Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Greater Manchester Police Museum: More Than Law and Order

Greater Manchester Police in Victorian times
My father, brother, and nephew came to visit me today. I'd booked the day off work and spent the time with them exploring the great city of Manchester. One thing they haven't seen before is the Greater Manchester Police Museum, which is on 57a Newton Street, Manchester. It was amazing.

Staffed by volunteers and free to visit, this is only open on Tuesdays. See the website for details. Exhibits include the old holding cells, rope picking, equipment including truncheons, swords, lamps, and handcuffs. My young nephew was enthralled. My dad bought him a plastic police helmet from the well-stocked shop. It's got some great swag in there. The volunteers are ex-police and very knowledgeable. They've actually got a magistrate's courtroom exhibit upstairs, which was taken from a former courtroom at Denton, Tameside.

Lessons from history

If you ever wondered what it would be like if the Tories finally got their own way and completed the demolition of public services, take a good look around the museum and talk to the staff. This is what I learned.

Capital punishment is not a deterrent

Over twenty thousand crimes a year were recorded in what is now Greater Manchester in the Victorian era, per our friendly guide. Warring gangs controlled access to various streets. Life was short, nasty, and brutal, and there were about two hundred capital crimes, i.e. for which you could be hung. One of these was returning to Britain after being transported. People were drinking gin by the pint so drunkenness and the disorderly conduct that goes with it was very common. Being absolutely wasted stopped people thinking about what they were doing; when you're hungry, desperate and drunk, you're not too worried about the prospect of meeting the hangman when you're out committing burglary, etc.

The welfare state created a more orderly society

People were poor and lived in appalling conditions. Women could expect to spend most of their adulthood getting pregnant again and again till their bodies gave out, grieving for children who died of preventable diseases because there was no real sanitation there. Imagine one outside toilet serving twenty or more families.

When the welfare state was enacted, sanitation for all in housing that was fit to live in was one of the first things the new Labour government brought in. As a result, infant mortality plummeted. The advent of contraceptives gave women the freedom to choose when to have children, thereby improving their own health and that of their offspring; a healthy mother is more likely to have healthy kids.

Provision of unemployment benefits brought down the crime rate by bringing to an end the desperation that drove people to steal. Education for all improved people's prospects and enabled people to have the chance to get well-paid jobs. In short, shut up about "big government." We actually need it.

Remember, the Victorians had private sector provision for these services but they didn't meet everyone's needs and tended to be conditional on membership of religious organisations. Well fewer people are going to church these days so the churches we have now can't deliver those services to the extent that they did back in the day and private charities, etc., aren't doing a great job of filling the gaps.

The police delivered public services

We were told that people who joined the police often couldn't read or write. They had come in off the farms to take part in the Industrial Revolution and those who couldn't find factory work often ended up joining the police. They were taught to read and write and to do basic administration tasks. Since the job was pretty dangerous and the pay wasn't great, many of the new recruits ended up using the police as a stepping stone to building a career elsewhere.

There was no ambulance or fire brigade back in the day; the police attended to that. This is why they used to carry first aid kits around with them. As the service evolved it became more professional with more in-depth training. The advent of the NHS saw the ambulance service function transferred to the hospitals while the Fire Brigade was spun off as a separate service.

Personal thoughts

The museum was a big hit with my family. We had a good laugh when, on the way to the Manchester United football ground, he stuck out his hand and a car stopped. It really is an important resource, both as a reminder of where public services have come from and how important it is to provide them. I'd never realised how essential public service provision and the welfare state is to maintaining law and order. It really is the keystone of an orderly and peaceful society.

Go to the museum if you ever get a chance. It really is an important part of our heritage and I don't think we should take it for granted.

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