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David Churchill, pictured, is a historian who hopes to give private security its history back. Mark Rowe met him in Leeds last week to hear what he can do for the sector; and what you might be able to do for him.
If private security is only just coming into the public recognition that it merits, how much more it’s true that the past story of private security has not been told, certainly compared with the history of the police and any other occupation. Is that the fault of private security people – who are mostly too busy making a living and doing their job to telling their story, even if clients are happy having their security discussed – or historians? I did not go to Leeds to argue that with David Churchill. In a bistro near the University of Leeds campus, he began our talk by going over reasons why the history of private security hasn’t been written – yet.
One reason, briefly, is that (for understandable reasons) private security left far fewer records, less archive material, about its work than police forces and courts. Naturally, most historians go where the most material is. So private security has missed out compared to the state criminal justice system. One exception to the rule is Corps Security, which as the Corps of Commissionaires dates from 1859. Another is Chubb, which recently marked its 200th anniversary from its start as a lock-maker in Wolverhampton in the Industrial Revolution. The Corps (as old-timers still think of it) is looking to catalogue its old paperwork through London Metropolitan Archives, only down the road from its base in Farringdon. Business history in general can be under-studied by historians because businesses aren’t good (again, understandable) at looking after their records when they go bust or get acquired. If, then, you’re a locksmithing, safe and lock, perimeter fencing or guarding or any security company with any history and records – of how you did business, who with, your product development, marketing brochures – David would like to know.
As for his credentials, he’s the author of Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City, published in 2018 by Oxford University Press. Briefly, it’s (as the title suggests) a history of how police and the public secured themselves and tackled crime, mainly focusing on the then fast-growing cities of Manchester, Liverpool and above all Leeds. You see what we now take for granted in terms of physical security – fences and gates to mark the perimeter of docks, locked doors – being developed. What scholarly writing there is of private security in Britain reckons that you can trace three stages – first, no public policing, and if you suffered a crime, whether a Roman, Saxon or Norman, you looked into it yourself, or lumped it; from 1829, Sir Robert Peel’s famed Metropolitan Police and then provincial first police forces (with much civic resistance), the state took a monopoly of crime control; and most recently, and no-one’s quite sure or agreed about the dating, private security rose, leading to the Security Industry Authority regulating (some of) the sector, since the 2001 Act. David Churchill in his book thanks to his command of sources and his attention to the subject shows that was far from the whole story.
He now wants – provided he gets funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) – to go the whole hog, and research and write the history of private security from the late 18th century to the late 20th century, in effect taking forward the story that he told in Crime Control and Everyday Life in the Victorian City.
Let’s leave David and let me place on record why telling history matters, in general and for private security in particular. First, sheer humanity, of you and I being different from slugs, because we can communicate and leave records after we are gone, about what we are and what we do have meaning. There’s a political angle in its broadest sense, as summed up by George Orwell in his novel 1984 (written in 1948, arguably an imagined high point of the all-powerful surveillance state – still relevant today?). Orwell wrote that whoever controls the present controls the past; whoever controls the past controls the future. Put another way, winners write history – you show your best face and blacken or leave out altogether your enemies. That is not to say police and public security providers are enemies of private security – although the story of regulation of private security or lack of it in the second half of the 20th century, as written by another Yorkshire academic, Adam White of the University of Sheffield, The Politics of Private Security: Regulation, Reform and Re-Legitimation (Palgrave, 2010) did show decades of police hostility and resistance to private guarding companies.
The present is becoming the past ever quicker – the intruder alarms and analogue CCTV recorded on tapes of the 1980s, even the 2000s, have become outdated thanks to networked and connected systems; well within a working lifetime, that is. Dr David Churchill’s book, among many other things, shows that the 19th century was – for the town and city people living through it – as fast changing as our times, both generally and in terms of security and policing. It’s an interesting story in itself, and we can find parallels between that time and ours, and who knows, we might even be the wiser for it. Or are we accepting that the security work of the 1960s, or any past decade, was not worth recall?
In David Churchill, intelligent and engaging, the UK private security sector has a willing and welcome historian.
More in the February 2019 print issue of Professional Security magazine.
Picture by Mark Rowe; David Churchill outside an (appropriately) Victorian building, part of Leeds Infirmary.
David has started a ‘historical criminological network’ inside the British Society of Criminology, which is holding a first, two-day conference in Plymouth in April. Visit https://www.historicalcriminology.com/.