The occupational hazards of operating a Victorian ‘Black Maria’

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The Bow Street Police court in 1881, with a Police van (or ‘black Maria’)

In most of the reports of the ‘doings’ of the Victorian Police courts it is taken for granted that the reader understands the process of court and how the system works at this level. This is presumably because the readership would have been familiar with the police courts, either from personal experience or through a regular consumption of the reportage.

For us, of course, there is no such easy familiarity and, while much of what occurs is straightforward it does help when explanations are given or light is shone on the working practice of these important day-to-day centres of summary justice. So, for example, we know that prisoners were transferred to and from the courts (to face hearings or be transported to prisons) but how?

Today those on trial are brought in security vans operated by private companies licensed by the Prison service. We have probably all the white high sided vehicles with small windows that deposit and collect from the various courts and prisons up and down the country. What though was the situation in the Victorian period? Perhaps unsurprisingly they had their nineteenth-century horse-drawn equivalents and in 1869 we get a description of one in the report of case heard at Bow Street.

William Watkins (a man of about 40) was charged at Bow Street in February with assaulting Sergeant James Phelps (A21) who was responsible for the Bow Street police van. Watkins had been remanded in custody accused of loitering outside the Adelphi Theatre ‘with the intention of picking pockets’. The justice had remanded him for a few days so that his character could be enquired into.
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Sergeant Phelps told the court that as he was ushering the prisoner Watkins into the waiting van the accused ‘resisted him’. The court reporter gave his readers some detail:

‘The interior of the van is divided into cells, with a passage down the middle’. As the sergeant was ‘putting the prisoner into the last cell – the one next to the door – [the prisoner] endeavoured to prevent him from closing the door by setting his foot against it’.

The policeman retaliated by stamping on Watkins’ foot but this simply provoked the man into violence. Watkins now kicked the sergeant ‘on the shin with such violence as to inflict a severe wound through his trousers, Wellington boots, and stockings’ [so now we know what policemen wore on duty].

The attack was painful and had left a scar on Phelp’s shin. He said he was used to prisoners who resisted arrest or being transported but never had he suffered an assault as bad as this.

PC Rice (75F) now reported on the man’s character and it wasn’t great. He said he’d arrested Watkins in 1864 for stealing a silk handkerchief from a pocket in High Holborn. Watkins had received a 12 month prison sentence for that crime and his actions five years later didn’t exactly endear him to the police or the magistracy. Mr Flowers, the Bow Street magistrate on this occasion, gave him three months for the charge of loitering with intend to steal, and an additional month for kicking out at the police sergeant. Presumably he was then taken away in a ‘black maria’, albeit carefully.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 11, 1869]

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