A change of role

With the advent of mechanical signalling, the telegraph to improve communication and the introduction of county and borough police forces, the railway policeman's role 'lineside' to protect the track and regulate traffic became surplus to requirements. Instead, they were expected to prevent and investigate crime and to assist with station duties.

An 1837 regulation of the Liverpool and Manchester Railway required intended passengers to apply to a constable for a ticket. He required 24 hours notice and noted the "name, address, place of birth, age, occupation and reason for the journey in his book". This accounts for the term 'booking office'. If the journey was considered to be for a "just lawful cause", a ticket would be issued.

Crime on the railway

The expanding rail network gave criminals new opportunities to move around the country and commit crime. The railways were pioneers of the electric telegraph and its use often involved the arrest of criminals arriving or departing by train. On 1 January 1845 a railway police sergeant became the first person to arrest murderer John Tawell following the use of an electric telegraph.

As the amount of merchandise carried by rail increased the amount of thefts on the railways rose. In 1838 Her Majesty's Mails were conveyed by rail for the first time. The first mail thefts were reported shortly afterwards. In 1848 the Eastern Counties Railway lost 76 pieces of luggage in just one day, and by the following year thefts from the largest six railways amounted to more than £100,000 a year.

Thefts of goods were often committed by railway staff and in 1873 ten railmen were each sentenced to 10 years' imprisonment for stealing from their employers.

The first railway murder was committed by a German called Muller, who robbed and killed a fellow passenger on a train in north London in 1864.

Visit our Crime history section to read more about murders on the railway.

The first arrest abroad by British police occurred in 1874 when a Metropolitan Police inspector accompanied by a railway police inspector went to the United States to arrest a former employee who had embezzled from the Grand Metropolitan Railway.

As claims for compensation for lost goods increased, the Railway Companies decided to act by forming detective departments. The London and North Western Railway and Great Western Railway formed their CID in 1863 but had used police officers in plain clothes to undertake special enquiries for several years before.


As police duties were diverted from traffic control to protective work, control of the force was divided and the principal departments, such as the operating and commercial department, had their own police establishments. This led to a decline in the railway police at a time when, after the passing of the 1856 County Police Act, County Police Forces were being formed and becoming better organised.

Some railway companies maintained a police force with uniforms and police powers, whereas others reduced their forces, their duties being restricted to those in the companies’ interests. Often they performed non-police related tasks and one railway employed railmen unfit for normal duties as constables.

At the turn of the century, the railway police were a hotchpotch of various forces, some with efficient uniformed men but others with old and undisciplined officers, 'police' in name only and with a variety of duties to perform. In Ilford, one poor railway police sergeant was blamed for a collision that took place while he dealt with some trespassers. He should have been changing some points.

A time for change

From 1900 several railway companies reorganised their police forces. The London, Brighton and South Coast Railway virtually reformed their force from scratch, followed by the Great Eastern, the North Eastern and Midland in 1910, Caledonian in 1917 and the GWR in 1918. As with almost all county and borough forces these reorganised forces were headed by ex-army officers.

At this time, the North Eastern Railway Police became the first police force in this country to use dog patrols. Visit our dog section page to read more about the history of dogs in BTP.

A new century

Reorganisation dragged the railway police into the 20th century as pay, conditions and uniforms were improved. One railway provided training for its constables and facilities to improve their education and manuals of guidance were issued. These reforms came just in time, for the First World WarGreat War was to put a huge strain on the railways and its police.

In some railway police forces more than half of the manpower was conscripted, the remaining officers being supplemented by special constables and, for the first time, female police officers. In 1914 the Great Eastern Railway Police recruited nine women as special constables, one of the first police forces to do so.

Hours for the railway police increased and wages dropped. Special wartime regulations gave police extra duties as the railways became targets for bombers. Several stations received direct hits including London's Liverpool Street and St. Pancras where there were many casualties.

Visit our Policewomen in the force page to read more.

Next: Early to late 20th Century