In fact, the 1856 Act did not create a centralized system so much as impose a centralized idea of policing on administratively semi-autonomous county constabularies. What was being constructed was not a police state but a ‘policeman state’. It is difficult to measure the efficiency of these new forces in any general sense. What does seem to have been generally true, though, was that a more professional police was initially very effective in reducing petty crime. Characteristically poorly organized working class crime, typically petty larceny, did decline in the later nineteenth century. The decline of theft is clearly etched in the criminal statistics of later Victorian England, and it is not difficult to imagine the cultural and ideological changes that this implied and reflected. Ideas of domesticity, an expansive private domain, and the security of property were all wholly consonant with a more ostentatiously and rigorously policed society.
Equally significant for contemporaries, and less obviously narrated in the statistical records, was the change in the street culture of provincial England. Sensible of ratepayers’ hostility to what they might regard as needless inflation in local taxation, police committees concentrated on policies that might persuade ratepayers of the value of new forces. Campaigns against street violence, vagrants, disorderly behavior, and petty street crime were thus commonplace. A relatively untrained force, as yet imbued with only a rudimentary policing ethic and bereft of a sophisticated culture of detection, was well suited to the straightforward policing of public spaces. In rural villages traditional amusements [e.g. bull-baiting] were often vigorously challenged. Public spaces became more ordered, decorous, and sanitized. By the later nineteenth century police were doing above ground what new sewers were doing below ground, creating an environment which was visibly cleaner, healthier and safer. Prisons, workhouses, lunatic asylums, and hospitals removed even greater numbers of the sick, the wandering, the delinquent, and those given to molesting the respectable by begging, vagrancy, and abuse. It is important not to draw this picture too starkly, but it does sketch something of profound idealogical and cultural importance. Slowly, hesitantly, and in a very distinctive way, provincial England had passed from the world of Hogarth and Fielding to the world of Chadwick and Mrs Oliphant. In the process, the relationship between society and state had been renegotiated, and an old order in provincial England was gradually passing away.
Government and Community in the English Provinces, 1700-1870, by David Eastwood.