Our history

A detailed look back at the history of railway policing and how British Transport Police was formed. This information was first provided by the British Transport Police History Group.

British Transport Police history

The first railway police

The modern police service owes much to Sir Patrick Colquhoun, as he recommended the creation of a centralised police service for the country in 1796. After much discussion and a series of Parliamentary Committees, Sir Robert Peel introduced his famous Act of Parliament in 1829, which led to the creation of the Metropolitan Police.
 
When the first 'Peelers' stepped out onto the streets of London, railways were already in existence; the first Railway Act is dated 1758. 

In 1830 the Liverpool and Manchester Railway was formally opened by the Duke of Wellington. It was the first public railway in the world to transport goods and passengers by locomotive.

However, the occasion was marred by the first railway fatality. The Rt. Hon. William Huskisson alighted from the train on to the track, against the railway company's instructions, and was struck by a passing engine. This accident and the difficulties in crowd control on the day underlined the need for policing the railway.
 
Within a few months of both the introduction of the Metropolitan Police and the opening of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway, the first railway police force was formed. In November 1830, minutes of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway refer to "The Police Establishment" and, less than a year later, a pay rise was given to the railway police due to the responsibility of their office.
 
These early railway policemen were probably sworn in as special constables under a statute passed in 1673 during the reign of Charles II. They were appointed to:
preserve law and order on the construction site of the railway patrol and protect the line control the movement of railway traffic.

Station houses were placed at one mile intervals along the line to provide shelter for the railway police. The term 'police station' used by most police forces today probably derives from these buildings.
 
In 1831 the Special Constables Act was passed and railway policemen had jurisdiction not only on the railway but in the area in which they were appointed.
 
Most constables carried elaborately painted truncheons bearing the crest of the Railway Company. Inspectors carried a brass or ivory 'tipstaff' surmounted by a crown.
 
Watches, flags and lamps were issued to each man (the Ulster Railway Police were even issued with a shovel and a wheelbarrow to help remove obstructions from the line). The watch was used to ensure there was a suitable delay between trains entering each section of track and thus avoid collision. The flags were red and white, (the former to mean 'stop' the latter to mean 'all clear').
 
The duties of these forerunners of the Police Service were to maintain law and order on the railways and to regulate the movement of trains. These somewhat static duties changed over the next fifty years as the railway network extended throughout the country.
 
The navigators

A huge workforce was required to build the ever-expanding railway system. Thousands of men built stations, lay track, dug cuttings, built embankments and excavated tunnels. Many of these 'navvies' came from Ireland, Wales and even the continent.
 
Large shanty towns were set up in rural areas to accommodate these men. These armies of rough workers brought fear to genteel rural Victorian England. In 1836 the inhabitants of Slough and Buckinghamshire asked for some of the newly-formed Metropolitan Police to be sent to protect them from the men building the railways.
 
Local justices appointed special constables to keep these invading armies under control but the cost fell on the local ratepayers. In consequence, on 10 August 1838 an Act was passed which required railway companies to pay for constables to keep the peace near railway works.
 
These officers had to work hard for their money and often could not cope with the scale of disorder. In 1839 the Chester and Birkenhead Railway was under construction when fighting broke out between the English and Irish 'navigators'. It was four days before order was restored by a detachment of infantry.
 
In 1840 labourers murdered a ganger on the Edinburgh to Glasgow Railway. The company of the 58th Foot Infantry were required to arrest the ringleaders. The perpetrators were subsequently hung on a makeshift scaffold beside the tracks.
 
In 1846 two navvies were arrested for stealing watches and placed in a lock-up near Edinburgh. Other navvies marched to the Police House, released the prisoners and murdered the local constable. 
 
At this time towns such as Crewe, Slough and Swindon, which were built to accommodate railway workers, were policed by the company's force. In 1846 the first police station in Crewe was built by the railway, who also appointed its officers.

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