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  • Patrick Coleman

The life of a Victorian bobby...and much more

There can’t be many better places to host a brand-new exhibition on Victorian policing than a genuine Victorian police station. Luckily for us here at NESM, our museum is housed in one.


For our visitors, the original police cells of what was once Sheffield’s joint police, fire and ambulance station have always been a highlight of any tour. Perhaps more so than any other part of the building, there’s a sense of stepping back in time as you stroll down the barred passageway, the cells seeming to hold the atmosphere (and maybe the ghosts) of over a century ago.


When the doors to the cells swing open again this May after months of lockdown, visitors will get to learn more than ever before about the lives of the officers that once frequented this station, and countless others like it, all over Britain. Over the last few weeks, a small team of NESM staff and volunteers have been busy putting the finishing touches to an exciting new exhibition that will throw light on the murky world of 19th century crime and punishment, from the rogues and villains who stalked the streets to the detectives and officers whose job it was to stop them.

I’m just as excited to see it as our visitors will be (I’ve been in lockdown for months and have yet to explore the new galleries). Luckily, my friends at NESM have taken pity on me and sent a sneak preview of just a little of what awaits in Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds. They sent it on the express condition that I keep it completely secret and - under no circumstances - share the information with anybody outside the museum walls. So I am going to do the only thing I reasonably can in this situation: share it with all of you on a public blog! Well, they should know by now that I can’t keep a secret!


Here’s the scoop!


Do you want to know more about what life was like as a Victorian bobby? As the self-styled NESM mole, I happen to know that's just one of the things you'll be able to discover in this new exhibition. I’ll begin my leaking of classified info with an overview of the Raw Lobster. No, that’s not my mole code name; that’s what the public used to call police officers (according to NESM documents I’ve seen). You see, when the first proper police forces were organised back in the 19th century, they were not very popular at all. There had never been full-time, centrally organised policing before, not until the pioneering politician Robert 'Bobby' Peel started introducing them in the late 1820s. 'Bobbies' was actually one of the nicer nicknames for the new officers compared to some others. The public were very suspicious of the 'boys in blue' who they thought were simply army officers in disguise. And because soldiers traditionally wore red, the nicknames 'raw lobsters' and 'blue devils' soon took off.

Yep, according to my secret files, there’s tons of info on policing’s early years in this exhibition. You’ll find plenty of stuff on the new recruits: what sort of people could apply to be officers (men no shorter than 5”9, who could read… and who met various other unreasonable requirements like not having a wife who kept a shop); and what sort of people were actually hired (a lot of drunken, ill disciplined, scruffy young chaps, the first of whom lasted about four hours in the job). There’s lots of juicy info on these questionable characters and their backgrounds. Some of them were in fact ex-military men - so the public’s suspicions weren’t entirely off the mark - but many were from working class backgrounds and came from the same gritty streets as the criminals they arrested!


From what I’ve seen of the exhibition blueprints, you’ll also learn just what life was like for these new recruits. How they pounded their beats - about 25 miles per night! How they patrolled alone, delving into the seedy criminal underworlds armed with only a truncheon, a whistle and (most indispensable of all) a rattle!


If they managed to scare off the villains with their mighty rattles, however, life wasn’t all bad. Victorian bobbies were well fed (meat and two veg, anyone?) and life in stations like NESM’s home at West Bar could even be fun. Many bobbies were housed in stations which had recreation facilities including libraries. Officers often formed in-house sports teams and played in league competitions against other stations. There was all the camaraderie that came from living and working with a team of close friends, and that was just as well, because many recruits found their old friends - and even their families - disowned them after they joined up, worried they would be thought of as police spies (or 'copper's narks).


Quick, what else?


I’ve a feeling the NESM office is on to me, so I’d best be swift. What else? Oh yes, Robert Peel introduced the Nine Principles of Policing that still underpin police activities today, but I’ve only got time to tell you about two of them: (1) the mission of the police is to prevent crime and disorder; (2) the police depend on public approval in order to perform their duties. These may seem like obvious ideas but if you’ve ever read our previous blogs about pre-Peel policing, you’ll know that it was not always the most noble of vocations. These principles were important to establish, as were the others you’ll learn about when NESM reopens.

What else can I squeeze in before the office cuts my internet link? Victorian officers were paid about 25 shillings per week (you’ll have to come to the exhibition to find out what that is in modern money; I simply don’t have time to tell you here). The length of your facial hair was strictly controlled… you had to wear a uniform even off duty… you needed permission to have your dinner with a mate who wasn’t a police officer…


There’s tons more, but you’ll just have to come to Daring Detectives and Dastardly Deeds to find out.


What are they going to do, lock me in the cells?


Actually, it turns out that under Rule 10, Paragraph 3, Subsection Z of the NESM Code, it is an offence to leak classified exhibition info, punishable by… well, I won’t spell it out.


Those Daring Detectives will be after me next. So this is the NESM mole signing off… for now.


The museum is reopening on Wednesday 19 May and tickets are on sale now at visitnesm.org.uk/booking.


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