This day in London’s history: on 5 February 1788 Robert Peel was born; he would later become Sir Robert Peel and establish the city’s first organized police force. That law enforcement body, London’s Metropolitan police force, has long been known as Scotland Yard or just the Yard.
However, the modern building called New Scotland Yard, which serves as headquarters for the police force, is nowhere near Great Scotland Yard. And here’s why:
The Palace of Westminster, which no longer stands, once served as the main residence for the English monarchs – that is, until Henry VIII decided that Whitehall Palace (also gone) would suit him better. A parcel of land belonging to the palace, including a house given by King Edgar to Kenneth III of Scotland in the 10th century, was reserved for royal Scottish visitors and their retinues; Margaret, sister to Henry VIII, was such a guest. Some of the names for spaces between the houses, which had begun to proliferate on this parcel of land known as Scotland were, unimaginatively, things like Great, Middle and Little Scotland Yard.
In the meantime, London lacked organization in its law enforcement; Henry Fielding had established the Bow Street Runners in 1749, which proved effective though few in number, but as the city expanded during the 18th and 19th centuries the question of maintaining law and order had become a matter of public concern. In 1812, 1818 and 1822, Parliamentary committees were appointed to investigate the subject of crime and policing, but it was not until 1828 when Peel set up his committee that the findings paved the way for his police Bill. That bill led to the setting up of an organized police service in London.
In 1829 the Metropolitan Police Force was formed and the new force (consisting of around 600 men, six of whom were discharged on the first day for being drunk) set up headquarters in Great Scotland Yard (Little and Middle had by then combined to become Whitehall Place). The police of the time became known affectionately as Bobbies, from Sir Robert or, sometimes, and not so affectionately as ‘Peelers’. They were not popular to start with but proved very successful in cutting crime in London. It was not long before the street and the force itself both became known as Scotland Yard.
The Yard has moved twice since then: first in 1890 to the Victoria Embankment near Westminster Bridge. The site for the building, which was designed by architect Norman Shaw, was originally set aside for an opera house but waterlogged foundations and lack of funds put paid to that idea. It took the police several years to purchase the land and start building, by which time the proposed cost had increased nearly eightfold. The police stayed there for nearly 80 years and then moved again in 1967 to new headquarters off Victoria Street. In 2013, it was announced that the force will move to a smaller building on the Victoria Embankment in 2015, which will be renamed Scotland Yard.
It’s tempting to try and link Great Scotland Yard with the exclamation ‘Great Scott!’ but that’s stretching it, even for this blog. There are various theories as to the derivation of the expression, the most fun being that it comes from Mark Twain’s dislike of Sir Walter Scott and his writing. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the main character utters “Great Scott” as an oath, and in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, he names a sinking boat the Walter Scott.
However, it is more likely that the source was the American Civil War general, Winfield Scott, who was a rather large man.