Officer down!: the Perils of Police work in Victorian London

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Today, in a slight break from the usual format of these posts, I want to write about two incidents that didn’t appear in reports of the workings of the London Police Courts, but are closely related to them. This is because they involve officers of the Metropolitan Police, the body of men that brought the majority of defendants before the capital’s magistrates.

Police work was (and is) dangerous. The police have to place themselves in positions of risk when they are pursuing criminals (who might be armed and desperate) or protecting the public. In my lifetime and think of several three high profile events in which officers lost their lives. In 1984 PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London, while only last year PC Keith Palmer was killed outside the Palace of Westminster in a terrorist attack. In September 2012 Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes were murdered by Dale Cregan when they answered a routine call to investigate a suspected crime.

Police work then, can be perilous and, for all the criticism the police receive, it is worth remembering this. It is also worth noting that it was ever thus; from the very earliest days of the Met the men (and in those days of course it was only men) who joined up were exposed to everyday dangers. In 1830, in the first full year of the ‘New Police’, PC Joseph Grantham was beaten to death when he tried to break up a drunken brawl in Somers Town. The public ambivalence towards Peel’s new force was reflected in the coroner’s verdict which suggested PC Grantham had ‘over exerted himself in discharging his duty’ and his death was recorded as ‘justifiable homicide’.

In November 1882 The Illustrated Police News (not an ‘official’ police paper but one that traded in ‘crime news’) reported the death of one officer (by drowning) and the shooting of another. The reports were carried alongside all those that recorded the ‘daily doings’ of the Police Courts.

PC Fitnum (240R) of Kent police was at Foots Cray in Sidcup. It was thought that as his night patrol took him across the River Cray by means of a narrow plank bridge he had slipped and fallen in. The river had been swollen by heavy rains and it is quite likely that he was unable to swim. He was found by his son about half an hour after he left the station to commence his beat. The 43 year-old, with 17 years service, left a wife and seven children.

In the same week at Hampstead PC Charles Ellingham (221S) was perambulating his beat around the home of Mr Reginald Prance of Frognal, ‘a man well known in City circles’ the paper noted. Hearing a noise behind some bushes he walked over to investigate.

All of a sudden a man rose up from behind them, ‘pointed a revolver at the constable’s head, and fired at him, saying “Take that! This isn’t the first time you have disturbed to-night”.’

The bullet passed through PC Ellingham’s helmet but, fortunately,  missed his head. With ‘great courage’ the copper rushed his man but was unable to stop him getting another shot off. This one took PC Ellingham in the thigh, passing through his ‘great coat, tunic, trousers and drawers’ before ‘lodging in the flesh’. As the constable fell his assailant made his getaway, clambering over a wall into the Redington Road.

Amazingly, the policeman recovered himself and set off in pursuit, chasing the supposed burglar across the nearby fields. He nearly caught up with the ‘cowardly ruffian’ but despite the constable ‘springing his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles)  the would-be assassin got away.

Ellingham returned to Mr Prance’s home and made his enquiries. He could see no evidence that the man had attempted a break in and the footman confirmed that he had heard the shots fired. The following description of the attacker was circulated:

‘Age twenty-six; height, 5 ft. 8 in.; fair, light, moustache; dress, long dark overcoat; light trousers, black felt hat’. The paper also reported that: ‘Great activity prevailed among the police the whole of Sunday in endeavouring to apprehend the man’, but so far no one had been found responsible for the attempt on the constable’s life.

PC Ellingham was a young officer, just 21 years of age, a ‘smart looking young fellow’ and unmarried. He was receiving the very best in medical care the reporter assured his readership and CID were actively investigating the event.

Both incidents reflect the risks of police work in the late 1800s and to that we could add numerous accounts of drunken assaults on officers as they patrolled the capital’s streets. Historians of crime have argued over the extent to which animosity towards the police was confined to ‘professional’ criminals and the so-called ‘criminal class’ and most would accept that at least in the first 50 years of professional policing the public’s attitude towards the police was at best ambiguous. The press were apt to highlight police incompetence and corruption whenever they could, but, as these reports show, they were also quick to praise brave officers and remind the public of their sacrifice when it was made.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, November 4, 1882]

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