Before alarm clocks were widely available (let alone radio alarms or digital alarms on mobile phones) most people were reliant on being ‘knocked up’ by a tap on the window in the early hours of the morning. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth century this role was sometimes played by men from the night watch who patrolled the streets in the days before professional police forces were established. Private individuals also acted as ‘knocker uppers’ and continued to wake communities up until the 1950s, charging a few pennies a week for the service.
In 1881 young William Clutterbuck was employed to wake people in the streets around his home in Manchester Place, Bethnal Green but he had somehow got into a local policeman’s bad books and in July this landed both of them in court.
The boy’s father took out a summons against police constable 383K for assaulting his lad. Mr Clutterbuck admitted the assault was minor but that was not the reason he had brought it; he was upset because the police were ‘interfering with the boy to take away his work’. That impacted on the family income and had therefore to be challenged.
This is an interesting example of working people using the summary courts to complain about the police and acts therefore, as a small test of how effective the metropolitan police courts were as arenas of negotiation for ‘ordinary’ people.
Young William was sworn and then gave his evidence to Mr Hannay, the Worship Street magistrate. He told him that ‘he went out very early in the morning, calling men who lived in his immediate neighbourhood to their work’. He charged sixpence a week for waking them but had lost one client because a policeman (PC 201H) had made them stop employing him.
PC 150K had also threatened him and said he would lock him up if he found him on the streets. When he and his father went to the station house to complain about this and other instances when the local police had tried to interfere with his work he was called a thief by PC 383K (the defendant). This was repeated three times in front of the inspector although there seems little justification for it.
The next morning William was out on the streets when he ran into the same copper who ‘abused him, asked why his father did not put a better coat on his back, threatened to lock him up and get him sent to a reformatory, and took him by the collar and twisted him around’.
This was the last straw for Mr Clutterbuck who took out the summons that brought the policeman to court. He also produced a ‘long list of persons’ who were prepared to testify on his sons’ behalf. Now it was for the magistrate to consider the evidence he had heard and decide whether the police had a case to answer.
Mr Hannay did seem minded to take it seriously. The assault ‘was of no matter’, but the allegation that the police were colluding with each other to ‘terrorise the boy’ was a grave one. He asked Clutterbuck to come back to court in a few days with some of those that had said they were willing to be sworn to give evidence.
This was a challenge to the police’s authority in the East End, an area where they were perhaps least popular in the capital as a whole. The local costermongers resented them for moving them and their barrows along, and when it came to the ‘Ripper’ murders in 1888 the community felt it necessary to form their own vigilance committees and patrol the streets themselves, so little faith did they have in the police to protect their womenfolk from the murderer.
The final resolution of this case does not seem to be recorded in the London press (or to have survived if it did). This is not surprising, the papers liked to offer their readers ‘tit bits’ of news from the Police Courts and this would have served to amuse or concern readers in equal measure. It was a dig at the ‘boys in blue’ and a reminder that working-class boys needed to contribute to the family income as well as go to school to learn the ‘thee Rs’.
I doubt much would have happened to PC 383K even if several local men had backed up the complaint against him, but if he then left young William alone to carry on his early morning work then that would have achieved all that his father set out to do. Why did the policeman do it? Perhaps they were able to earn a few extra pennies themselves whilst on their beats (as the old watchmen had) and resented the competition William provided. Whatever the truth this is perhaps an example of the police courts operating as the ‘people’s courts’ as some historians have suggested they did, working for local people against the authorities rather than simply being an arm of the disciplinary state.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, July 17, 1881]