police forces remained immune from the growing trade Unions movement, which was seen as a major threat to the establishment. The police were recruited mainly from the ranks of ex-soldiers and agricultural labourers. Discipline was harsh and only a minority of policemen served long enough to retire. It is not surprising, therefore, that in the formative years of the service, there was no pressure from within for policemen to have the right to combine. However, it was inevitable that they should become discontented, especially in London and the larger cities, where living costs were rising and the working class was becoming more prosperous.
In 1875, there was serious trouble in the Metropolitan Police. The Commissioner, Colonel Henderson, was shocked to receive a petition, signed by 600 sergeants and constables, asking for a pay increase. They said that the cost of living in London was so high that "we are unable to keep up that state of respectability which is required by the rules and regulations of the service." Petitions from other divisions soon followed.
Henderson eventually announced that he did not feel justified in recommending a pay increase to the Home Secretary. A group of officers, acting in secret, organised a meeting and over 3,000 constables turned up. They drew up a resolution calling for a pay increase and the abolition of the split shift system that required officers to spread their tours of duty over a twelve hour period. The Commissioner had to announce that he would forward the pay demands to the Home Secretary. By this time, a representative committee had been elected and when it announced that they would continue "the agitation" until the demands were met, the Commissioner instructed senior officers to act against known malcontents.
Soon afterwards, pay was increased, but the secretary of the committee,was dismissed for refusing to be transferred to an outlying station. He attempted to organise a strike, and in some inner London stations the night shift refused to go on duty. Four officers were charged with the criminal offence of withdrawing themselves from duty without due notice and they were sentenced to brief terms of imprisonment. A hundred constables were dismissed but subsequently reinstated.
In 1890, there was more trouble in the Metropolitan Police when constables and sergeants realised that the new Pensions Bill would seriously reduce their expectations. It had been understood that, although there was no automatic right to a pension, officers could expect to retire after 25 years on a pension of three-fifths of their pay, and after twenty eight years they would receive two thirds, although the normal retirement age was 60. The Bill, which would apply to every police force, provided only for a pension of three fifths of pay. The Commissioner, James Munro, sympathised with the force over the pensions issue, and also backed the growing demand for a long overdue pay increase. He found himself at odds with the Home Secretary, and when the Government refused to amend the Pensions Bill he gave notice of retirement. While he was serving out his notice, discontent in the force spread rapidly. Munro allowed the men to hold meetings to discuss the pay and pension issues but his successor, Sir Edward Bradford, was a military martinet who immediately announced a ban on all meetings. This led to trouble outside Bow Street police station, when hundreds of off duty constables turned up for a meeting which had been authorised by Munro, but was now prohibited. They were refused access to the station and held the meeting in the nearby Police Institute. This meeting resolved that they would call a strike if any man was victimised for his attendance.
Further unofficial meetings at various stations in inner London resulted in mass suspensions when men refused to go on duty. The organisers of the protest sent a telegram to the Home Secretary, threatening to strike unless he conceded a pay increase. When the night shift at Bow Street refused duty, a mob began rioting in the area, and the Life Guards were called out to clear the streets. This show of force by the authorities, accompanied by the summary dismissal of 39 constables, showed that the new Commissioner was formally in control and the unrest petered out very quickly. Some months later, the Government did increase police pay in the Metropolitan.
These brief outbreaks of militancy in London are the only recorded examples of unrest in the police during the nineteenth century. They gave proof of the determination of the authorities not to allow any form of representation. It was left to prominent people who sympathised with the ordinary policeman to do what they could to make his lot a happier one. Prominent among these was Miss Catherine Gurney, who founded the police convalescent homes and orphanages, and Mr John Kempster, who founded the Police Review in 1892. Kempster used the magazine as a forum for his lengthy campaigns to secure a policeman's right to one day off each week, which was conceded in 1910, and to persuade police authorities to appoint professional policemen as chief constables, rather than retired military gentlemen. Kempster's circle of influential people included many MPs and Parliament began to take an interest in the welfare of the police.
In 1910, a Metropolitan inspector named John Syme was dismissed for alleged insubordination. He had fallen out with senior officers in his division who accused him of being too familiar with constables. His crime had been to speak up for two officers who had been dealt with harshly following a mistaken arrest. It was decided to transfer Syme to a station fourteen miles away from his home, and when he declined to move he was reduced to the rank of sergeant. His appeal to the Commissioner was rejected and when he wrote directly to the Home Secretary to protest about his treatment, he was dismissed. Syme then began a lengthy campaign to publicise his case and draw attention to what he described as corruption and tyranny in the force. He held meetings in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, and was sent to prison for a criminal libel against the Commissioner. Over the next twenty years he was to go to prison on many other occasions, and frequently went on hunger strike. At one stage, he was declared insane and detained in Broadmoor. In 1913, Syme founded a body that he called the Metropolitan Police Union. It was promptly banned by the Commissioner and, although membership was a closely guarded secret, it never had more than a few dozen serving officers in its ranks. The Union did not campaign about police pay and conditions, it concentrated instead on exposing the harsh discipline and unfair treatment of officers.
During the First World War, the pay and conditions of the Metropolitan Police deteriorated rapidly. Constables found it difficult to live on their pay, which lagged behind all industrial workers. The Government offered temporary bonuses which fell short of the spiraling cost of living.
A small number of determined officers turned to the Police Union and ousted Syme from his post as Secretary during one of his spells in gaol. The new leadership was still obliged to meet in secret and was constantly harassed by Scotland Yard. Union meetings were raided by the Special Branch and any policeman they found was immediately dismissed and drafted into the Army. The leaders contacted trade Union leaders and Labour MPs who began to press for the right of the police to have a Union. The Union's cause was greatly helped by the Government's repeated failure to take action to improve police conditions. In spite of the efforts of the authorities, the Union was rapidly increasing its support inside the force.
On the 28th August 1918, the Union delivered an ultimatum to the Commissioner, Sir Edward Henry. This demanded three things; an immediate increase in pay; the official recognition of the Union, and; the reinstatement of a constable who had been dismissed for his Union activities. Unless these claims were conceded by midnight on the following day, the Union would withdraw its own rules against striking.
The Commissioner and the Home Secretary were away on holiday. The Deputy Commissioner and senior Home Office officials were assured by the divisional superintendents that the Union was making an empty threat. They said its membership was small and the vast majority of officers would not strike. The authorities decided to do nothing about the ultimatum, except to urge that the Union secretary, who had signed it, should be prosecuted under wartime legislation.
On the night of the 29th August, it began to be seen that large numbers of constables and sergeants were on strike, and by the following morning Scotland Yard realised that almost every man who was due to go on duty had failed to do so. The strike was virtually solid and the Government was faced with the threat of anarchy on the streets of the capital while a world war was raging. The cabinet was hurriedly convened and, over the objections of the Commissioner, the Prime Minister, David Lloyd George, let it be known that he would receive a "deputation of policemen" on the morning of the 31st July. He was careful not to say that he would meet the Police Union, which was an illegal body, although he realised that the deputation would consist of its leaders.
The meeting in the Cabinet room at 10 Downing Street was a brief affair. The government conceded the pay claim in full. It agreed to reinstate the sacked Union official. As to recognition, Lloyd George offered a compromise. He said a Union could not be recognised in wartime, but the ban on membership would be lifted so long as the Union did not interfere with police discipline. In the meantime, he proposed that there should be a representative committee, elected by the men, to bring any matter affecting their welfare to the Commissioner's notice.
The Union leaders thought that Lloyd George had promised to recognise the Union once the war was over. He had done no such thing, and immediately after the meeting, he brought in General Sir Nevil Macready to replace Sir Edward Henry, telling Macready that his task was to destroy the Union and restore the discipline of the force.
To no one's surprise, the representative committee elected by the force consisted entirely of known Union activists, who promptly began to make demands that Macready found unacceptable. Within a few weeks, he disbanded the committee and ordered fresh elections, this time the Union, which was now affiliated to the Labour Party and the TUC, held large rallies in Hyde Park and Trafalgar Square, to protest against Macready's "tyrannical rule". In June, the Union announced that in a nationwide ballot, its members had voted by ten to one in favour of another police strike, unless more pay and Union recognition were conceded.
The Government announced that a Committee of Inquiry under Lord Desborough would examine the police service, and that a substantial pay award would be made shortly. It also announced that the police would be allowed an internal representative body, but the Police Union would never be recognised and police who belonged to it would have to resign their membership. The Desborough Report appeared in early July. It established the Police Federation on the basis of one "representative board" for each rank; constables, sergeants and inspectors. It awarded the entire police service a substantial increase in pay. It also recommended that the Home Secretary should become responsible to Parliament for the entire police service, not just the Metropolitan, and that police conditions of service should be standardised throughout the country. All these proposals were accepted by the Government and the Police Act of 1919 was passed into law within three weeks.
The Union, deeply unhappy with the newly established Police Federation, decided to call a national strike for the 1st August, to oppose the Police Act and demand the recognition of the Police Union. It was doomed to fail, as even a majority of the Union executive declined to support it. In London, only a thousand officers went on strike. About 400 officers in Birmingham struck. On Merseyside, another thousand went on strike after they had been told by local Union officials that the entire Metropolitan Police had refused duty. There was widespread rioting and looting on Merseyside, ended after three days by the arrival of a battleship and two destroyers sent to Liverpool to restore order. With the exception of some Liverpool officers who returned to work during the strike under an amnesty, all the officers who took part in the 1919 strike were dismissed.
The Police Union was dead, the Police Federation had arrived.