The Leith Police dismisseth us: Force's legacy is still important a century after its demise – Tom Wood

A hundred years ago last week, one of the most famous police forces in the world – the Leith Burgh Police was dismissed for the last time.

A truncheon, set of handcuffs and a helment once worn by members of Leith Burgh Police (Picture: Tom Wood)

Immortalised by a tongue twister used as a test of sobriety, the old Burgh force paraded for the last time on 2 November 1920, prior to amalgamation with Edinburgh City Police.

It was a forced marriage, not just for the police but the fiercely independent Burgh itself. After a long struggle, Leith had bowed to the inevitable. Once the most prosperous port on the East Coast, in the 16th century, it had even been mooted as the nation’s capital. But gradually Edinburgh, prosperous following the development of the New Town, gained control. The city’s wealthy merchants were not about to share the profits from the new docks they had helped bankroll.

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Interestingly, the legislative mechanism for Edinburgh’s takeover was the innocuous-sounding "Edinburgh Boundaries Extension and Tramways Act". Yes, there have been controversial tram schemes in Edinburgh before.

Old photographs show the last parade, a smart body of lean men marching past their old HQ in Queen Charlotte Street. A glum crowd looks on, perhaps sensing it was symbolic of something deeper.

Leith Burgh Police was a tiny force, just 117 strong with 50 more in the closed docks. But they were a formidable outfit, they had to be. In the early years of the 20th century, Leith Docks was crammed with ships, sailors and the thieves and prostitutes who inevitably followed in their wake.

A condition of service in the Burgh force was to be a strong swimmer and lifesaver. Since the shore next to the docks was crowded with pubs, brothels and sailors’ lodging houses, you can understand why.

Leith Burgh had its own police force between 1771 and 1920.

I was reading about this rich history recently in an excellent book, The History of Leith Burgh Police, by two old colleagues and it struck a chord.

I began my police career in the Leith Division of Edinburgh City Police as a boy cadet. It was nearly 50 years after the old Burgh Police had disappeared and yet there was still a sense that Leith was unique and an intangible connection with the old port and its people, proud Leithers.

The old Burgh Forces had many shortcomings but their great strength was their bond with the communities they served.

As we stand at the beginning of a post-Covid, globalised world, there will be many new challenges for policing. Even with a fair wind, it will take years for our economy to recover. While old crime types will stubbornly remain, the new menace of cyber crime will grow. As a conduit for sexual predators, scams and fraudsters, there’s nothing to beat the internet. New demands will require hard choices to be made.

Specialist policing skills will be required to tackle these new sophisticated crime types but this cannot be at the expense of community policing.

The old Leith Burgh Police’s legacy is more than a tongue twister; it’s a reminder of the importance of local policing.

The History of Leith Burgh Police is a fascinating read. You can get a copy from [email protected] A third of the £12 cover price will be donated to Cancer Research.

Tom Wood is a writer and former Leith Police Cadet

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