‘Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course, How he got it, from what source?’ A policeman in the dock at Thames

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If you want to know the time, ask a policeman.
The proper city time, ask a policeman,
Every member of the force has a watch and chain, of course,
How he got it, from what source? ask a policeman.

This well-known music hall ditty (which I’ve mentioned before) reflects a contemporary working-class distrust of the police by suggesting that they weren’t always as honest as they should have been.

When William Harris, a Ratcliff wine cooper, and his wife got home from a night out they found the door of their house open and a policeman guarding it. It was half-past midnight and the couple must have been both surprised and concerned.

The officer quickly moved to reassure them. He told them he’d found it ajar and had investigated. There may have been a burglary but he wasn’t sure, no one was on the premises, but they had better check if anything was missing.

Mr Harris rushed upstairs and looked around to see if anything had been disturbed. It didn’t seem as if it had but then he realised his pocket watch and chain was missing from the dressing table. He went down to report it the loss to the constable.

Earlier that evening PC Patrick Barry (382K) and PC John Prestage (also K Division), were patrolling on Broad Street in Ratcliffe when the latter called Barry’s attention to a door that seemed open. PC Prestage told his colleague to wait outside while he investigated. He went upstairs but reported that no one was in the the house. He then sent Barry off to  to report a suspected robbery, telling him he would stand guard in the meantime.

Barry soon returned with sergeant Richard Plumsett, who had been checking the patrols of his constables as was normal practice. Sergeants would set constables off on their beats and time them to ensure they were  in the right place at the right time. He came over the the house in Broad Street and spoke to both officers. This was about 11.45 at night.

Just after 12.30 Sergeant Plumsett was back and now he found Barry, Prestage and Mr Harris embroiled in an argument. Harris was complaining about the loss of his watch but wasn’t keen on going along to the police station to officially report it. PC Prestage told his superior that:

‘Mr Harris does not seem satisfied about losing his watch: I don’t know whether he wants to blame the police for it’.

The sergeant then noticed that Prestage was drunk, or at least under the influence of alcohol. He immediately instructed the pair of them to return to the station with him.

Back at the King David Lane police station the situation developed. Mr Harris arrived later on and accused the policeman of robbing him. With a drunken officer and an unhappy local resident the desk sergeant, Robert Smith, told Prestage that he’d better turn out his pockets to satisfy the cooper’s suspicions.

‘Have you got a watch?’ Sergeant Smith asked.

‘Yes, I am in the habit of carrying two watches’, replied PC Prestage, and unbuttoned his great coat to reveal a watch on a chain around his neck.

‘Where is the other watch?’ the sergeant continued, and it was handed over.

When Mr Harris was shown the watch he immediately identified at the one he had lost from his dressing table. The police had no choice and the next morning PC Prestage found himself in the dock at Thames Police Court in front of the imposing figure of Mr Lushington.

The magistrate asked him to explain himself but all he could say was that he was ‘under the influence of liquor and was not aware he had taken the watch’. This was too serious for Mr Lushington to deal with there and then so he remanded him for a week with a view to committing him for trial at the Middlesex Sessions.

On 17 December 1877 John Prestage (described as a baker, not a policeman) was tried and convicted of theft at Middlesex Sessions and sentenced to nine years imprisonment. He was 20 years old and pleaded guilty. He was sent, as so many of those sentenced were, to Cold Bath Fields prison. I’m curious to know why he wasn’t described as a policeman when the newspaper report is very clear that he was.  The Daily Gazette (a Middlesbrough paper) reported the case at Middlesex as that of a ‘Dishonest Policeman’ so there seems to be no doubt as to his occupation.

[from The Standard, Monday, December 03, 1877]

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