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What is Scotland Yard?

Updated on April 17, 2011

Scotland Yard is the popular name for the headquarters of the metropolitan police of London, England, and for the police themselves, especially the Criminal Investigation Department.

The present headquarters, opened in 1967, is a 20-story glass and concrete building that stands in Victoria Street, near the Houses of Parliament.

The former red-brick building on the Thames Embankment was opened in 1890 by Commissioner of Police James Monro, who named it New Scotland Yard.

For 61 years previously, the headquarters had been situated at 4 Whitehall Place, just off Whitehall. It derived its name, Scotland Yard, from a medieval palace, dating back to the 13th century, that once stood on the site and was used to house kings and queens of Scotland during state visits to England.

History of Scotland Yard

The metropolitan police force was first recruited in 1829, sponsored by the home secretary, Sir Robert Peel, whose name provided the new police, in top hats and belted coats, with the nicknames "peelers." and "bobbies," These men replaced the so-called Bow Street Runners, a small body of paid police organized in London in the mid-18th century by Henry Fielding, magistrate and novelist. The disciplined activities of the Bow Street Runners soon reduced the capital's crime statistics. However, in their early years they were far from popular and received little cooperation from the public.

In 1842, following a manhunt for an Irish coachman who had committed a brutal murder and who was caught, convicted, and hanged, the first plainclothes Yard men went on duty. At once there was an outcry against these "agents provocateurs" and "police spies." They were likened to agents who had brought several continental police forces into disrepute. But several sensational arrests resulted in trials that turned the tide of public opinion, and by 1868, when the first commissioner, Sir Richard Mayne, died, the detective department was firmly established. Nine years later a turf scandal involving three senior Yard detectives resulted in an outcry against police corruption. Chiefly as a result of the findings in the trial of the accused men, the Criminal Investigation Department was formed in 1878 under Howard Vincent.

The first specialists of the CID were the special branch members, formed to deal with Fenian terrorists. After World War I the flying squad was formed to combat automobile bandits and other criminals. The flying squad absorbed the ghost squad, formed after World War II. This was a group of men and women who roamed the crime world, passing information to headquarters but keeping themselves in the background so as to remain unknown. A similar specialist squad, the fraud squad, was set up after World War II. Criminal Investigation. The Yard's CID employs all types of criminal investigative techniques.

It includes the criminal records office, fingerprint and photography divisions, the fraud and drug squads, the flying squad, the criminal intelligence branch, the metropolitan police laboratory, and the training school for detectives.

The fingerprint department maintains criminals' fingerprints for the whole of Britain. The Yard's fingerprint system was adopted in the early 1900s by the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States, and it is used by most other modern police forces.

The Yard has its own forensic laboratories, and a special office is manned night and day for handling internal communications and exchanges of information with the International Criminal Police Commission (Interpol), with headquarters in Paris. The information room handles the metropolitan 999 telephone emergency service for police. The Yard directs an activities of the metropolitan police force, including traffic control and regulation of cabs and buses and their drivers. In direct combating of crime, it is responsible only for the metropolitan district, except for the City of London, or financial area, which has its own police force. Local police forces frequently call on the Yard for help in solving difficult cases, almost invariably murder cases.


In 1972 the incoming metropolitan police commissioner, Robert Mark, announced sweeping organizational changes. The select 3,200-member detectives branch would henceforth be under the supervision of senior officers in the uniformed branch at headquarters, rather than simply reporting, as formerly, to senior plainclothes officials. The commissioner also announced that all police branches would now be interchangeable; detectives could switch to the uniformed force, and policemen on the beat could transfer to the detective branch.

Scotland Yard men have figured in many international exploits. As early as 1864, Detective Inspector Richard Tanner pursued a man wanted for murder to the United States. Chief Inspector Frank Forest once followed an absconding financier to South America and arrested him. In 1910 a chief inspector sailed for Canada to arrest an American, Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen, for the murder of his wife, following the receipt of a message from a ship in mid-Atlantic- the first use of radio in apprehending a fugitive criminal.

Many writers, including Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle have found inspiration for professional police characters in the reports of cases solved by Yard men.


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    • Longtail profile image

      Longtail 7 years ago

      It's because of the the medieval palace that once stood one the site. It used to house kings and queens of Scotland during state visits to England dating back to the 13th century.

    • Denise Handlon profile image

      Denise Handlon 7 years ago from North Carolina

      Very interesting. But, what I don't understand is: Why Scotland yard? Why not call it England Yard? Seriously. How did it come to be 'Scotland'???