‘What business do you have in kicking my boy and ill-using my wife?’ An Eastender’s challenge to a local bobby.

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Who’d be a policeman? Especially in mid Victorian London, and in the East End at that. There a policeman’s lot was most certainly not a happy one, as the song goes. In 1847 the Metropolitan Police had been established for less than 20 years and while they may have ridden out the crisis of the first decade, where allegations of corruption and drunkenness had meant that many of the early recruits had to be replaced, they were still very far from being popular or respected.

The working class resented them for interfering in their day-to-day lives and for being ‘class traitors’, while the middle classes were unhappy at having to pay for them and disliked being told what to do by an ‘inferior’. The upper classes had no more time for time for them either, having effectively lost the control they had over policing to the home office.

So pity poor PC Edward Jessop (215H) who had Thrawl Street as part of his beat in 1847. Thrawl Street was a very poor street in a very poor area, populated by the residents of low lodging houses who lived a precarious hand-by-mouth existence. Thrawl Street was to be home to several of the victims of Jack the Ripper in the 1880s but its reputation for poverty went back much longer than 1888.

On Sunday 10 October 1847 PC Jessop approached Thrawl Street proceeding as he was obliged to do, at a steady walking pace. It was half past eight in the evening and, as he later reported, he saw a group of young men playing a game of chance under a street lamp. He moved in to stop them (gambling was a misdemeanor and punishable by a fine) but as he did a lad scaled the lamp for the purpose, he believed, of turning it out and making it impossible for him to see what was going on.

He grabbed at the boy and pushed him away, the lad fell over and yelped. The gathered crowd let out a chorus of insults and threats, and suggested he might have killed the child. A man – who turned out to be the boy’s father – raced out of a nearby house and started hitting the constable, who did his best to resist. As he tried to arrest the man the boy’s mother appeared and now he was assailed on two fronts. Since she scratched his face he retaliated and hit her about the head with his truncheon.

That was the version of events that PC Jessop told the inspector back at the station when he and a colleague had managed to capture the father and mother and charge the former with assaulting a policeman. However, when the case came before Mr Hammile at Worship Street Police court an alternative story was laid out for public consumption. I doubt very much that 20 or 30 years later, when the police were more widely accepted (and the idea of the ‘criminal class’ had gained greater purchase in Victorian society) this would have played out in this way, so this case is interesting from a police history perspective.

Mr Hammile was told, by the defence’s solicitor (and this in itself is interesting because it suggests that a poor community had somehow clubbed together to defend one of its own) that the real villain was PC Jessop himself.

PC Jessop told the court that he was assailed by a crowd of up to 150 persons, many of whom were throwing stones and brickbats but he seemed to have escaped injury while the boy’s mother, Mrs Hurley had been left ‘bleeding in the arms of a neighbour’ and was still too weak to give evidence in court the next day.

Witnesses (several of them) testified that PC Jessop had been the aggressor. He had had seized the boy while he was playing with some others and had kicked him, knocked him to the floor and then hit him about the head with his open hand. This had brought Mrs Hurley out to remonstrate with the officer who had struck out at her in return. She was punched in the face, the justice was told, and later beaten with a truncheon. As she cried for help her husband arrived and demanded to know ‘what business [the constable] had to kick his boy and ill-use his wife’.

At that the policeman had attacked Patrick Hurley and the whole scene descended into a brawl. Hurley resisted arrest until another officer arrived and he went willingly with him but refused to be led by PC Jessop. A number of witnesses claimed the policeman was drunk and was staggering along his beat and leaning against the walls to steady himself. This was denied by PC Jessop and his inspector who said he was ‘perfectly sober’ and not one to take liquor. ‘He was a remarkably well-conducted young man’.

So now it was left to the magistrate to determine who was telling the truth and whom he should believe. In the end he sided with the Hurleys, which might seem surprising. He discharged Patrick Hurley on the grounds that he was provoked by PC Jessop’s attack on his son and wife. He instructed Inspector Ellis to report the matter to the police commissioners for them to investigate as they thought fit and gave Mrs Hurley leave to bring an assault charge against the constable if she wished.   PC Jessop wasn’t reprimanded but I doubt he would be so keen to return to Thrawl Street in a hurry.

By 1888 it was reported that streets like the nearby Dorset Street were so dangerous for the police that they would only patrol them in groups of four; I rather suspect that this would also apply to places like Flower & Dean and Thrawl Streets and policeman would have been more careful to at least be assured that a colleague was nearby.

[from The Morning Post, Tuesday, October 12, 1847]

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