Springtime in St James’ Park, London, c.1849
By the end of the 19th century most of the cases brought before the Police magistrates of the capital were initiated by the police themselves. This seems to have developed gradually from the 1830s as the ‘new police’ grew into their role after 1829. In the 1700s prosecution had been victim-led and, while this persisted throughout the 1800s, the presence of the ‘boys in the blue’ on the streets inevitably led to them prosecuting in court those they had arrested on their beats.
Maria Fenton was one of those arrested and charged in court on the word of a policeman. But in her case there was some doubt and it led to the copper himself having to answer some awkward questions about his professional conduct.
In March 1849 Maria was walking in St James’ Park, near Buckingham Palace when she was stopped by two policemen. In was very early in the morning, ‘before day break’ she told the sitting justice at Bow Street; she’d had a drink but swore she wasn’t drunk.
The press reporter described as an ‘unfortunate girl’ – Victorian code for a young prostitute. The police would have assumed that Maria was a prostitute, for what other reason would a working-class woman have to be wandering around the park in the early hours of a cold March morning?
One of the policemen, PC Pike (A224), told the court that he had arrested her because she was ‘creating a disturbance and [was] using disgusting language’. When he had given his testimony however, his inspector came forward to say that another officer, PC Whitty (A210) wished to speak on behalf of the defendant. Whitty told the Bow Street court that it was Pike who was in wrong, not the girl and so the magistrate turned the case on its head. Pike left the court and returned some short time afterwards, dressed in civilian clothes and was placed in the dock accused of assaulting Maria and falsely arresting her.
Maria now gave her account. She accused Pike of swearing at her; called her a ‘b___h’ and pushing her over onto the ground in the park. When he pulled herself to her feet he sent her tumbling gain, but she got a good look at him and took a note of his number. Pike then called her ‘a hag’ and threatened to ‘lock her up’. When she continued to argue with him he took her into custody and ‘dragged her to the station’.
Back at the police station Whitty told Pike that if this came to court he would speak the truth, in favour of the girl. Pike replied that he ‘was a bl___y fool, and that if the sergeant got to hear of it they should all get into a row’. He corroborated Maria’s evidence in front of the magistrate and added that she had said nothing at all until his colleague had picked on her.
Not surprisingly Pike defended himself and said he would never have arrested the girl if she hadn’t been making such a noise, ‘screaming and making a disturbance’. Yes, he admitted, he had called her ‘a drunken beast’ but that was the extent of his ‘abuse’ of her. He called two other policemen, A226 and A229, both of whom backed his account, not Whitty’s. They said they had heard ‘the woman creating a great disturbance, using awful language, and attempting to escape from Pike, who was taking her to the station-house’.
The magistrate had now heard both sides, with supporting evidence from police officers and he had a hard decision to make. Should he believe PC Pike and the two other policemen, or should he listen to PC Whitty and the word of a young woman who by her own testimony was clearly not ‘respectable’?
In the end he did what we might not have expected him to do; he sided with PC Whitty and the girl. However, he chose to apply some leniency to Pike who had been with A Division for six months. He told Pike that legislation (unspecified here) allowed him to impose a prison sentence, but he had no need to take such drastic action. He could instead impose a fine of up to £10 and he set this at £5 (or a month’s imprisonment). The report doesn’t state which option Pike (whom I imagine was unlikely to have been able to continue in the force – at least not at A Division) chose.
I suspect this was a very rare example of police misconduct (as the justice described it) being dealt with publicly. But in 1849 the ‘new’ police were still very new and were the subject of debate and no little criticism. Perhaps the capital’s most senior magistrate (at Bow Street) was minded to take account of this prevailing attitude and nip bad police behaviour in the bud whenever he could.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 4, 1849]