Brian Griffin’s book the Bulkies is a social history of the Belfast city constabulary that operated as a municipal police force from 1800 to 1865. It focuses on the policeman as a ‘working man’, explores the crimes he had to deal with and considers why the Bulkies were replaced by the Ireland-wide Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) in the mid 1860s.[1]

The book opens with the early days of the Belfast town police. The force was originally established as a voluntary one but quickly became replaced by a professional one in 1816 when the voluntary system broke down; the initial strength of the paid force 36 officers.[2] The initial duties of the officers was patrolling at night but a day component was added in 1817; the policemen also acted as firemen.[3]

The police were managed by a board of 21 men; these included the burgesses or town councillors of Belfast, the Sovereign, the town council leader and 12 other men. All needed a significant property qualification to sit on the board.[4]

One of the most interesting aspects of the book is Griffin’s account of the crime that the police force had to tackle. Much of this was petty, made up of vagrancy, begging, muggings and prostitution.[5] Many areas of Belfast had a dubious reputation such Smithfield; Caddel’s Entry was known as a ‘den of iniquity’.[6] Children were often the victims of crime, especially the craze for ‘child stripping’, removing their clothes to sell.[7]

As well as victims of crime, many children were perpetrators.[8] Much of this crime was petty and involved theft and pickpocketing. It was reported in 1853 that the courts were occupied by ‘small thieves and small thefts’.[9] Griffin suggests the reason for much of this juvenile crime was that many children lived in poverty and came from broken or dysfunctional families.[10]

He argues that the police were largely unpopular with the working people of Belfast. It was reported in August 1854 that ‘truly the constables of our town often make a bad use of their power, not as regards persons of influence, to whom they are always the most sneaking and fawning of creatures, but to the lower classes they generally act in the most malevolent manner’.[11] He argues that the police were disliked by both sides of the sectarian divide. He quotes the Belfast Newsletter in December 1856 said that ‘a particular taste of the lower orders of Belfast is to beat the constables’.[12] The resident magistrate, J.C. O’Donnell, reported that that municipal policemen were ‘the common target of all the ill-conducted people in the town’.[13]

Griffin suggests that the Bulkies were not sectarian in their administration of the law despite the fact the vast majority (155 out of 160 in 1864[14]) were from the Protestant working classes. He argues that in they sought to be even handed, for instance, in 1831, the police ruled any policemen who quarrelled over ‘party’ matters would be dismissed.[15] The police also defended Catholic property against Protestant mobs.[16] However, he concedes that the force was certainly perceived as sectarian suggesting that it was the members of the police board that was really biased against Catholics, not the frontline policemen.[17] However, it was ultimately the perception that they were sectarian that contributed to their replacement by the RIC in 1866.

This is a solid social history. It is well written and well-argued and a must for anyone with an interest in the social history of Belfast in the 19th century.

[1] Brian Griffin, The Bulkies, Police and Crime in Belfast, 1800-1865 (Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1997), pp.6-7.

[2] Ibid., pp.10-11.

[3] Ibid., pp.23, 24.

[4] Ibid., p.9.

[5] Ibid., pp.60, 62.

[6] Ibid., pp.61, 62.

[7] Ibid., p.79.

[8] Ibid., p.68.

[9] Ibid., p.71.

[10] Ibid., pp.72, 73

[11] Belfast Daily Magazine, 30 August 1854.

[12] Griffin, The Bulkies, p.111.

[13] Ibid., p.111.

[14] Ibid., p.122.

[15] Ibid., p.119.

[16] Ibid., p.120.

[17] Ibid., pp.116-117, 119.