Modern Policing – A Copper’s View From 1950


In 1950 John E Horwell, the former Chief Constable of Scotland Yard, set out his view of the state of modern policing; a view which will resonate with many 73 years later. This article first appeared in the Manchester Evening News in March 1950 – Jerry F

Jerry F, Going Postal
Horwell of the Yard.
John Horwell, one of Scotland Yard’s “Big Four”,
Manchester Evening News, reproduced with permission

Chains, long since obsolete, are once again fitted to the doors of thousands of English homes as a bulwark against unwelcome intrusion and violence by gangsters.

Our wives and daughters fear to go out unaccompanied. Lonely women, and men, too, bolt themselves in their houses, day as well as night, lest they should be battered by criminals who want to snatch what there is to steal and make a clean getaway.

In our streets, trains, and public places fear of a “cosh” attack — to use a popular description — is rightly causing disquiet among law-abiding citizens.

A halt to this state of affairs is long overdue.

First let us try to discover the reasons. At the outset let me say that I disagree most emphatically with those who attribute the present wave of crimes of violence to the aftermath of wartime conditions.

There are many contributory causes, I am sure.

High up in the list is the almost entire absence of the symbol of law and order in our streets — the policeman on the beat, a man who, in my day, knew everyone worth knowing (and to be avoided!) and whose appearance on the street was a proved deterrent to those about to commit a crime and especially to the criminally minded juveniles and teenagers.

It is true that today a number of policemen arrive in cars at the scene of the crime in response to a 999 call in a very few minutes, but in most cases the criminal has made his escape, leaving his victim felled to the ground by a bloody “cosh.”

In many of these cases had the criminal seen a policeman just before the crime he might have had second thoughts. At least he would have realised that there is a law.

Those of us who are motorists know that at whatever speed we may be travelling our attentions are upon the traffic and not upon what goes on around us.

Policemen in cars, after all, are only human.

One night last week a woman was “coshed” and robbed of her handbag. Screams were heard by a cyclist, who chased the attacker and caught him, but the young thug produced a pistol and threatened to shoot.

This enabled him to get away. A motor-load of policemen arrived. The neighbourhood was searched, but without success.

A policeman on the beat would have heard those screams. His presence in the vicinity would most likely have prevented the crime.

Or he would have seen the perpetrator making his escape along the street.

We all know that our police forces are under strength — the Metropolitan Police alone need 4,000 more men, Lancashire County about 200, and Manchester is about 300 short — but many people who ought to know are of the opinion that the men who are available can be deployed with greater effect.

There could be fewer policemen in cars for a start, and in other directions something could be done to relieve detectives of tiresome clerical work, which causes them to spend endless hours inside a police station when they should be on the streets either preventing or attempting to solve crimes.

Now let us take a look at gangsters in the making. We know that the young mind is imitative and that films have a powerful influence upon children at an age when the mould in which their character is being shaped is in a vital stage of development.

There are far too many gangster films today which have in them the making of young ruffians of those who see them, and from which it would appear that violence is the natural way of life.

You have only to watch outside a cinema after a matinee performance to see the effects for yourself — youngsters knocking each other down with foul blows as soon as they rush wildly out of the cinema.

Sometimes the victims are kicked while they are down. All this without provocation. Violence bred in young hearts for no reason at all.

During the second of two films which I saw recently in a provincial town on a Sunday — I repeat, a Sunday — I walked out in disgust with a feeling that both the films would make another dozen young bandits in any town in which they were shown.

There is no question that films of this type teach children bent on evil “all the answers” and how to set about outwitting the law.

When the Criminal Justice Act of 1948 took away from magistrates the power to order a brutal boy to be birched it was, in my opinion, a certain move to increase the number of bandits in this country.

In the days when persistent, criminally minded juvenile boys were birched by order of the court I never knew a boy who returned for a second dose.

The birch not only had a deterrent effect upon him but also upon his pals, who were quite obviously treading the same path. They turned over a new leaf and were no more trouble in the neighbourhood.

A wicked boy requires “medicine” of the sort which cannot be prescribed by a doctor.

Violent criminals are not born overnight. The modern juvenile court, with its “get-together-and-let’s-sit-down” atmosphere is hardly likely to have any deterrent effect upon young minds, either.

The justices no longer sit upon an elevated bench, and invariably the policeman is not allowed to wear the uniform of his office.

The delinquent’s name is usually suppressed, and boys and girls of today cannot be expected to be impressed or inspired by such soft proceedings, which fail to put into their minds a reverential fear of the law. They come away all smiles and feeling heroic.

The boy of today is much more advanced than his counterpart of a few years ago, and he requires stern management to make him realise that crime does not pay.

With the continued upward trend of juvenile crime it is high time that the Act of Parliament raising the juvenile delinquent age from 16 to 17 should be repealed.

As it is at present a boy aged 16 years 11 months and three weeks arrested for brutal assault has to be taken before a juvenile court, there to be told that he is a naughty boy, or perhaps sent to a beautiful open mansion fitted up as an approved school.

The only place for such a ruffian is prison.

Now let us consider the sob-sister method of handling convicted felons in prisons today.

In my 35 years’ service as an active detective in all ranks from constable to the very top I gained much experience in the habits of all ages and sexes.

In the days when prison meant prison and discipline and hard labour was what it should be, it was common to see even hardened criminals shed tears when they were sentenced.

They do not shed tears today. They value their liberty of course, but they have no fear of prison life.

They describe it as a holiday, and the mere mention of psychiatrists brings a smile across their faces.

In my opinion it is a waste of time and money to attempt to reform a criminal who has been earning a four-figure “salary” out of his crime.

The religion of the criminal is “something for nothing” and he will get it. There is no alternative. Criminals do not appreciate leniency.

So let us turn to what I consider to be the crux of the situation — the abolition of the “cat-o’-nine-tails” from the punishment calendar.

I have talked often to law-breakers who had experienced the “sting of the cat” at the start of a term of imprisonment for robbery with violence. You can believe me that it’s something they never forget.

I invariably asked them what they intended to do for a living when it was all over, and whether we C.I.D. officers could help them to make a fresh start.

The usual answer was, “What, help me, guv’nor? I shall keep on thieving and you can keep on catching me, but no more violence! I don’t want any more of that cat.”

And I never knew a prisoner who had been whipped to come again for a second dose.

The time has come, in my opinion, when we should give up pampering the criminal and especially the violent one. He has had a long run of freedom from corporal punishment and has failed to appreciate it. Let him once again appreciate that crime does not pay.

He chooses his way of life. Why should the law-abiding citizen who he seeks to exploit bother about him?

In the whole of my experience of criminals I only knew of one who turned over a new leaf — and that was after many convictions.

My colleagues and I helped him along the road.

Reproduced with permission
© 2022

For further reading, see – Horwell of the Yard.John E. Horwell

Jerry F 2023