The Metropolitan Police Court Magistrate presided over the summary court of that name but he was not actually attached to the Metropolitan Police, so in some respects it is a bit of a misnomer. In reality as the nineteenth century unfolded, the police, (in the person of inspectors, sergeants and ordinary constables) played a much increased role in bringing prosecutions to court. In the first third of the century most cases were brought by the victims of crime, as had been the case throughout the previous century, and this situation persisted for much of the 1800s. Gradually, however, the police began to dominate proceedings, especially at this lower level of the justice system.
This was not without its problems. In particular there was considerable concern about how much authority a policeman’s voice carried in the courtroom. The Police were still a fairly new body in the mid 1800s, and although respect for the ‘boys in blue’ grew over time they certainly weren’t held in high esteem by everyone in Victorian society.
The working classes resented them for the most part, or barely tolerated them as a necessary evil. Henry Mayhew interviewed a costermonger (a person that sold food or other goods from a mobile street barrow) who declared that it was a source of pride for any of his class to punch one of the ‘Peelers’ that blighted their daily lives by moving them on when they were trying to earn a living.
The middle classes and the elites were just as ambiguous in their acceptance of the ‘new police’. They saw them (at first anyway) as an unwelcome extra burden on their pockets, or as a bunch of lower class busybodies who often got quite above themselves in telling them to do (or not to do) this or that.
It is probably fair to say that the ‘good old British bobby’ was not really accepted by society until well over a hundred years had passed since his creation. Dixon of Dock Green epitomises the trusted and honest copper of the 1950s, not the corpulent figure of the p’liceman from the late Victorian and Edwardian music hall.
So the police magistrate must often have been faced with a potential conflict between the police (as keepers of the peace) on one hand, and the public on the other. As a law man he had to try and square this tricky circle, and in this case from 1850 I think we can see how he falls back on the law to do so, whilst exercising some discretion at the same time.
In April 1850 Edward Williams found himself in the Worship Street Police Court accused of assaulting a policeman in the execution of his duty. It was a serious offence and the justices at Worship Street and the nearby Thames court (both of which served the supposedly ‘lawless’ and ‘criminal’ East End) normally came down hard on drunken brawlers that picked fights with the police or refused to ‘go quietly’ when asked.
Edward, then, was in trouble.
However, his version of events was quite different to that presented by the police who brought the charge, and in looking at both I think we can see some of the tensions that I’ve mentioned above.
PC Ward of N Division stated that he had been on duty with a fellow officer outside a beer shop in Clapton when Williams had approached him. It was late, just before midnight, and Williams spoke to him asking him, ‘what I considered I was placed there for’.
Ward’s reply was: “For the protection of life and property”, which was the strap line of the Met in the 1800s. This didn’t satisfy Williams, who turned on him and told him: ‘that was a lie, that I was placed there , it seemed, for the purpose of insulting women, and he called me all the rascals and vagabonds he could lay his tongue to’.
At this the copper asked him to move along and go home. Williams, he claimed, refused and, after having been warned again, the young man struck him several times in the face, drawing blood. Eventually he was overpowered by the officers and taken to the station. PC Devitt (310 N) backed up his colleague’s testimony.
This assault on the person of a police constable was what had landed Williams, a supposedly ‘respectable’ young man, in court. He however, told a slightly different story and sought to justify but not deny, his attack on PC Ward.
Williams told the magistrate, Mr Arnold, that he had been walking out with a young woman, Frances Coleman, to whom he ‘had been paying his attentions’ (courting or dating as we would say now). He was walking her home to her parents but had to stop for moment and asked her to continue, saying he would catch her up.
As she passed the beer shop he heard one of the officers call out to her, ‘my dear’, then ‘whistle to her in a manner which could not be otherwise than insulting to a modest woman, and finally making a most disgusting noise with his mouth’. I leave that to your imagination.
He approached the policemen and remonstrated with them. So here, perhaps was the bones of PC Ward’s report. When the policeman denied acting in the manner Williams believed he had done, and then arrested him, he felt justified in resisting. The ‘assault’, he argued, was the ‘perfecting justifiable result’ of the constable’s poor behaviour towards the woman he admired.
Frances supported her young man in court, confirming his evidence but at the same time allowing Mr Arnold some wriggle room. She said there was some noise emanating from the beer shop, something with which the police quickly agreed. Could the whistles and other offensive remarks have come from someone in there, asked the justice? She doubted it, repeating that she thought the calls towards her had come from one of the officers. However, despite two witnesses (Frances and Edward) telling a different tale to that of the constables the magistrate decided to believe one over the other but sought to use the beer house as a possible means of sowing some doubt.
Mr Arnold told the court that he could not imagine for one moment that the police would lie or to ‘knowingly and willingly commit perjury’ , but that at the same time neither would a decent young lady such as Frances. So it must have been the unruly occupants of the drinking den that acted so offensively.
The police then were in the clear despite the evidence to the contrary. As for young Edward however, his action had been ‘completely unjustifiable’. He had accused a policeman of doing something quite impossible for a public servant, and had then employed violence when asked to go home. Arnold opted to use the law in all its force to send a message that the police must be respected at all times, and especially when they were carrying out their duties.
He fined Williams £5 or one month in the house of correction if he could not pay. He found a way to implement the law and demonstrate that he was, in his mind, being even handed. I doubt Edward saw it that way.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, April 21, 1850]