History of the Metropolitan Police
The basis of the original police system of 1829, the Beat Patrol was adapted from the military Shorncliffe system of small communicating scout patrols.
Under the original arrangements, 8 constables would be paraded and inspected by their Section Sergeant at the station, and then marched formally out to independent positions in the Section from which each would start to patrol a small area of streets following a regular pattern. Details of the beats were kept on numbered cards. In the crowded inner London districts the beat would be about 1 - 1.5 miles in total distance. Rowan's instruction book said 'he should be able to see every part of his beat at least once in ten minutes or a quarter of an hour; and this he will be expected to do.
The inner city beats were timed so it might be assumed that there was always an officer within 15 minutes' walking distance from any point in London. As the newer divisions in the outer suburbs were established, the beats there became longer, since much of the territory was open fields between residential areas. These parts had long been the territory of highwaymen, and lone constables were at sufficient risk to warrant their being armed with cutlasses for the first 20 years of the forces existence. For a few decades after 1870 beat constables in the outer sections were allowed to carry pistols if they wished.
The beat patrol officer was forbidden to talk to colleagues whose beats adjoined his own unless about a necessary matter of duty. He was not allowed to enter pubs or smoke on duty, and during the 19th century there were no arrangements for him to take a refreshment break. Well into the 20th century while gas lighting survived on the streets, officers equipped themselves with metal flasks which could be left discretely next to the burner in a street lamp to provide a refreshing cup of hot tea as the night wore on.
The beat wheel (a wooden spoked wheel of about 2ft diameter with a distance measuring dial - discontinued c. 1930) was used to ensure the lengths of beats were approximately equal. By the 1880s, Commissioner Sir Charles Warren noted that his men were walking up to 20 miles (32km) a night in all weathers with extremely ill made boots whose clumsiness won them a popular reputation for having huge feet, and the nickname of 'flatfoot'. The frequent entry 'worn out', explaining a constables retirement on his record and pension papers, points to the very heavy physical demands the beat patrol made on middle-aged men.
The 'bobby on the beat' has long been the public ideal of policing. The highly visible presence of a uniformed officer guarding the streets offered constant reassurance and the regular patrols were perceived as preventing vandalism and disorder by juveniles, street prostitutes and drunks. However, beat policing is extremely manpower-intensive, and providing full geographical coverage, especially in the scattered outlying Sections, soon proved impossible. Commissioner Sir Harold Scott introduced patrol cars, which enabled officers to cover greater areas more rapidly, and Unit Beat policing tried to combine the rapid response of motorised patrols with the reassurance of home beat officers. By the 1970s it seemed that the bobby on the beat was becoming rare and, since increased mechanical traffic controlled by traffic lights had also virtually eliminated point duty, the public complained that a police officer could never be found when needed. American urban experience was showing the desirability of a return to the original ideal of serving local communities with regular and familiar foot patrols, and so the Home Beat Officer was introduced, especially for housing estates and areas where drug dealing, juvenile disorder and vandalism were prevalent.
Today the beat is patrolled with a good deal of discretion at all levels. Senior Divisional officers will make their own assessment of the best balance between Permanent Beat and Relief officers on their own patch. Personal radios have obviated the need for regular personal reports of untoward occurrences and the modern widespread ownership of telephones has made this method the first resort of the public who wants police assistance.