Street fight in Seven Dials, by George Cruikshank c.1839
Seven Dials was notorious in the 1800s as a place of desperate poverty and criminality. It was an area that the police were not inclined to go, full of rookeries with traps set for the unwary and locals whose antipathy towards anyone in authorities made it a very dangerous place for the ‘boys in the blue’.
To give just one example of the risks officers took in entering the district we can look at this case from the middle of June 1883.
Officers were called out from the police station at Great Earl Street to tackle a riotous crowd that had gathered in the Dials. One of those involved had apparently been thrusting a muddied cloth into the faces of random passers-by in an aggressive manner. When the police moved in to arrest this man they were attacked and pelted with stones, ‘ginger beer bottles, and pieces of iron’.
The instigator of the violence – the man with the muddy cloth – was rescued by the crowd and it took police reinforcements to recapture him along with another man that had been identified as a ringleader in the riot.
Eventually, and not without a struggle, the two of them were conveyed to the station house. On the way the officers were kicked at, bitten and wrestled with as their prisoners ‘behaved like wild beasts’. A passing solicitor and an off duty police officer came to the aid of the lawmen and helped subdue their charges.
All the while the crowd had followed from Seven Dials and continued to try to affect a rescue of their friends. Stones rained down on the officers and one struck the off duty copper, PC Bunnion, on the ear. He was hurt so badly that he lost his hearing (hopefully only temporarily) and was placed on the police sick list. A woman rushed in and grabbed one of the officers’ truncheons and started to beat them with it – she too was eventually arrested.
After a night in the cells both men and the woman were brought up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. William Learey was given four months at hard labour for his part in the assaulting on the police but the other man was cleared. John Hurley’s solicitor was able to persuade the magistrate that his client had taken ‘any part in the original disturbance’. He’d been falsely arrested therefore, and so was excused his subsequent behaviour.
Mary Taylor – the woman who’d used the police’s own weapon against them – didn’t escape justice however. She was given 21 days for one assault and 14 for another, a total of just over a month in prison. An unnamed gentleman who gave evidence in court challenged this decision. He alleged that the police had used unnecessary force in arresting Mary but Mr Vaughan upheld his decision while suggesting that the man take his complaint to the Commissioners of Police.
It is always hard to know who is to blame in a riot. The very nature of the event makes its hard to identify those who are active participants and those who are innocent bystanders, or even individuals whose motive is simply to stop the riot escalating. One of the functions of the New Police after 1829 was to deal with exactly this sort of disorder but it was not until over 100 years later that the police began to receive the sort of specialist training and equipment they needed to be able to do so.
[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 17, 1883]