Wimbledon WI visit to the Metropolitan Police
Thames Division Museum on Friday 19th February 2016.
After some misadventures with trains and an encounter with two officers from the riot squad I, and two others, were half an hour late joining the group from Wimbledon WI at the Thames Division Museum on Friday, 19 February. However, the knowledgeable volunteer curator, retired PC Robert Jeffries, later filled us in on what we had missed so this summary should not be found wanting.
The visit consisted of a talk of about one and a half hours and about 45 minutes viewing the exhibits in the relatively small museum.
By the last decade of the 18th century London importers were experiencing annual losses of about £500,000 through pilfering by ‘lumpers’ – the original term for dock labourers. About half of these losses were borne by the West India merchants. Patrick Colquhoun, a London magistrate and social reformer, alarmed at ‘the nature and extent of the various moral evils’ then afflicting society came up with a scheme for policing the metropolis which he presented to a member of the government who read it with interest. The scheme included a plan to register ‘Lumpers’ of good character and the formation of a River Police which Colquhoun discussed with a committee of the West India merchants who unanimously endorsed it. Meanwhile two other magistrates, John Harriott and Mr. Staples, had also become concerned by the extent of theft from merchant vessels. Harriott wrote to the Duke of Portland, Secretary of State for the Home Department, advising His Grace of the commercial benefits to London in general and the Treasury in particular if an official River Police force were formed to reduce cargo theft. The Treasury was losing an estimated £20,000 – £30,000 annually on customs duties applicable to goods that never reached the bonded warehouses. Harriott was a difficult personality who had, over the years, offended many people including Colquhoun and, presumably, the Duke of Portland who never answered his letter. Staple took Harriott’s idea to Colquhoun who was then in the process of amending his own treatise with legal advice from Jeremy Bentham, the 18th century lawyer, philosopher and social reformer. Colquhoun was so impressed with Harriott’s ideas that he suggested they put aside their differences, amalgamate their ideas into one treatise and re-present it to the government. This they did and the Chancellor of the Exchequer promptly agreed to meet part of the expense of establishing an experimental ‘Marine Police Establishment’ for one year and the West India merchants agreed to meet the balance. Colquhoun became the ‘Superintending Magistrate’, Harriott the ‘Resident Magistrate’, and the mooted register of Master Lumpers was created. Thus in 1798 the first workers ‘closed shop’ came into being and the first official, state sponsored police force in the world was founded. The total set-up and running costs for that initial year were £4,200. The new force of 50 officers, armed with muskets, policed about 33,000 river workers of whom about 11,000 were, according to Colquhoun, known criminals.
The new force soon proved its worth: within the year £122,000 worth of cargo was saved and many people were rescued from the river. But, as can be imagined, the river workers were not happy about the significant reduction in the perks of their trade or the exclusion from the docks of those deemed to be of bad character. Before long the first protesters rioted outside the new Police Station at 98, Wapping High Street (which is still Thames Division Headquarters today). About 2,000 rioters converged outside the building intent on burning it down with Harriott and some of the officers inside. The riot was quelled but during the conflict Gabriel Franks, who as a registered Master Lumper was seen by the mob as in cahoots with the police, was shot and died later in hospital. Gabriel has the dubious distinction of being the first recorded ‘police’ death.
The success of the force was such that in 1800 Parliament passed the Marine Police Bill which established the force by law and brought it directly under Home Office control. Its strength was increased to 88 officers and watermen and their remit was extended throughout the London Metropolitan area. The Marine Police were the official London Police force until 1829 when it became Thames Division of the newly established Metropolitan Police force.
It is possible to trace the social history of London through some of the significant crimes and accidental disasters that the Division had to deal with during the 19th century. For example, on the evening of 3 September 1878 the pleasure steamer Princess Alice was within sight of North Woolwich pier on her return journey from a day trip to Sheerness when she collided with a collier, SS Bywell Castle. The steamer was spliced in two and sank within four minutes with the loss of more than 650 lives. The unusual speed with which the victims were sucked down into the river and the appalling condition of recovered bodies was attributed to the 75 million gallons of raw sewage that was then being released twice daily into the Thames from the Barking and Crossness outfalls of the recently constructed London Drainage system. The evening discharge had occurred about one hour before the accident. This stimulated research into sewage disposal which eventually led to the sophisticated sewage treatment centres in use around the world today. At the time the proposed short term solution was to take the raw sewage far out to sea by boat! The tragedy also led to the modernisation of the River Police when The Board of Trade enquiry into the accident resolved that Thames Division, which was still using rowing boats, should be equipped with steam launches to make them ‘…better able to perform rescues’.
After a fascinating talk by the curator we were free to examine the museum’s exhibits. These include uniforms and documents tracing the history of the River police from its inception to the present day, everyday police hardware from handcuffs to cutlasses, the ensign from the ill-fated Princess Alice and much else.
More information about the museum can be found at http://www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk/museum.html and a more comprehensive history of the River police, including details of some of the infamous crimes they have dealt with, can be found at http://www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk/history.html
24 February 2016.
My thanks to Vanessa for guiding me to the above mentioned websites.