A drunken attack on a compassionate ‘bobby’ or an example of police brutality? You decide

Jack 54

Given that the Victorian police patrolled set beats across London late into the night it is hardly surprising that they spent a considerable amount of their time dealing with those they found drunk and disorderly or drunk and incapable. While some were happy to go home quietly others resisted the police, with mouthfuls of abuse or by resorting to physical violence. Sometimes the offender would be allowed to sleep off his or her inebriation at the ‘nick’ but if they had added to their offence by attacking the officer that arrested them they could expect an appearance before a Police Court magistrate in the morning.

This was the fate that awaited Daniel Donnell, a ‘rough looking fellow’ who had been found dead drunk in the gutter by PC Colville of H Division (the police division that would later head the investigation to capture ‘Jack the Ripper’). PC Colville was making his way through Roberts Place when he noticed a man lying off the pavement and ‘foaming at the mouth’.

The constable knelt down and helped the man to sit up before undoing his shirt collar and scarf so he could breath more easily. It took a few moments before Donnell achieved consciousness but when he did he reacted badly. When the PC asked him where he lived he refused to say and ‘commenced to make use of most disgusting language’ before punching the policeman hard in the face.

As the copper reeled Donnell attacked again, punching him and knocking him to the floor where he started kicking him in the side. Another offer was soon on the scene and he struggled with the drunk. In the end it took several officers to secure Donnell and frog-march him to the station.

When the case came before Mr Saunders at Thames Police Court Donnell claimed he’d only been defending himself. He alleged that PC Colville had attacked him with his truncheon first, something the policeman denied. This defence might have had more credence if Donnell had reported it to an inspector when he arrived at the station house but there was no record of him doing so.

Mr Saunders didn’t believe his story and with more than one policeman lining up to verify each others’ account of that night Donnell had little chance of being believed anyway.

The magistrate told him that ‘such scandalous conduct as he had been guilty of could not be tolerated, and he would go to prison for seven days with hard labour’.

This is one of those cases in which two very different accounts are possible but only one emerges as being plausible to the press and magistracy. It is deemed inconceivable that the police would use violence against a working class man found drunk in the street who resisted attempts to move him on. The police present themselves as the victims in a situation where they acted out of concern for a drunk’s welfare and were met with violence and abuse as a result of this.  There is clearly a possible alternative scenario here but given that the policemen of H Division could present a united front there was zero chance that anyone would believe it. How many more ‘drunk and incapable’ or ‘assaults on the police’ could be interpreted differently if independent witnesses had been around to validate them?

That said it is equally possible that Donnell was simply a violent, foul-mouthed drunk who did exactly as described  and fully deserved the week’s incarceration he received from the ‘beak’.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, March 26, 1881]

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