A mini riot at an RHS fête

30 Chiswick House

1829 was the year that the Metropolitan Police Act was passed bringing a fully regulated and hierarchical system of police to the capital’s streets. However, we shouldn’t assume that London was unpoliced before Peel’s initiative, nor believe everything early police historians have told us about the inefficiency or corrupt nature of the measures that existed before the ‘Peelers’ began to patrol their beats.

London had been policed by amateurs and part-time paid police from the medieval period and the networks of parish watchmen and constables had improved markedly in the second half of the 1700s. One of the key improvements in ‘policing’ (and I use that term more broadly than it is used today) was the passing of the Middlesex Justices Act in 1792. This created seven ‘police offices’ across London and complemented the existing ones at Bow Street and the City of London’s Guildhall and Mansion House justicing rooms.

Based on the Bow Street model established by Henry and John Fielding, these police offices were set up as courts with police magistrates (justices of the peace) and court officers (or ‘runners’ as they were known at Bow Street). These institutions later evolved into the Police Magistrates courts and their officers were effectively replaced by Peel’s New Police after 1829.

In July 1829 there was no Metropolitan Police Force and so Londoners were reliant on the old system. And we can get a glimpse of the sort of things they had to deal with in this case that came before the Marlborough Street Office on first Wednesday in the month.

Edward Perry, a coachman, was charged ‘with violently whipping and endangering the lives’ of two Marlborough Street officers. His case was heard by all three appointed police magistrates: Sir George Farrant, H. M. Dyer senior, and his son, H. M. Dyer, junior. The court was packed with several gentlemen who had either witnessed or heard about the events that led to the violence that was alleged to have been meted out to the court’s officers.

One of the officers, Schofield, gave his evidence before the bench. He testified that at 7 o’clock on the previous Saturday evening (27 June) he had been stationed opposite the entrance to Royal Horticultural Society’s annual Fete, which was held in gardens on Wavendon Road on land leased by the Duke of Devonshire. We might have thought that an RHS event (like the modern one at Chelsea) would have been a sober and civilized occasion, but it seems that in 1829 ended in a mini riot.

A queue of coaches had developed, as they waited to collect their ladies and gentlemen from the fete, and this caused some tension as patience worn thin and tempers rose. Perry was employed by Sir Astley Cooper and as he waited outside the gates of the gardens a man approached him and asked him to ‘drive on, and take them up in a few minutes’. At first Schofield assumed this was Sir Astley himself but later established that it was one of the knight’s ‘near relations’, a Dr Patterson.

As the doctor departed into the gardens Schofield, aware of the queue behind, asked Perry to move along. Perry replied that he wasn’t going to move for anybody. The officer took the reins of the horses to lead them away and Perry struck him hard with his whip.

Seeing this one of Schofield’s fellow officers (Goddard) rushed to help his mate. Schofield tried to clamber onto the coach via the running board but Perry pulled it up fast, meaning the officer fell back onto the street. Undeterred he got up, dusted himself down and grabbed at the reins. The driver and officer struggled for some moments before, eventually, Perry was unseated and the coach secured.

In court Perry challenged this account, saying he’d not heard anyone tell him to move and that the officers were aggressive and he’d been injured in the process. He also denied a suggestion that he was drunk, something often leveled at coach drivers who probably drank plenty of beer in the course of their work but were not expected to be get inebriated.

Mr Dyer senior was present at the fete and said that since he could corroborate Perry’s evidence perhaps he should step down from the bench. Another gentleman witness, a Mr Creswell, also supported the coachman. The younger Mr. Dyer had also seen the ‘riot’ but his account verified that of the court officers.

The confusion here is probably explained by the fact that as the incident occurred a throng of servants, attached to various notables visiting the fete, got involved on to try and rescue the coachman as he was led away. A riot ensued and another court officer (Ballad) said that because some of these men were ‘following the officers in a fighting attitude, he was compelled to take out his pistols to keep the mob off’.

This reveals then, that the officers of the courts (or some of them at least) were routinely armed, whereas Peel’s men were only equipped with truncheons establishing the tradition that British police are only given firearms under special circumstances.

Several other witnesses came forward to testify against the officers but this did them little good. Perry was convicted of assaulting Schofield and was fined 40s. The bench agreed that there was less evidence that he’d assaulted Goddard but still fined him 20s anyway. In 1829 60s was a lot of money, around £200 at today’s prices, or two week’s salary for a skilled tradesman.

He wasn’t the only one punished for involvement in a riot that had spoiled the quite peace of Chiswick that night. James Smith, a groom employed by a coal merchant at the Adelphi was fined 20s ‘for attempting to ride over Boothman, a special constable’, and John Wichens, another coachman, had to find £4 as a result of being convicted of whipping two other Marlborough Street officers, Avid and Stone.

While the Bow Street runners wore red waistcoats to identify them it must have been hard to determine exactly who was a policing agent in the early 1800s. One of the advantages of the New Police then was their unambiguous visibility; with their blue swallow-tailed coats and tall stove pipe hats they quickly became a recognized figure of authority on London streets. This didn’t mean that coach drivers became any more respectful of them, but it did make it harder for defendants to claim they hadn’t realized who they were.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, July 02, 1829]

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