Policing Ottawa

29 May 1866

Uniformed Ottawa policeman outside of C. Poulin, Rochester Street, date uncertain, City of Ottawa Archives, CA001216.

Bytown, the small community that later was to become Ottawa, was a dangerous place. Ethnic and religious tensions which simmered below the surface often erupted into fights and riots, especially around St. Patrick’s Day and the July anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne that marked the Protestant victory of William III over the Catholic forces of King James II in 1689. Added to this potent mix was a rigid social structure, historical grievances, poverty and copious amounts of alcohol served up in both legal taverns and illegal grog houses. If that wasn’t bad enough, competition between French and Irish lumbermen during the 1830s often led to broken heads in what became known as the Shiners’ War. Added to this was the usual disorderly conduct, thefts, robbery, assault, and major crimes that you would expect in a rough and tumble frontier town. So bad was the situation that families despaired when loved ones went to Bytown to seek work in the lumber shanties. The Capuchin priest Father Alexis de Barbezieux said Il n’y a pas de Dieu à Bytown [There is no God in Bytown].

Law and order, to the extent any existed, was maintained by the thinness of blue lines. In 1827, it was recognized that the community needed some sort of police presence, leading to the appointment of Alexander Fraser as town constable, a position he held for the next twenty years. Bytown also petitioned the government for five magistrates to manage the community’s affairs, including law enforcement. Special constables could also be enrolled to help maintain the peace.

But this was insufficient to maintain order. Ill-trained, part-time, and unarmed constables could do little to stem unlawfulness. They too were threatened and intimidated. In the event they took somebody into custody, the suspect’s friends often intervened, with the prisoner escaping across the Ottawa River to Lower Canada, safe from the law in Bytown. Suspects of violent crimes had to be sent to Perth for trial and incarceration since Bytown was not a county seat and had no prison. The incentive to send a dangerous offender fifty miles through the bush was low owing to the high cost and the very strong possibility of an ambush by the offender’s friends. What constable would want to risk life and limb in such circumstances? When things got really bad, the army militia would be called out to maintain order, but they seldom intervened.

In response to the Shiners’ depredations, a petition to Sir John Colborne, the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, led to the formation of the Bytown Association of the Public Police in 1835, which saw some 200 men, mostly untrained militia, keeping the peace—sort of. Poorly commanded, the Association did little. Robberies, fights, and assaults continued.

After Bytown was incorporated in 1847, Isaac Berichon was appointed Chief Constable with a meagre salary of £25 per annum. His job was to preserve good order, impound escaped livestock, prosecute those who broke the town’s by-laws and oversee nine constables, three for each of Bytown’s wards. He later took on the responsibility for daily inspections of the town’s markets and attendance at police court. But the constables he oversaw had little real authority.  Like their predecessors, they were ill-trained, had no uniforms, and were part-time. Instead of regular salaries, they received fees for services rendered paid for out of fines and fees collected.

Also in 1847, a Grand Jury recommended to Bytown’s Town Council that the community establish a regular police force “owing to the continued influx of a certain class of persons connected with the Timber Trade” who assaulted the “peaceful inhabitants of the town” as well as those coming from “more distant parts to transact their lawful business in Bytown.” The Jury also noted that the town constables had been maltreated “in their legitimate exercise of their duty,” and that malefactors had been able to evade justice. It added that the “mode of carrying out the provisions of the law by means of the ordinary constabulary [was] inefficient.”

The Packet newspaper concurred, opining that a police force consisting of about twelve men would probably keep “refractory spirits” in order. However, it though that the town couldn’t spare the likely £1,000 needed for the first year and that Town Council should apply to the Provincial government for funding.

The Bytown Council took these recommendations to heart and approved a motion to petition the Provincial government for £500 per annum to support a police force in Bytown on the basis that large provincial revenues were derived annually from Bytown trade and that most of the problems were caused by non-Bytown residents. While the motion carried, two aldermen dissented, one saying that the appointed constables were sufficient, and the other contending that the motion was without precedent and absurd. The Provincial government must have agreed as the petition went nowhere. However, by the mid 1850s, the number of constables in Bytown had apparently increased with six in Lower Town and nine in the much smaller but wealthier Upper Town.

Besides a perennial shortage of funds, a reluctance to have a professional police force was apparently due to widespread suspicions that a government-controlled professional police force was a threat to civil liberties. It was only in 1829 that the first civilian police service, London’s Metropolitan Police, was established in Britain by Sir Robert Peel. The officers became known as “Peelers” or “Bobbies.” Second, much of the mayhem and strife occurred in the poorer sections of Bytown, principally Lower Town. As long as the wealthy elite in Upper Town felt protected their councillors were not inclined to use town resources to support a regular police force.

By 1855, the year that Bytown changed its name to Ottawa, the Chief Constable’s salary has risen to $600 per year, while the Market Constable, a new senior position, was paid $200 per year. Other constables, however, continued to be paid on a fee-for-service basis rather than receive a proper salary.

A step towards a professional police service was taken in January 1863 when a three-man Board of Police Commissioners were formed, comprising Mayor H. Friel, the city Recorder, J.B. Lewis and the Magistrate Hamnet Hill. Ironically, the first statement of the new board was to announce that there was no need for a salaried police force. Thomas Langrell was appointed Chief Constable, and was paid on a fee basis.

However, views began to shift following a riot at the May 1863 annual meeting of the troubled Ottawa & Prescott Railway when a group of shareholders tried to take over the company. So bad was the situation that Ottawa’s constables were unable to cope and the militia had to be called out to restore order.

In March 1866, a special report to Ottawa’s City Council of the Board of Police Commissioners recommended that the city form a permanent police force. The Board advised that the force should consist of a Chief Constable paid $800 per annum, a Market Constable paid $300 per annum, one detective with a salary of $340 per annum, one sergeant also paid $340 per annum, and six privates and a messenger, all paid $280 per annum. Each constable would also receive a uniform costing $10. The total annual cost of the permanent force was placed at $4,140, only slightly more than the $3,833 paid in 1865 for policing services out of fines.

City Council debated the issue three times before coming to a vote. The Ottawa Daily Citizen reported that Alderman H.J. Friel opined that it was evident that for “the ordinary preservation of peace and order in a city with a population of over 15,000, and holding an important position, [i.e., being the capital of Canada], it is necessary that peace officers in an official uniform should appear.” He thought that the police would “exercise watchfulness over disorderly characters” and ensure that sanitary precautions as recommended by the Board of Health were carried out. He added that the cost of a permanent, uniformed force would not cost that much more than the “present inefficient system” and would likely “produce larger revenues.” Alderman Scott, who had previously opposed a permanent police force over the previous quarter of a century now thought such a force was appropriate and was in keeping with Ottawa’s motto “Advance.”

There was, however, significant opposition to the proposal. Alderman William Mosgrove felt that six policemen would do little “to stop the depredations of lawless men” and that the costs of a permanent police force would “materially add to the already heavy taxation in the city.” Confusing correlation with causality, he also made the curious point that cities with police forces had higher crime rates, and that the establishment of a police force would lead to increased crime in Ottawa.  (William Mosgrove would in future years have a close relationship with the Ottawa police force as he became a prominent Ottawa judge.) Another dissenting alderman said he had petitioned fifty-six residents of his ward and forty were opposed. Other aldermen were not impressed with his survey. One said he could easily find 200 residents in his ward in favour of a police force.

At the end of a special session of City Council called by the Mayor Moss Kent Dickenson on 29 May 1866, Ottawa City Council finally voted 12-6 in favour of a permanent, uniformed police force. A month later, the three Police Commissioners— Mayor Dickenson, J.B. Lewis, and Police Magistrate O’Gara personally appointed the new police force under the command of Thomas Langrell, who had previously been Chief Constable. Langrell became Chief of Police. The initially unarmed uniformed constables were armed with Smith & Wesson revolvers the following year.

The new force was a success. Three months later, the Ottawa Daily Citizen praised Thomas Langrell and said “that many nuisances have been done away with since the organization of the force, the absence of pigs, geese and cows, which were wont to obstruct our sidewalks is manifest.” There had also been a marked decline in the number of burglaries.

However, the newspaper felt that there was still room for improvement. The police were still ill-trained and underpaid.  It noted that to become a policeman in London, England, a man had to display a fair knowledge of mathematics, and must be able to read and write “with considerable facility.” He must also stand at least 5 feet 8 inches tall, and have unimpaired mental faculties and a strong physique. He should not have a large family dependent upon him; single men were preferred. Candidates for the force also had to have a reference check regarding their general character, health and their ability to undergo fatigue and hardship since “a policeman’s life is one continuous round of uninterrupted responsibility,” required to work Sundays and in all kinds of weather. As for pay, a London Chief Inspector received £159 per year ($775). A trainee constable received one guinea a week ($250 per annum) in his first year, rising to 28 shillings a week (roughly $350 per annum) after two years. Constables also received two suits of clothes annually, along with a cape, and a great coat every two years. As well, they received 36 shillings ($8.75) for boots and shoes. Provisions were made for a pension after fifteen years of service and a disability pension in the event of a disability occurring in the performance of their duties.

The Ottawa Daily Citizen opined that Ottawa should benefit from London’s experience and adopt these requirements and working conditions so that the city could have a truly efficient police force.

Today, the Ottawa Police Service is responsible for a territory of almost 2,800 square kilometres with a population of close to 1 million. In 2019, it had 2,096 service members. Its budget for 2022 is $346.5 million.


County Wicklow Heritage, 2021. “Ottawa’s First Chief of Police: Thomas Langrell of Aughrim, County Wicklow.

Crasjke, Peter (ed.) 1984. Law & Order in the Early Days of Bytown/Ottawa, Bytown Pamphlet #41.

Global News, 2021. “City council approves 2% police budget hike in 2022,” 8 December.

Larochelle, Gilles, 1994. The History of the Ottawa Police, 1826-1993, Tyrell Press, Gloucester.

Ottawa Police Service, 2021. “2020 Annual Report.”

The Packet, 1847. “Police Establishment,” 30 October.

————–, 1847. “Town Council Proceedings, 30 October.

————-, 1847. “Town Council Proceedings, 4 December.

Ottawa Daily Citizen, 1866. “City Council,” 23 March.

————————-, 1866. “City Council,” 30 May.

————————-, 1866. “New Constables,” 21 June.

————————-, 1866. “Editorial,” 12 September.


3 thoughts on “Policing Ottawa

  1. James, One small but important correction to this fascinating article. The Peelers and Bobbies were named for Sir Robert Peel, not Sir John Peel. Hence the “Bobby”.
    Cheers, Scott


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