‘your policemen are wonderful’: meaning and history

The phrase your policemen are wonderful has been used of British police officers, chiefly those of London, by persons, mostly women, visiting the United Kingdom.

The earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from the caption to this cartoon, published in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, New York) of Friday 7th December 1928:

A SHY VIOLET

'your policemen are wonderful' - Brooklyn Daily Eagle (Brooklyn, N.Y.) - 7 December 1928

Popular Actress (as window cleaner appears)—Well, say, I think you reporters are just too cute! And I’ll say your old London city is just too sweet, your policemen are sure wonderful. Why even your taxi drivers—” etc., etc.—Humorist, London.

The second-earliest occurrence of the phrase that I have found is from an article published in several British and Irish newspapers on Thursday 17th April 1930—for example in the Northern Daily Mail (Hartlepool, Durham, England):

Although politicians and diplomats, delegates, and experts are glad that the long task of the Naval Conference 1 has drawn to a close, there are many who will be sorry when Tuesday, the final day, has passed.
They are the women secretaries, typists, and assistants attached to the delegations. For the past three months, in their spare time, they have been inspecting the sights of London and exploring historical spots.
“Now we have to go back, and we are all sorry to be leaving London behind,” said an American typist to a Press Association reporter to-day.
“Over in the States we hear a lot about your London, but it is all very different when you get here. Nothing can convey the atmosphere of kindliness and helpfulness that prevails everywhere. They say your policemen are wonderful. So they are.”

1 Hosted by the United Kingdom, and including representatives of the United States, France, Italy and Japan, the London Naval Conference (21st January – 22nd April 1930) resulted in the Treaty for the Limitation and Reduction of Naval Armament.

The following is from the “impressions which Miss Sklenarova, a Czechoslovak woman writer, has of a visit to Britain”, published in the Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, County Antrim, Ireland) of Tuesday 18th April 1933—interestingly, the title given to the article was “Your Policemen Are Wonderful”, between quotation marks, although Miss Sklenarova did not use the phrase in her “impressions”:

“Every city has something you will always remember it by, London will always mean for me the Tower and Westminster Abbey, and the Houses of Parliament, antediluvian taxis double decked ’buses defying all the laws of equilibrium and the world’s finest policemen. They are flawlessly polite, unfailingly well-informed and superlatively handsome.
“The best looking are to be found in the West End. We saw the most magnificent specimen of them all, standing on point duty at Hyde Park corner.
“In our ignorance and simplicity we asked him: ‘Please which is the nearest way to Hyde Park?’ and the courteous giant took us under his wing and got us safely across the road.”

The phrase rapidly became a cliché. This was implicit in the previous quotations, but explicitly mentioned in the following from the North-Eastern Daily Gazette (Middlesbrough, Yorkshire, England) of Thursday 16th August 1934:

For years foreign visitors, when asked what they thought of London, have replied: “I think your policemen are wonderful.”

The fact that the phrase had become a cliché was also explicitly mentioned in Rich American Leaves English Bobby Bequest, published in The Charlotte Observer (Charlotte, North Carolina) of Sunday 9th June 1935:

Hove, England, June 8.—(AP)—For years visiting film stars have been saying to interviewers, “I think your policemen are wonderful.”

From being a stereotyped phrase used by visitors, your policemen are wonderful rapidly became a British phrase, used jocularly—as in the following two extracts from the column As I Was Saying, by ‘Motley’:

1-: published in the Derby Daily Telegraph (Derby, Derbyshire, England) of Thursday 7th August 1930:

TO-DAY’S FAIRY TALE.
I think your policemen are wonderful,” said the crook to the magistrate.

2-: published in the Lincolnshire Echo (Lincoln, Lincolnshire, England) of Thursday 16th July 1931:

POLICE P.C.s.
The courtesy of your policemen is wonderful,” says an American.
The charm of the law.

Here is a hilarious use of the phrase, from Standing By . . . A Weekly Commentary on One Thing and Another, by “The Bystanders”, published in The Bystander (London, England) of Tuesday 17th April 1934:

[About] the first six volumes of Lord Passfield’s exciting, hair-raising, blood-curdling, terrifying and yet utterly poignant, strange yet glamorous, exotic yet queerly winsome tale, “The History of Local Government from the Enclosure of the Commons to the Brumby Act for the regularizing of the procedure in Rural District Councils,” […] we hear that the film rights of this epic tale of passion and loyalty in simple hearts have been acquired by some company or other, and that the leading part, that of the farm-damsel who becomes a Parish Councillor and wins the guerdon of true love through the purifying fire of the sub-committee on Footpaths and Stiles, has been offered to Miss Garbo 2. “I think your policemen are wonderful” was Miss Garbo’s reply when our film-adviser asked her for confirmation of this rumour on the long-distance wire.

2 Greta Garbo (Greta Gustafsson – 1905-1990) was a Swedish-born U.S. actress.