Throughout the nineteenth century there were parts of London that were almost off limits to the police. Almost all of Seven Dials (near Covent Garden) was such a myriad of back alleys and decrepit housing that the police were afraid to venture too far inside, in the East End places like Thrawl Street, Old Nichol or Dorset Street were equally notorious. In the centre of town Husband Street enjoyed a fierce reputation as a place feared by the bobby on the beat.
It was in the early hours of Tuesday 7 April 1863 when PC Carpenter (36C) heard and saw two men ‘hammering at the shutters’ on Husband Street and causing a disturbance. He called to them to desist and was treated to a mouthful of invective. The pair were drunk and in no mood to go home quietly as PC Carpenter suggested. When he insisted they went for him.
‘Take that you ____’ said one of them as he piled into the officer striking him mad knocking him to the ground. The constable had managed to shout loudly enough to summon help and William Green (76C) was soon on the scene. Both men struggled to arrest the drunks and a rough and tumble fight ensued. PC Carpenter was kicked in the eye as another officer arrived to lend his help to his colleagues. William Hellicar (171C) was grabbed by the hair from behind, wrestled to the floor and kicked as he lay prone on street.
‘Get out the _____ staff, and let’s kill the ______’ cried one of the assailants; ‘Murder the ______’ was also heard. Before PC Hellicar was attacked he heard one of the men say: ‘I’ll go and get something to settle the _______’.
Eventually the drunken men were overpowered and dragged off to the station house. On the following morning they were produced before Mr Tyrwhitt at Marlborough Street Police court and charged with an assault on the police. They gave their names as John Biggens and John Dirken and said they lived at 6 Husband Street. There were ‘rough fellows’ and the street was described as being ‘notorious for assaults’. Neither offered anything by way of a defense.
Inspector Bowles of C Division was in court to testify that all three of his officers had been hurt and Carpenter and Hellicar seriously enough to have been signed off sick by the surgeon. The magistrate noted that Biggens head was swathed in bandages and asked how he’d received his wound. PC Carpenter said it had been inflicted by mistake when Dirken had been trying to strike him; in his drunken lunge, he said, Dirken had missed the copper and hit his chum, splitting his head open.
Mr Tyrwhitt commended the police for their restraint in the face of such a ‘brutal’ attack and sent the prisoners to gaol for a month. Perhaps the police account was exactly as events had unfolded but I’m bound to say I’d be surprised if they hadn’t applied a little force of their own. Maybe Durkin’s fist did connect with his mate’s skull but that injury seems more likely to have been inflicted with a police stave (or truncheon).
Not that I blame the officers in the least and nor, from the account in the papers, did Biggins or Dirkin. They seem to have seen this as one battle in a long running war between the police and the rougher elements of working-class London, a war – its fair to say – that is ongoing.
[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, April 08, 1863]
NB: The officer in the illustration above is wearing the new pattern helmet that was not introduced until 1864, a year after this case.