Policing the Home Front, 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war.


Dr Mary Fraser, University of Strathclyde 


Writing the everyday lives of ordinary people

How do you find out about the lives of ordinary people who lived in the past? What kind of evidence do we have? Diaries give detailed accounts of individuals, but not everybody wrote one, so they can only give a partial view. What if you want to know about the people in an occupational group?

My chosen method was to use a widely-read popular weekly journal aimed at my target group: the policeman on the beat. It contained letters from readers, often strongly worded, with their protests about their working conditions and hardships. It also had correspondence from wives and contributions from their children, via a series of competitions. These gave a real flavour of their lives and struggles; they show the social conditions in which the wide readership lived and worked. Journals are important sources as they need to reflect the views of their readers to remain viable, they also encourage readers to form certain opinions, so are a reflector and arbiter of opinions. Journals often demonstrate how the good person should behave; for example, the journal I chose named the police forces from which many policemen volunteered to help on farms during the food shortages of 1917, when national starvation was feared, the implication being that those who volunteered were role models for others to follow.

So how to decide which journal to use? I found it worthwhile to spend a bit of time searching for one which was widely read by my target group, or in my case asking a friendly librarian. I was advised to use The Police Review and Parade Gossip. If there are reviews by well-respected researchers, this will increase the journal’s credibility and its use as a research source:

“Writers on police history, Clapson and Emsley, also celebrated The Police Review and its editor, calling him enthusiastic and forceful with his aim for the journal to be a mouthpiece for the respectable, educated working man who served to be a policeman and also had rights as a citizen. The journal gave a strong sense of professionalism to its readers by mediating between a public service, the policeman’s self-improvement, and the career structure within which he worked. It was specifically aimed at police constables and reinforced the idea of policing as a career.”

The journal was not linked to a political party but was highly influential in representing the views of grass-roots policing at a time when few other avenues were open to give policemen a voice.

I decided on the inclusive dates of the First World War, rather than a sampling strategy for data collection. Data analysis looked for themes which arose frequently from the data. During World War One these were of 2 distinct types: 1. those affecting policing as an occupation i.e. living costs, pensions, and conscription; and 2. the work of the police i.e. policing the war separation allowance, policing alcohol, policing sexual morality, youth crime and the corrupting effects of the cinema. These themes form separate chapters in my book. Once I’d identified a theme, all the instances contributing to it were captured, so that each theme could be described, and I could show how each differed from the others. Then I was able to link each theme to other work in the area to understand better what the issue was about and how it linked to the wider social structures of the time. Bringing in other work allows comparisons with reports in the journal to assess its reliability and where differences are found, to search further for explanations. 

To see the theme of living costs which included The Incorporated Police Wife please go to https://royalphil.org/219th-session-2020-2021/ then scroll down to 21st October to play the Youtube video.

The history of police work is a very under-developed field. This book will be followed by others to make a contribution to developing this area of study.


Policing the Home Front, 1914-1918: The control of the British population at war (2018), is published by Routledge


About the Author:

Dr Mary Fraser was Senior Lecturer in the Department of Government, University of Strathclyde teaching research methods and supervising dissertations/theses by post-graduate students from sociology, politics, geography and social policy. She has held public appointments in England and Scotland and is an experienced public speaker. Her PhD from Goldsmiths, University of London, completed in 1995, was based on the work of Michel Foucault, particularly Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. Her MSc was funded by a Department of Health Research Studentship.

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