Police burgh

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A police burgh was a Scottish burgh which had adopted a “police system” for governing the town. They existed from 1833 to 1975.

Burgh former autonomous corporate entity in Scotland and Northern England

A burgh was an autonomous municipal corporation in Scotland and Northern England, usually a town, or toun in Scots. This type of administrative division existed from the 12th century, when King David I created the first royal burghs. Burgh status was broadly analogous to borough status, found in the rest of the United Kingdom. Following local government reorganization in 1975 the title of "royal burgh" remains in use in many towns, but now has little more than ceremonial value.


The 1833 act

The first police burghs were created under the Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1833 (3 & 4 Wm IV c.46). This act enabled existing royal burghs, burghs of regality, and burghs of barony to adopt powers of paving, lighting, cleansing, watching, supplying with water and improving their communities.

Royal burgh former type of Scottish burgh

A royal burgh was a type of Scottish burgh which had been founded by, or subsequently granted, a royal charter. Although abolished in law in 1975, the term is still used by many former royal burghs.

A burgh of regality is a type of Scottish town.

A burgh of barony was a type of Scottish town (burgh).

This preceded the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, which introduced a similar reform in England and Wales, by two years.

Municipal Corporations Act 1835 Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom

The Municipal Corporations Act 1835, sometimes known as the Municipal Reform Act, was an Act of the Parliament of the United Kingdom that reformed local government in the incorporated boroughs of England and Wales. The legislation was part of the reform programme of the Whigs and followed the Reform Act 1832, which had abolished most of the rotten boroughs for parliamentary purposes.

England and Wales Administrative jurisdiction within the United Kingdom

England and Wales is a legal jurisdiction covering England and Wales, two of the four countries of the United Kingdom. ’England and Wales’ forms the constitutional successor to the former Kingdom of England and follows a single legal system, known as English law.

Forming a police burgh

In order for the act to be adopted in any burgh, an application by householders in the town had to be made for a poll to be held. If three quarters of qualified voters were in favour, the act would come into force in the burgh. Inhabitants were also free to choose which parts of the act to adopt.


Boundaries for the police burgh were to be set out, which could be extended up to 1,000 yards (910 m) in any direction from the limits of the existing burgh. Contiguous burghs were allowed to unite for police burgh purposes. The boundaries agreed were recorded in the sheriff court books for the county.

Sheriff court

A sheriff court is the principal local civil and criminal court in Scotland, with exclusive jurisdiction over all civil cases with a monetary value up to £100,000, and with the jurisdiction to hear any criminal case except treason, murder, and rape which are in the exclusive jurisdiction of the High Court of Justiciary. Though the sheriff courts have concurrent jurisdiction with the High Court over armed robbery, drug trafficking, and sexual offences involving children, the vast majority of these cases are heard by the High Court. Each court serves a sheriff court district within one of the six sheriffdoms of Scotland. Each sheriff court is presided over by a sheriff, who is a legally qualified judge, and part of the judiciary of Scotland.


A body of elected police commissioners was to administer the police burgh, between five and twenty-one in number. The chief magistrate of the existing burgh was to be, ex officio, a commissioner. Commissioners were to be elected annually.

Powers and duties

The commissioners could, on applying the relevant sections of the act, collect and apply sums of money for the purposes of:

Coal gas is a flammable gaseous fuel made from coal and supplied to the user via a piped distribution system. It is produced when coal is heated strongly in the absence of air. Town gas is a more general term referring to manufactured gaseous fuels produced for sale to consumers and municipalities.

Parliamentary burghs

A further act was passed (3 & 4 Wm. IV, c.77; Parliamentary Burghs (Scotland) Act 1833) later in 1833 to extend local government to the thirteen burghs newly enfranchised by the Reform Act 1832. The inhabitants were permitted to elect magistrates and councillors and adopt a “general system of police”. The burghs thus created municipalities were:

Reform Act 1832 UK parliament act of 1832

The Representation of the People Act 1832 was an Act of Parliament of the United Kingdom that introduced wide-ranging changes to the electoral system of England and Wales. According to its preamble, the Act was designed to "take effectual Measures for correcting divers Abuses that have long prevailed in the Choice of Members to serve in the Commons House of Parliament". Before the reform, most members nominally represented boroughs. The number of electors in a borough varied widely, from a dozen or so up to 12,000. Frequently the selection of MPs was effectively controlled by one powerful patron: for example Charles Howard, 11th Duke of Norfolk, controlled eleven boroughs. Criteria for qualification for the franchise varied greatly among boroughs, from the requirement to own land, to merely living in a house with a hearth sufficient to boil a pot.

Airdrie [1] Lanarkshire
Cromarty Cromartyshire
Falkirk Stirlingshire
Greenock Renfrewshire
Hamilton [1] Lanarkshire
Kilmarnock Ayrshire
Leith Midlothian
Musselburgh Midlothian
Oban Argyllshire
Paisley Renfrewshire
Peterhead Aberdeenshire
Portobello Midlothian
Port Glasgow Renfrewshire

Changes in legislation

The General Police (Scotland) Act, 1847 (10 & 11 Vict. c.39) reduced the majority of householders required to adopt the police system from three quarters to two thirds. It also allowed the parliamentary burghs to adopt the burgh police act, and to levy for moneys to carry out municipal government.

The Police of Towns (Scotland) Act, 1850 (13 & 14 Vict. c.33) - also known as “Lock’s Act” - repealed much of the earlier legislation. It also made it easier for police burghs to be created. Any “populous place” was now allowed to adopt a police system and become a burgh. A populous place was defined as any town, village, place or locality not already a burgh and with a population of 1,200 inhabitants or upwards. At the same time, a poll in favour of adopting the act now needed only a simple majority.

The General and Police Improvement (Scotland) Act, 1862 (25 & 26 Vict. c.101) set out again the powers of police burghs. It also introduced a system by which commissioners of burghs could apply to the county sheriff for an extension of the burgh boundaries.

The Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1892 (55 & 56 Vict. c.55), which came into effect on 15 May 1893, superseded all earlier general and police acts in burghs. Each burgh was now united as a single body corporate for police and municipal purposes – in some cases a previous royal burgh or burgh of barony or regality had continued to exist alongside the police burgh. Any remaining burghs of barony or regality that had not adopted the police acts were implicitly dissolved.[ dubious ] Populous places that could become a burgh were now to have a population of 2,000 or more – though where a place with a lower population resolved to adopt the act, it was at the county sheriff’s discretion to allow or refuse such an application. Police commissioners were now to be retitled councillors, headed by a magistrate under whatever title was customary in the burgh.

The Town Councils (Scotland) Act, 1900 (63 & 64 Vict. c.49) retitled the governing body of a burgh as “the provost, magistrates, and councillors” of the burgh. In certain burghs the title Lord Provost was to be continued.

The Burgh Police (Scotland) Act, 1903 (3 Edw. VII. c.33) amended the 1892 Act and included a number of provisions relating to building within a burgh. The burgh was to maintain a register of plans and petitions (in modern terms a register of planning permissions). Permitted developments were to be issued building warrants by the town council, and the burgh surveyor was empowered to enforce the warrants and rectify unauthorised building. New powers were given to town councils in relation to maintenance of footpaths and public rubbish bins, and the placing of advertisement hoardings and scaffolding. Minimum standards were set for the height and internal space of new buildings and on overcrowding, and for the width of streets. Powers were given to the burgh to make new streets and openings. Also included in the Act were various sundry powers and duties including: the compulsory lighting of vehicles, licensing for billiard halls and ice cream shops, prohibition on betting in the street, powers on controlling milk supply, and penalties for littering.

The Local Government (Scotland) Act 1929 divided burghs, royal or police, into “large” and “small” burghs.

See also

List of burghs in Scotland

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  1. 1 2 Thompson (). pp. 89 90.