Archive for March, 2008

In previous instalments, I’ve mentioned some of the prison reforms that led to the creation of the Kingston Penitentiary. This was part of a broader move toward reforming Canada law enforcement system in the 19th century. Another change that would come to greatly affect the lives of gay and bisexual men was the invention of the modern police force.

It seems funny to think of a police force as something one invents. Yet the system used in the late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-centuries in Canada was vastly different from anything we’d recognize as law enforcement. This was the constabulary – a force of volunteers and draftees who performed police work only when a situation arose, but otherwise worked ordinary day jobs.

The rules varied from place to place, but usually a magistrate appointed these constables. In the Gore District, for instance – the modern Hamilton area – they would serve one-year terms with the proviso that no one had to serve two years in a row. The constables made no money, but were reimbursed for any expenses. Only larger cities had permanent forces of constables — rural areas only had one.

After the Enlightenment, these drafted law-enforcement agents were increasingly portrayed in popular culture as hilariously inept or corrupt. Modern scholarship has been kinder to them. One thing that seems to be agreed upon, though, is that constables, weren’t – as we’d say today – “pro-active.” They pursued criminals after a crime had committed. Except for the night watchmen in Europe’s largest cities, there was no effort at crime prevention.

Mainland Europe began to develop the idea of a police force long before Britain did. In major cities in France and elsewhere, the new full-time, paid constables were able to devote themselves exclusively to preventing and solving crime.

A Scottish merchant and magistrate named Patrick Colquhoun greatly admired these European systems. In 1797, a magistrate and master mariner named John Harriot came up with a plan to stop cargo theft with just such a police force patrolling the River Thames. Colquhoun and Enlightenment philosopher Jeremy Bentham both threw their weight behind this project.

The force was set up and privately funded. Judged a success, it was quickly taken over by local government.

The same year this experiment began, Colquhoun published A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis. This was a long and impassioned argument for the establishment of paid, full-time police forces everywhere in Britain.

More importantly for our purposes, Colquhoun was an advocate of what we now call “preventative policing.” He writes:

“The most enlightened Foreigners, who have visited this Metropolis [London], and contemplated the nature and organization of our Police System, join in our general remark upon it; viz. ‘That we have some shadow of Police, for apprehending Delinquents after crimes are actually committed; but none for the purpose of preventing them. This certainly is one sense, literally true…”

Colquhoun went on to describe an incident in France, where the police not only uncovered a conspiracy to murder a wealthy merchant and take his money, but also set up what we’d now call a sting operation to catch the conspirators.

These are common concepts in policing now, but to an English-speaking audience in 1797, these were radical ideas. They also changed the nature of policing in the British Empire.

Constables had performed raids before – such as the 1725 raid on Mother Clap’s Molly House in London. There was even something a little like detectives in the Bow Street Runners of London, who tracked and caught thieves. Yet what Colquhoun was proposing was something on a much larger scale – a permanent force that could patrol the streets and perform investigations, sting operations, and other acts of “preventive policing.” The object of these reforms was to stop crime before it had started.

Colquhoun found an ally in Jeremy Bentham, and a much more important ally in politician Sir Robert Peel, who would eventually become Britain’s Prime Minister. Peel argued for the spread of the police force to the four corners of the British Empire.


In the 1830s – at the same time Canada was experimenting with the penitentiary – the colony was also getting its first full-time law-enforcement officials. When Toronto was incorporated in 1834, it gave itself a police force. Montreal received a force in 1837 — before then, soldiers from the British garrison were helping the constables to keep the peace in that city.

The main concerns of the time were more politics than crime. Both Upper and Lower Canada were teetering over the edge of a political crisis, as pro-democracy revolutionaries clashed with the colonial government. At the same time, Toronto and Montreal were major sites of religious violence of the sort one typically associates now with Northern Ireland, as the Protestant Orange Order clashed with (mostly Irish) Catholics in riot after riot.

These early police forces had their hands full with trying to prevent a full-scale insurrection – in Montreal this failed, and the collapse of civil government in Montreal in 1837 led the police to declare bankruptcy.

In this climate, “moral” issues (like homosexuality) just weren’t on the radar.

Historian John C. Weaver, describing the history of law enforcement in Hamilton, describes the situation in that city, and how tolerated “moral crimes” were at that time:

“Along the waterfront, drinking, gambling, and whoring went on in taverns, licensed shops, and disorderly houses. Hamilton, a town of three thousand in 1840, probably supported some twenty drinking establishments.”

At the end of the 1830s and the beginning of the next decade, this began to change, however. Upper Canada became caught up in a crusade for moral reform:

”Under its old town charter, Hamilton had passed by-laws in the 1830s and the early 1840s that restricted bowling as an indolent recreation, prohibited roulette, established penalties for prostitutes and found-ins, and codified a sweeping measure against drunkards, vagrants, and rowdies.”

Hamilton was too busy tackling the evils of bowling, apparently, to pay much attention to “sodomy.” Yet it did send one “sodomite” (Courtland Travers) in 1843 to the penitentiary at Kingston, most likely for paedophilia.

The appearance of the police would change things, however. As police forces in Canada grew in scope and honed their techniques they would lend muscle to this moral crusade, which picked up steam and spread through the country in the second half of the nineteenth century. The situation for gay and bisexual men was about to become much more dire.

The Police and Homosexuality

Why include this long history of the invention of the police? I’ve added this section because the relationship between LGBT communities and the police is a crucial one. The theme of police harassment and persecution is one of the major threads of our history in this country, as it is in most countries.

In coming instalments – interspersed with other topics – I’m going to cover the first police raids of gay spaces, the first mass-arrests, the censoring of gay publications, the bathhouse raids, and RCMP espionage in our community. It’s a history of antagonism there that sadly continues to the present day.

There had been constables, of course, throughout this history. These tiny forces of untrained draftees and volunteers, though, only made arrests when there was a victim, or when the “sodomite” was denounced by nosey neighbours or religious leaders.

The police force was a whole other beast. It had a mandate to use investigation, harassment, and the threat of force to ensure that crimes weren’t committed in the first place. When it came to “sodomites,” it terrorized communities as an act of psychological warfare, punctuated by occasional arrests. This was essentially treated as a form of preventative policing.

Before the raids began in earnest, however, the police needed another weapon in their arsenal. Actual “sodomy” was hard to prove, after all. In the last decade of the nineteenth century, however, they got that tool in the form of the so-called “gross indecency” law.

But I’ll get to the invention of the “gross indecency” law in my next instalment.

Sources: My best source was John C. Weaver’s Crimes, Constables, and Courts: Order and Transgression in a Canadian City, 1816-1870. This is a complete history of law enforcement in Hamilton, Ontario. Weaver’s article “Crime, Public Order, and Repression” in Lawful Authority: Readings in the Criminal Justice History in Canada was very informative as well. Elinor Kyte’s essay “Influence of the British Garrison” was in the same book, and also helpful. For Patrick Colquhoun, I relied heavily on his book A Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis. For the British background, Douglas Hay and Francis Snyder’s Police and Prosecution in Britain, 1750-1850 was quite useful.


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