‘Where are the police?’ is the cry as windows get smashed

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Middle Row, Holborn, in the nineteenth century

Henry Holesworth was strolling along High Holborn early on Friday evening, the 19th January 1855, when he noticed a cab driver seem to throw something. The driver was following another hansom along the road and pulled back his arm in what seemed, to Holesworth at least, a throwing action. Seconds later there was an almighty smash as one of the windows of Mr Watkins’ shop shattered.

Holesworth quickly told the shopkeeper what he’d seen and the pair of them set off in hot pursuit of the cabbie. Since the street was busy with other vehicles they soon caught up with him and gave him into the custody of a nearby policeman. On the following morning three men were in court, in front of the magistrate at Bow Street.

The defendant was James Boswell and he was charged with breaking a window valued at 10s but this was no ordinary act of vandalism or revenge. The Bow Street office heard from a number of people that morning, all tradesmen, who insisted that this was part of an orchestrated campaign against them.

The magistrate heard that representatives of the Plate Glass Protection Company ‘had constantly requested’ tradesmen in the area to unsure themselves against such damage. This was what we would term a protection racket then; intimidation by a local gang of felons who perhaps employed cab drivers to remind the shopkeepers of the perils of not parting with their insurance subscriptions.

Sadly however this was merely speculation; there was little or no proof of a conspiracy. Indeed there wasn’t even enough solid evidence to convict Boswell of breaking Mr Watkins’ window. Holesworth, a mechanic by trade, could only state that he saw the cab driver’s arm move as if he was throwing a stone. Crucially he did not see him throw anything and accepted his movement could have been caused by ‘a buffeting of the wind’.

As a result Boswell was discharged and walked free from Bow Street. However, the magistrate, Mr Henry, felt obliged to state (for the newspaper record at least) that he was aware that something was amiss and his statement carried a rebuke of the police.

‘It is a notorious fact’ he grumbled, ‘that nearly every night the tradespeople of Oxford Street have their plate-glass windows smashed, and the remark has been made as to what the police are about’.

The Metropolitan Police force was only 26 years old in 1855 and still establishing itself in mid Victorian society. It may have survived the early attempts to abandon Peel’s experiment with centrally organised policing, but – as this report shows – continued to face ongoing criticism of its efficiency.

[from The Standard, Monday, January 22, 1855]

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