What’s the most important piece of equipment an officer might carry? Truncheon? Handcuffs? Sidearm? Pepper-spray? Taser? Notepad and pencil?
In older times, the answer might surprise you. From the 1880s until the 1970s, almost all over the world, policemen, and later, policewomen, had one piece of equipment which was arguably just as important as all of those things, and yet which was tiny, and seemingly, insignificant – the police whistle!
Why Are You Looking At This?
Oh okay seriously…why?
The Police whistle was one of the first pieces of equipment specifically made for the police to try and make communications easier between officers. Despite the fact that they haven’t been used operationally in at least 40 years, the police whistle has remained one of the most powerful symbols of law and order to this day. Even now, we still have the term ‘Whistleblower‘, meaning to expose some sort of injustice or corruption which was previously hidden from the public.
Before the Police Whistle
The earliest forms of policing were local watchmen, constables and nightmen who patrolled the streets of cities and towns at night. (think “Ten o’clock and All’s Well!“) Their only form of protection or defense was a wooden staff, or truncheon, or a dagger or sword of some description. To raise the alarm, they had to rely on their lungs, or on heavy wooden rattles. These heavy, bulky rattles were swung around on a central handle. Centrifugal force caused the whole thing to swing around, and the rattle blades struck against the ribbed surface in the middle of the rattle, producing a loud clattering sound.
From as far back as the 1600s, right up to the 19th century, this was all they had to raise the alarm.
And it was hardly ideal, for reasons I’ll explain later.
The Rise of the Police
In the 1800s, the Industrial Revolution in Britain was forcing towns and cities to grow. Major population-centers like Birmingham, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Glasgow and London were bursting at the seams. Impoverished rural workers flooded into cities to find work. And when there wasn’t any work, they turned to crime.
In the 1700s, this was already a major issue, and by the early 1800s, it had become so ultra-extreme that even old standbys like transportation and execution were ineffective as deterrents.
In the early 1800s, the first police-forces as we’d recognise them today, were established in Glasgow, in Scotland, and London, in England. These forces were unlike anything seen before. They were designed to be civilian forces keeping the peace, preventing or deterring crimes, and arresting criminals when crime took place. But the equipment issued to policemen had hardly changed since Stuart times.
A typical officer, in his dark blue uniform (dark blue instead of red, which was used by the Army – the famous British Redcoats), strengthened top hat, and boots, was equipped with handcuffs or manacles, a cutlass, a baton or truncheon, and a rattle for raising the alarm. And for nearly 100 years…that was all they had.
The Introduction of the Police Whistle
Truncheons were used by early police officers because they were easily held in one hand, unlike rifles or muskets, which required both hands to operate. And rattles were used to sound the alarm if backup was required. But the problems with rattles were significant.
As early as the 1860s and 70s, police in Britain were looking for replacements for rattles. And in some smaller police-forces, whistles had been suggested, and were being trialed. It was not until the 1880s, however, that whistles actually became standard-issue.
The General Service Whistle, as it was called, had a number of benefits over the old-fashioned rattle. In its hundreds of years of use, the rattle had shown that it had a number of shortcomings:
1). The rattle was bulky and heavy. It took up space in the uniform. It slowed the officer down. Its odd shape caught on clothing and snagged.
2). The rattle was made of wood. This could crack, warp, chip or break if the rattle was used too rigorously, or if it was dropped and broken.
3). The rattle’s size and weight meant that if it was taken from an officer, it could be used as a bludgeon! A desperate criminal could smash it into an officer’s face or head and knock him out. It was therefore, a safety-hazard.
4). The rattle was not loud enough to be an effective means of communication. And on top of that, the rattling sound it produced would be drowned out or mistaken for something else in the din of traffic – the rumbling of barrels. The clatter of horse-hooves. The grinding of carriage-wheels…Useless!
The whistle on the other hand, was far superior in a number of ways:
1). It’s extremely small. The General Service Whistle is about three inches long. You can put into a pocket and forget it’s there. Less space taken up on a uniform.
2). It’s tough. They’re made of brass. If you drop it, it won’t break.
3). It cannot be used as a weapon against the officer.
4). It’s distinct sound meant that it was impossible for it to be mistaken for anything else.
5). Its loud noise and long range meant that it could be heard better, and further, than rattles, making it effective when calling for backup.
Although some forces did use different whistles in the 1870s, if the police whistle was going to be used throughout Britain and the world, it had to be ONE type of whistle, with ONE distinct sound which EVERYONE would recognise. For this to work, they had to find, or design and make ONE whistle which would be better, louder, and more distinct than any other!
The classic, tubular “General Service Whistle” came about in 1883. The London Metropolitan Police (Scotland Yard) put out advertisements in newspapers around Britain, to find a suitable whistle, and a suitable replacement for the heavy wooden rattles which officers were STILL using in the early 1880s!
Up came Mr. Joseph Hudson, toolmaker and whistle-manufacturer, from Birmingham.
Popular folklore will tell you that Mr. Hudson was an amateur violinist. One evening while fiddling with his fiddle, he walked around, musing over the problem which the police had put to the public. Perhaps distracted by this, he put down his violin and accidentally knocked it off the table. It fell to the floor and shattered at his feet! As the strings snapped in front of him, he heard the twanging, humming sound echoing around the room. He realised if he could recreate that trill, discordant sound, it would be unique, loud and far-carrying! He hurried to his workshop to try and make this a reality.
The result was the “The Metropolitan” police whistle.
The Classic Police Whistle
Tubular, easy to hold, small, loud and unique, it was ideal for the Metropolitan Police, and could be heard over a MILE away on a good day. More then sufficient for the needs of the police!
The tubular ‘General Service Whistle‘ was not just manufactured for the police. It was used by everyone. Hence the name ‘General Service’. Although originally manufactured for the police, its loud, authoritative shriek became the classic sound of alarm. It was therefore ideal for services where such a whistle might be required. More about that later…
The whistle was used all over the world. From New York City to London, to Toronto, to Melbourne and Bombay. If you had a police-force in the early 20th century, it almost certainly carried this whistle, or at least, had it as an option from a selection of whistles.
The whistle officially replaced the heavy, bulky wooden rattles in February of 1884, when the Metropolitan Police Service’s initial order of 21,000 whistles was finally completed! Police regulations stated that all London police constables on duty had to carry one, and have it easily accessible in case trouble should arise.
The General Service ‘Metropolitan’ police whistle was worn with a pocket-chain and hook-clasp. Uniform guidelines for British police stated that the whistle-chain should be affixed to the second button from the top of the tunic-jacket, and that the chain be draped down the front and the whistle tucked inside the jacket, between buttons. As this was not always comfortable, an alternative method of carrying the whistle was to attach the chain to the second button of your uniform tunic-jacket, and place the whistle in the left-hand breast-pocket, with a couple of inches of excess chain hanging free. In an emergency, an officer could easily grasp the chain, pull out the whistle and blow it!
But what were the guidelines for using the whistle? How did it fit into the policeman’s duties? And what happened when it was sounded?
The Whistle in Action
The heyday of the classic police whistle was from the 1880s-1970s. A period of almost 100 years. The whistles were originally introduced in 1883, and from then until about 1970, remained part of police-uniforms around the world.
To patrol streets, keep the peace, deter or detect crime and uphold the law, police-officers used to patrol in ‘beats’, some forces still do, although these days it’s not as common as it once was.
A ‘beat’ was the area of an officer’s patrol. Typically he circled a set location (typically one or two blocks) for a set period of time (say, one hour). At the end of his beat, and during his beat, a police constable or patrolman would meet with his sergeant, who would note down that he had seen the officer, and therefore, that he was ‘pounding his beat’ and patrolling his area of their jurisdiction properly.
General Service Metropolitan whistles were used to call for backup in emergencies, to alert the public of danger and get their attention, or to direct and control people and traffic.
If a policeman on the beat spotted a crime in progress, he would intervene, as was his duty. If the situation went outside of his control, such as a thief fleeing the scene of a robbery, the officer would give chase. To sound the alarm and give the robber fewer places to run to, the constable blew on his whistle. The far-carrying sound would alert all officers on similar beats within hearing-distance. The policeman in-pursuit would continue blowing his whistle so that other officers could get a fix on his location, and so that they could tell which direction the pursuit was headed.
The whistle was used in any situation where an ordinary shout was insufficient. Directing traffic, gaining attention, raising the alarm, calling for help, or simply telling someone without words, that the game was up!
The whistle lasted a surprisingly long time. It wasn’t until the advent of handheld radios in the 1970s that it was finally replaced. Today, the Metropolitan whistle is still issued to ‘Bobbies’, but its role today is largely ceremonial. It’s worn with dress-uniforms, it’s purchased from shops as a souvenir, or it’s used to direct traffic. Some whistles are presented to senior officers upon retirement. Officers are still issued with these whistles today, although it’s mostly for the sake of tradition.
The whistles manufactured today by the Joseph Hudson ACME Whistle Co. are a lot less ornate than the whistles they used to make. Actual police-whistles which saw service were elaborately marked and stamped. The whistle-barrels were marked with words like “J. Hudson & Co”, the company’s address in Birmingham, “The Metropolitan”, “The City”, and the name of the police-force for whom the whistles had been commissioned. Each city and town had its own whistles with their own city marked on them.
Mr. Joseph Hudson and His Whimsical Whistles
Prior to the 1880s, Mr. Hudson was a struggling Birmingham tool-manufacturer and tinkerer, who liked creating all kinds of things. Whistles were one of his passions, but he built and fiddled with all kinds of things to do anything to get a few extra shillings in his pockets.
After his Eureka Moment in 1883, Mr. Hudson’s life changed forever. As by far the largest provider of whistles to the various British police-forces, Hudson stood to make a fortune! Every officer in every police-force in the British Isles, as well as colonial forces overseas, needed HIS whistle. He would have to produce millions of them to meet demand! The whistles became cheap, and he became rich! By the time he died in 1930, Joseph Hudson’s whistle company was producing whistles for all kinds of things!
Need to train your dog? Hudson made dog-whistles. Need to referee a sporting-match? He made sporting whistles, too! How about calling a taxi-cab in a crowded London street? No need to shout! Just buy the Joseph Hudson taxi-call. A couple of sharp toots and the nearest cab would come chugging up to take you away. What if you’re a ship’s officer at sea? Joseph Hudson’s company also produced the whistles carried by sailors and naval-officers – he even produced the whistles used on the R.M.S. Titanic!
How It’s Made: General Service Metropolitan Police Whistles
The company became so successful that it remained in the Hudson family until after WWII, that’s three generations! The company’s main factory in Birmingham was flattened during the War thanks to German air-raids, but it continues to produce whistles in Birmingham today. Its most popular models are the Thunderer, the Mate’s Whistle, and of course, the General Service Metropolitan.
The Whistle in General Service
Although it’s called a Bobby’s Whistle, Metropolitan Police Whistle and dozens of other variations along those lines, this classic whistle is actually called the ‘General Service Whistle’. The key word being ‘general’.
The whistle was used everywhere. The United States, Canada, Britain, India, Europe, Australia, Africa and all corners of the British Empire. Almost every country in the world would’ve heard its familiar shrill shriek at one point or another. And it was used by a lot more than just the police. Firemen carried them to pass orders or get attention in an emergency, because the shrill blast of the whistle could be heard over the crackling of flames or the crashing of collapsing masonry.
In the two world wars, British officers carried these whistles to pass commands and orders. Specially-marked ‘Trench Whistles’ were manufactured by the ACME Co. and distributed to field officers. They would blow their whistles before going ‘over the top’ during the First World War, to indicate that it was time to attack!
The whistles were also used on the home front. General Service Whistles were also manufactured for Air Raid Precautions, and you can find whistles marked “ARP”. These would’ve been used to direct and control crowds of panicked Londoners during the Blitz in the Second World War. They were more effective than shouting over the explosions of thousands of bombs and the constant wail of the air-raid sirens.
Apart from these more expected roles, the General Service Whistle was also used in hospitals, psychiatric wards and mental asylums, where they were carried by orderlies and hospital attendants. Just imagining the kind of events for which these whistles would’ve been used for in such places is unnerving!
The Whistle in Film and Television
The Metropolitan Whistle was used a lot in film and television, its sound was distinctive and unique. In “Casablanca” (1942), it’s heard in the opening scenes, and later on when Captain Renault closes down Rick’s Cafe. In “The Hound of the Baskervilles” (1939), Basil Rathbone blows the whistle at the end of the film, to alert the village constabulary of Stapleton’s escape. In crime TV series taking place during Victorian times or the early 20th century, the whistle is heard everywhere. “Ripper Street“, “Murdoch Mysteries“, “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” and “Agatha Christie’s Poirot” have all used it at least once.
The General Service Metropolitan Whistle Today
The whistle as a practical piece of police-kit ended in the 1970s. In the postwar era, the rise in motorcar ownership meant that louder traffic reduced the audible range of the whistle. It was no-longer effective as a means of communication, and the Victorian answer to a centuries old problem died with the birth of handheld radios.
These whistles are still manufactured, and still by the same original company – Joseph Hudson’s ACME Company, but their use today is almost entirely limited to souvenirs, ceremony, tradition, or novelty. Some are still used for their original purpose, but this is rare. Most people who own them today do so for the historical connection, whistle-collecting, or because they require a whistle on a regular basis and have selected it because of its unique sound and long range.
Want to Hear More About Whistles?
The Whistle Shop – Lots of information about old police whistles and general service whistles here.
The Whistle Gallery – HUGE collection of whistles and information!
There’s also a website called the Whistle Museum, but I think it’s currently offline (or it was at the time of this posting).