In the 17th century, Scottish cities used to hire watchmen to guard the streets at night, augmenting a force of unpaid citizen constables. On 30 June 1800 the authorities of Glasgow successfully petitioned the British Government to pass the Glasgow Police Act, establishing the City of Glasgow Police. It served Glasgow from 1800 to 1975, when it was amalgamated into Strathclyde Police when local government was reorganised.
City of Glasgow Police is sometimes described as the first modern-style municipal police force, although due to the original Glasgow force’s small size and varied duties (as well as policing they also fought fires, called the hours and swept the streets, in many ways more closely resembling the older city watchmen) this title has previously been claimed by the London Metropolitan Police. However, following formal enforcement action by the Advertising Standards Authority, the Metropolitan Police gave a written undertaking never to repeat this claim again.
Amongst the many strands to be found in the history of policing in Glasgow, going back to its very origins, the interweaving of Gaelic, sport (shinty mainly) and piping, the Highlands, islands and Argyll has given the force in its many forms a distinctive character over time. And there have been plenty of characters, even in the early days of the Tolbooth prison which was overseen between c. 1659-1664 by Tearlach Mac Ghilleathain, (Charles MacLean) who looked after thieves and plunderers. It appears that this work was quite sought after and respected and that at least Mac Ghilleatheain’s successor, a merchant, was chosen for the position.
In 1779, Bailies (magistrates) of the City of Glasgow appointed James Buchanan as Inspector and established a Police force of eight police officers. This force failed through lack of finance in just two years later. In 1788 six Bailies proposed the establishment of a Police force through an Act of Parliament to empower them to levy a rate from householders to finance the force.
The Bailies displayed vision and innovation in setting out their proposals insisting that the force would be run by a Watch Committee of elected citizens, known as Commissioners.
The force would wear uniforms with numbered badges with ‘Police’ inscribed on them and each member would lodge £50 to guarantee their good conduct. The force of eight would provide twenty-four-hour patrols (supplementing the Police Watchmen who were on static points throughout the night) to prevent crime and detect offenders.
The policemen they envisaged would not be mere watchmen and what they had written down was the concept of “Preventive Policing”, 40 years before Sir Robert Peel established preventive policing in the Metropolitan area of London in 1829. In February 1789 this force of truly professional police took to the streets.
During the following eleven years, Glasgow City fathers tried to get their Police Bill before Parliament, but without success. In the meantime, the small, pioneering, Glasgow police force, led by the Master of Police, Richard Marshall, was struggling to maintain its existence due to lack of the finance that the Bill would have provided. In 1790 the force failed, and the City had again to rely on a City Guard of citizens. During the summer of 1800, the Glasgow Police Bill was debated in Parliament and on 30 June 1800, the Glasgow Police Act received Royal Assent.