There are two Londons.
Most people don’t realize that when they pop into the British capital as tourists. They aren’t aware, as they race from the Tower to St. Paul’s Cathedral, from Christopher Wren’s Monument to the Great Fire to Harrods, that they are crossing and recrossing the boundaries between two independent Londons.
Sometimes called “the Square Mile,” a nickname dating to the Victorian era, the City of London proper is one of the 33 boroughs making up sprawling Metropolitan London. But it is something more—something extraordinary: a self-governing island in the sea of greater London.
Often called “the City” for short, The City of London contains 1.12 square miles of prime real-estate. A square mile is a miniscule portion of the whopping 607 square miles comprising Metropolitan London. But while it may be small, the City is mighty—boasting Britain’s oldest local government (the City of London Corporation); its own, gloriously costumed, Lord Mayor; and an independent police force—The London City Police—professional home to my fictional detective Nigella Parker.
“Policing the Square Mile brings with it particular challenges, quite unlike any other policing area within the UK.”
(London City Police website)
Welcome to Detective Inspector Nigella Parker’s ground.
The jurisdictional area of the London City Police can roughly be described as running from the River Thames in the south to the Barbican Centre in the north, and from Fleet Street and Chancery Lane in the west to Aldgate and Liverpool Street in the east. Like their territory, the police force is small—the smallest in the UK—with less than 800 full-time officers as of 2020.
Because its ground includes most of London’s high-flying financial district, with its ultra-modern architecture (the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater), the City Police has considerable expertise in financial/ economic crime. But money laundering and fraud aren’t all that they handle. One-hundred-and-twenty full-time officers are assigned to the Crime Directorate, charged with solving violent crimes, like those committed by the murderous arsonist DI Parker is chasing in my debut novel. Some of the most famous and salacious crimes in the history of the British Capital were investigated by the City Police—think Jack the Ripper (whose victim Catherine Eddowes was killed in the Square Mile) and the Houndsditch Murders!
The City Police have a unique identity, and even a unique appearance, from their brass badges (most UK police wear silver) to their red and white checkered colours in a nation where standard police colours are black and white. They also have a distinctive history.
How did the City of London Police evolve? Policing in the Square mile traces its roots to the medieval “watchmen” who initially defended London’s city walls. In the 13th century the responsibilities of the watch were expanded to include policing inside those walls. These were night watches, and initially the wards of the city provided one man each to serve for a one-year term. The watch grew, and by 1663 an official decree stated that it must number 1000 men nightly. In 1784 a “City Day Police” was established—a direct ancestor to the existing City Police—to compliment the night watch.
In the early 19th century Sir Robert Peel became British Home Secretary. Peel was deeply interested in a more organized form of policing for the Capital. His “Metropolitan Police” (formed in 1829) were modeled at least in part on the “Day Police” existing in the City. The new Metropolitan Police were NOT, given jurisdiction over the Square Mile, thanks to firm resistance by the London’s Lord Mayor and the Corporation of the City of London, who felt ceding law enforcement would diminish powers and liberties enjoyed by the City since the Magna Carta.
To cement police independence, the “City of London Police Act” was passed in 1839, giving the City of London Police their current name, as well as official statutory recognition. The Act undercut additional calls to merge policing of the City into the duties of the Met. The City Police remain proudly independent to this day.
[Want to learn more about the City Police? There’s a museum for that . . . Isn’t there a Museum for everything in London? “The City of London Police Museum” is tucked into a corner of the London Guildhall, and is free-of-charge. Stop by next time you are in the City.]