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Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/The policeman: his health

< Once a Week (magazine)‎ | Series 1‎ | Volume 2



Most of us have probably known some respectable working-class family, where it was the ambition of some spirited boy to get into the police-force in London or a large county town. It may not be very difficult to imagine the reasons which recommend that sort of engagement to youths who do not show the same eagerness to enter the army, though the qualifications requisite for the two services are nearly the same. In both, the men must enter young: they must be of a certain stature and bodily vigour: they must undergo examinations about their health: and they are understood to be possessed of a sort of combative energy, which relishes instead of shrinking from personal danger. There is also a degree of personal distinction belonging to both services which is naturally attractive to ambitious youths on their entrance upon life. The red-coated soldier, and the blue-coated policeman, pass along the street somewhat more proudly, and under more notice than the artisan in his apron and paper cap, or the labourer in fustian, or bearing the porter's knot. If the men with the porter's knot were inquired of, they would tell—very many of them—that they had been policemen: and so would the watchmen and porters who guard warehouses and halls of great mansions; and they might also inform us why young men had rather be in the police than in the army, and yet serve so much shorter a time in the one than the other.

The police bear a higher character for respectability than the soldiery. Some of my readers may be surprised at this: but it is certainly true, just in proportion to the knowledge of the two classes entertained by those who declare an opinion. No set of men in the world excels the British soldier in courage and patience, in spirit and patriotism, in attachment to worthy officers, and obedience to discipline: but when we come to speak of temperance, prudence, and personal self-respect, we find ourselves resting on the hope that the British soldier will do better in the future than hitherto. Some day I may go into the reasons which warrant such a hope, and explain how the soldier has been almost driven by mismanagement into intemperance, theft, and desertion; or rather, why thieves and drunkards and deserters have been tempted into the army instead of better men: but at present our business is with the police, who are proved, by the testimony of their medical and other officers, to be, generally speaking, a remarkably sober and self-respecting order of men. It is true we hear perpetual joking about the love-making of the policeman, by which he obtains good suppers from credulous cooks, and weighty money-gifts from soft-hearted housemaids: but a very small number of genuine anecdotes furnish a vast amount of imputation; and it is certain that the records of the police prove a very high average of honest and reputable conduct in the force.

This good repute may therefore well be one ground of preference of the blue coat to the red one. Another seems to be the popular notion that the policeman is the wielder of power, instead of the slave of discipline. To the careless eye it seems that the soldier is a machine, moved by the voice of his officer; whereas the policeman is absolute on his beat. The crowd opens to make way for the policeman: he commands help from men, and they yield it: he imposes quiet on women, and they stop brawling: he looks at children, and they slink out of sight. The old English reverence for the constable is renowned all over the world: and in the case of the policeman, there is something of the admiration and fear of the military office added to the awe felt for the constable. Throughout whole parishes of the metropolis, and wide districts of the country, there is nothing so formidable to the greatest number as the glance and the march of the policeman. The tax-collector, the vigilant pastor, the strict game-preserving squire, the severe landlord, the lecturing magistrate—are each and all less formidable to the popular imagination than the policeman who sustains the dignity of his office. A perpetual mystery hangs around him—that of his access to "information." Everyday, everywhere, "from information which he has received," he appears where he is least desired. If two women fight in the very middle of a closed house, he is fearfully expected to inquire into scratches and torn gowns. If a child is shut up in a dark closet till it goes into fits, the policeman is expected to come and inquire into its health. If there is any article at the bottom of a heap of marine stores, which could not be exactly classified with that description of goods, the policeman will be sure to sniff it out, and walk straight to the cellar where it is. The pedlar in remote regions will take the other side of the hill, or the other side of the hedge, if he has stolen thimbles in his pack, or smuggled cigars in his pocket, rather than meet the policemen on his beat: and the child who has gleaned fine ears of wheat before the last shock was carried, is afraid to go home, lest the omniscient man should follow and inform. Such possession of conspicuous power is very tempting, certainly; and especially to very young men. Thus we might expect a rush into the profession, though every female relation may hold up a picture of horrors at least as fearful as those which beset the soldier's trade. Mothers and wives and sisters do not like to think of the host of enemies which their lad will make among desperate thieves. They shudder at the thought of the kicks, the bitings, the blows, the throwings down-stairs or out of the window, to be expected in such dreadful dens as the police have to visit: and then there are the perils of fires, and falling houses, and restive horses. In short, wherever there is danger, there the policeman must be; and the glory to be reaped is nothing like that which makes the soldier's reward. That there is a rush into the profession may perhaps hardly be said: but there is always a due supply of picked men, and a very large proportion of rejected candidates.

How is it, then, that the average length of service is no more than four years?

Is not this a remarkable fact? Is there any other occupation filled by picked men in the prime of their years, well-paid and highly privileged, reputable and well superintended, which changes its members on an average every four years? Let us see what the mode of life is.

Widow Benning's second son, John, wishes to enter the Metropolitan police force. That force consists, he is told, of somewhat under 6000 men; and more than 1000 are admitted yearly, to fill vacancies. These must be under thirty years of age, unless a soldier or two proved of valuable quality should apply, and should be admitted as an exception. None under twenty need make application, as they are not considered fully grown and hardened for the work. John is three-and-twenty; and the average is five-and-twenty. He stands five feet ten in his stockings, and is satisfied that he can walk five-and-twenty miles a day for months together without injury to his health. He is smart-looking and walks well: and it is therefore probable that he will be appointed to day-duty; and his mother rejoices at this, though John tells her that night-work is considered less laborious and wearing, from the quieter state of the streets. She can hardly credit this, because the day-work is divided into two portions, while the night police have to take their eight hours at a stretch, without even the liberty of sitting down for any part of the time. If John is chosen, she trusts it is true that he will have day-service.

As for the chances of his being one of the thousand engaged,—how many are the rejected likely to be? They are usually nearly double the number of the accepted. This seems remarkable, considering that the applicants are already so far sifted as to be of the specified age, and to bring the requisite twelve months' good character from their last situation, and a recommendation from two respectable housekeepers, not publicans. Many, however, who suppose themselves in good health, are reported otherwise by the surgeon: and the commissioners find many reasons why young fellows of decent character will not answer their purpose. A hot temper would never do; nor any vanity which would lay a man open to arts of flirtation; nor a too innocent good-nature; nor a hesitating temper or manner; nor any weakness for drink; nor any degree of stupidity. While three times the requisite number apply, the Commissioners will choose the cool, smart, self-reliant, penetrating, temperate, forbearing men, who can take orders and yet exert their own faculties, and who have an honest character of their own while up to other men's tricks; and good fellows who are less able must wait, or give up the chance. In the same way, the surgeon will choose the men who have the broadest chests, the best built spine and trunk, the most healthy limbs, vigorous heart, clear brain, and acute senses; dismissing many who never imagined they had a flabby heart, or muscles which would not bear a strain, or legs which would soon become diseased from eight hours per day spent on foot.

John goes in, when called to the surgeon; he strips, is measured, and proved and tested as to his capacity of lungs, &c.; and is declared sound in health,—as the Commissioners find him in character and apparent capacity. He is a made man now, if he does his duty well, of which of course his mother has no doubt: and the widow's heart sings for joy. She does not know, nor would John believe it to-day if he were told, that the average length of the policeman's service is only four years.

He is to begin, after a month of probation, on nineteen shillings a week, with many advantages: he hopes to rise to handsomely paid offices in course of time: after fifteen years of service he becomes entitled to a pension on retirement: and after five years he may hope for some gratuities, if he should become unfit for service. As he is a single man, he can be lodged at one of the Section Houses of the force, for a mere shilling a week. He will receive a considerable proportion of his clothing, and a fixed supply of coals; and as to his meals, the men are understood to live very well by messing together.

To his barrack therefore he goes, when he enters on his new employment. He has to try his capacity during four weeks of probation at lower wages, in the first instance. He finds he is to have yearly one coat, two pairs of trousers, and two pairs of boots, or three shillings a month to find them; and a great-coat and a cape once in two years. Belt, truncheon, and lantern are his apparatus. He must, however, be always provided with a neat suit of black at his own expense, in readiness for any occasion on which he may be sent out in plain clothes.

The first morning he wakes heavy and headachy. The beds in his barrack stand rather close, and most of the men refuse to let the windows be opened during any part of the evening, night, or morning before breakfast. Several of them are so drowsy, too, that they will not stir till the last minute, so that they have no time to wash and make themselves comfortable. They might if they pleased. There are windows enough, and doors and fire-places; but if the majority fasten the windows, and lock the door, and keep the chimney-board up, the minority must suffer for want of air; but as to the washing, each man can act for himself. There is water; and any one who provides himself with a tub and any sort of screen, and who chooses to get up twenty minutes sooner for the purpose, can have the comfort of a fresh and clean skin to begin the day with.

The meals are less regular than messing is commonly understood to be. The notion of a mess is that of meals served punctually three times a day, at which the members may attend or not; but they have no claim for food at other hours. In a police barrack the men are never all collected together, as they serve in relays; and, besides that some are out while others are at home, there is always a considerable number in bed, night and day. John begins with being one of the first relay, which goes out at six in the morning for four hours. He must have his breakfast first. His mother is not the only one who has urged this upon him, for the sake not only of his health, but of freedom from temptation. If he went out hungry he would be obliged to get something at stalls or shops; and this would be undignified, and might lead him into inconvenient gossip and familiarities, and perhaps into the temptation of accepting presents of food and drink when he ought to be minding his duty. All this is true enough; but it is not always easy for a single man to obtain his breakfast before six in the morning, among comrades who are too lazy to get up for it, or too headachy to care for it. As breakfast has to be provided, however, for the men of the night force, who will be coming in presently, the first relay have only to hasten the cooking of the chops as far as their own wants go. John will therefore have his coffee, chop, and potato in time to fall into rank at 6 a.m.

As he and his comrades march forth—one of them being dropped at each point as they traverse the district—they displace the night force, and send them home to breakfast and bed. Every one of these must be in bed before eight, and re-appear at 3 p.m. They will be in their deepest sleep when John comes off his beat at 10 a.m.; and he will have dined and gone forth again before they wake. The only time when he can make the acquaintance of this body of his comrades is in the evening, between his return at 6 and their going forth at 10, for the night.

On this first occasion of relieving them, he is surprised that they do not look more weary after having been on foot for eight hours. His wonder is not likely to be lessened the second day, when he has had experience of the fatigues of his new occupation.

The morning term seems a rather easy affair at first. The streets are cool and not overfull. Workpeople go out quietly to their day's labour: the shops open gradually and in a leisurely way: the merchants do not appear, and the clerks are in no great number till after nine o'clock. The great people are not visibly stirring, and it is only about a railway-station, or in a market, that there is any overpowering noise or hurry. So John returns in good spirits, rather pitying his comrades who are to support the noontide heat and bustle.

There had been three breakfasts by this time; and soon the series of dinners must begin. John has three hours for some kind of employment, if he can find one which will leave him within instant call of his officers, in case of need, and will not use up the strength he will want in the afternoon. He can read a little for his own amusement; and he likes gossip as well as most young men; but he thinks he must find some handiwork which he can take up at odd hours as he sits in the barrack-room.

The afternoon alters his view of his occupation a good deal. He had no previous conception of the difference between walking for four hours in London on one's own single and particular business, and doing the same thing in the pursuit of everybody else's. Every shop-door and cellar-window along miles of street is under his care. He must look to every child on the pavement, and every passenger at each crossing. Every high-couraged, and every stumbling, skinny horse must be watched by him. He must have his eye on every beggar, and must painfully discern suspicious from respectable persons, and make no mistakes. He has been recommended to acquaint himself with the faces of all the householders throughout his beat; a most tremendous task in itself. He is under a perfect pelt of questions for the four hours, as if there were a conspiracy to ask him things that he did not know. Half-a-dozen times he is angrily told that he has shown himself just too late on that particular spot, and that his superiors should be told that their men were never to be found when wanted. A few puzzling cases have already occurred which show him that he does not understand his own powers and duties so well as he had imagined: and when at length six o'clock strikes, he goes off his day's duty "dead beat," as his comrades jeeringly tell him. He is indeed nearly distracted with the noise, the hurry, the worry, and the general pulling to pieces, which make this incomparably the most fatiguing day he ever remembers to have passed in his life.

His dinner had been prime beefsteak, potatoes, and porter: and his supper is to be the same. The butchers say the police buy no bone. The irregularity of their meals prevents their having good joints; and they live on prime steaks and cutlets.

As far as food is concerned, John will do very well. It is good meat, well cooked, and earned and digested by abundant exercise. The air in the house is not so good, as we have seen, and his duty leads him into various unwholesome places. Good food, sleep, and exercise may go a long way in guarding him against this danger: but the hurry and worry are his greatest enemies.

It did surprise him, on first entering his barrack, to observe how many invalids there were on the sick list; and he will see more and more of this every day. It seems strange that of a picked set of young men—the soundest and strongest that could be obtained between twenty and thirty—a larger proportion should be ill than of persons of all ages in many English towns; but the fact is, that 36½ out of every 1000 policemen are always ill, taking the year round. Of these, somewhat less than 4 are under treatment for injuries, to above 32 for sickness.

The married men, who live in homes of their own, are more numerous than the bachelors who live in the section-houses. They probably live in great comfort, as no candidate is admitted who has more than two children. The married men, therefore, are for the most part young husbands, recently settled on good pay. They are under the same medical care as the bachelors; and the doctors find that a smaller proportion of them are ill, and that they are ill for a shorter time. It would be an interesting thing to know whether any number of bachelor policemen marrying after five years' service, and continuing for another five years after removing to homes of their own, would show an improved state of health before the end of the ten years. If this should be proved, the natural inference would be that the quiet and convenience of a home arranged to suit a man's work and his rest, with meals cooked by his wife at the most convenient hours, are conducive to health to a very important extent. One can easily imagine, for instance, that night-workers—printers of daily papers, night porters, and policemen—may get better rest by day in a home of their own, with a wife to keep all quiet, than in any barrack where companies of comrades are entering and leaving, and meals and business are always going on. At best, however, the amount of sickness is considerable. Taking the metropolitan force all round, married and single, new men and old hands, each is ill from twelve to thirteen days in the year; ill enough to be in the doctor's hands, and to have a stoppage of one shilling a day made out of his pay for expenses. Four weeks per year are allowed for sickness on these terms. If a man is likely to get well, he is treated with indulgence after that time: but permission must be obtained from the Secretary of State. If he can never again be fit for service, he must of course be dismissed; but if he has served for five entire years, he has a small gratuity; and if fifteen, he has a pension.

Of the twelve or thirteen days of average illness in the year, less than one day and a half is from injuries received from violence or accident. Some readers may be surprised to hear how few deaths result from what they are apt to consider the special dangers of the police,—from assaults and accidents. These assaults and accidents, together with all diseases whatever except three kinds, caused only 62 deaths in five years, against 155 arising from those three kinds of disease. In the years from 1852 to 1856 (both inclusive) there were 25 deaths from cholera, 41 from fever, and 89 from consumption and other chest diseases. During those years there was not a single death from diarrhœa or dysentery, an evidence of both good diet and temperance on the part of the men. The other heads, at the same time, disclose the real sources of danger. Mothers, wives, and sisters need not be in any great terror of madmen, drunken women, or even brawling Irish, nor of street crushes, runaway horses, and burning or falling houses; but they may have some reasonable dread of the haunts of cholera and the nests of fever which the duty of the police requires them to enter and watch over. Far worse, however, is the disease which might be so easily guarded against—the fatal consumption, which is directly bred of ignorance and carelessness. Too many of the police are as reckless as the soldiers, who die by thousands of night duty. It is not the wet weather that kills them; it is not the winter cold that kills them; but it is the fatal rashness with which they encounter both the one and the other.

The policeman's two pairs of boots are required to be in good order. He has, as we know, a great coat and waterproof cape, in addition to a good suit of cloth clothing. We know that getting wet does nobody any harm while he keeps in exercise so as to be warm. We know that the bitterest cold is not injurious to a person in exercise, unless he encounters it in either a chilled or a heated condition. The well-clothed policeman, with his fixed time of duty, need never be wet to a hurtful extent, and if he prepares, with any common sense, for going out into the cold, by night or by day, his lungs need take no harm. But this is exactly what is neglected by the men who die of consumption. Their lungs were sound when they entered the force, or the doctor would not have passed them. How is it that they have gone so soon?

One man is lazy about changing his boots and socks when he comes in on a wet day; and he even sits by a great fire with his coat and trousers reeking with damp, instead of putting on the old suit, which should always be at hand for use.

The night-force think they cannot shut up too close at home, when their nights are spent in the open air; so they stop up every chink where they sit and while they sleep, and go out in a state of perspiration to meet the bitter wind at the corners of streets, and probably stand in a draught under a gateway to escape a pelt of rain, which would not do them half as much harm as the wind.

If they were wise, they would keep their windows open at home at all hours of all seasons:—just an inch or two at top, if no more, as is done at all our hospitals for chest diseases. They should go out warm and well fed; but neither in a perspiration nor a fever, from too much fire and meat and drink. Thus prepared, and in dry and sufficient clothes, they have only to keep their blood flowing with exercise, to be able to defy wind and weather in any season. This is what policemen should do: but they seem not to understand it: for, of these picked young men, so sound in health at so late a date, eighty-nine died in the Metropolitan police in five years from disease of the lungs.

After a time John will have had his turn in the second relay of the day service, going out at 10 a.m., and returning at 2 p.m.: and being on his beat again from 6 till 10 in the evening. If he is like most of his comrades, he will find neither so agreeable as he expected; and he will be glad to try night-duty,—little as he could once have supposed that he should desire to be on foot for eight hours of every night for months together. But the quiet is a very great thing; and the duty is generally easy. To try the fastenings of shops and dwellings; to see the last carriages drive away from balls and theatres; to look to the proper closing of public-houses; to watch suspicious loiterers, and examine doubtful-looking bundles carried furtively; to keep mischievous people moving on, and take the destitute to some place of shelter; to be on the look out for the sight or smell of fire or smoke, and quick to hear the springing of a rattle in any direction; to keep order at the starting of the earliest railway trains, and at the entrance of the country waggons, bringing vegetables, fish, meat, and flowers to market;—all this is easy in comparison with the day-work, from the more comparative emptiness of the streets and absence of noise.

Still, there will be another change for John. He will marry. He ought to marry; for he can very well afford it; he should have the comfort of a home of his own; and he will be a more valuable member of the force for being a family man. He ought, after that, to rise. His mother may see him a sergeant: perhaps, in course of years, an inspector. She does not see why not.

Others do see why not:—that few men remain in the force many years. They see their comrades, fine young men like themselves, carried to the grave,—not in greater numbers per thousand perhaps than many in other occupations, but more than there should be of so select a class. Six or seven in the thousand each year is a high rate of death. Then, out of the thousand admitted each year, as many as 35 are invalided, above 40 more are dismissed, and above 130 resign from one cause or another. From one cause or another, nearly a quarter of the new men have left by the end of the first year; and, as we saw before, the average length of service is only four years.


It is therefore probable that John's vocation will not always be that of policeman. His having been one, especially if he leaves the force from his own free choice, will assist his settlement in some favourable post where the virtues of the constable, with a dash of the quality of the soldier, are prized and paid for. In future years, when his old mother is sitting on one side of his household fire, and his boys are home from school and work for the evening, and John is supping before going to his post as watchman at the bank, or night-porter at one of the great hotels, he will bring out another of the thousand-and-one curious and romantic stories which all begin in the same way:—"When I was a policeman." Perhaps his old mother may sigh, and say there was a time when it was the first wish of his heart to be a policeman; and if he had kept to it, he would now have been very near receiving his pension for life: upon which, his wife may probably observe that there is another side to the case; and if he had not left the force before his health was lost, he might have been in his grave years ago, or a tottering invalid, on whom his epitaph would have been fixed while he was only half-dead:—"He was a good policeman."

Harriet Martineau.