This blog was originally posted in January 2012
I can recall joining the police in 1980 and being given a whistle as part of my uniform. Older officers showed me how it should be worn on my tunic, but it was a part of my uniform that was simply for show. The introduction of police radios in the 1960s made the requirement of blowing your whistle to summon assistance null and void to the extent that by the late 1980s the police whistle was no longer given to new constables.
Yet the whistle itself was not an original part of the police uniform circa 1829. The development of the police uniform was a considered development. Peel and his Commissioners, Rowan and Mayne, faced a public backlash for the introduction of a full time police service. The public viewed them with suspicion and were concerned that they would spy on their gatherings and impede their civil liberties. The ‘new police’ were viewed with suspicion, giving Peel two problems. First he had to encourage people to build a relationship with the police and approach them for help. The design of a uniform was one of the answers to this. The idea was that citizens would not see the police as spies as they were visible in the streets and roads of London in their top hats and tailcoats. The second issue was that the uniform could not resemble the red and gold uniforms of the military. The military had been used to break up protest and riot in the past with disastrous consequences including the death of many citizens. So a blue uniform with white trousers was chosen.
The police were ‘armed’ with a baton and a rattle that had to be hidden from view and were given a lantern on an individual basis. In a reply to a letter in 1839 that the police should be issued with whistles instead of rattles Commissioner Richard Mayne wrote of the whistle ‘we tried it in comparison with the common rattle now in use, and found the rattle preferable for giving notice of alarms.’
Each time the policeman (there were no policewomen at this time) used his rattle he had to submit a report detailing its use. This system was still in use in Merseyside Police up until the late 1980s where a police officer had to submit a report each time he or she drew his or her baton even if it was not used. Returning to the rattle, it was supposed to carried in the tail pocket of the coat, however, it was often used as protection particularly against knife wounds.
The whistle did not supercede the rattle until the 1860s and it remained an essential part of the police uniform for many decades thereafter. Interestingly the British bobby whistle is still a sought after piece of uniform. Up until recently it was awarded as a prize for exceptional community policing in Green Bay Police Department Wisconsin.
I still have my original police whistle and somewhere I have the whistle that was given to my father who was also a police officer. It is a small piece of uniform that has an interesting history. I wonder how many officers kept their whistle when they retired?