‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’: criticism of the police is nothing new

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Police Court magistrates didn’t work for the police and often didn’t even support the police, even when they brought accusations against individuals for assaulting them. I think the law is much more likely today to protect officers, even those who, like the case I bring you today, could be said to have acted rashly or at least, might have made better decisions.

Police constable 405T (no name is given sadly) was off duty and had gone to fetch himself a jug of beer to enjoy at home. As he reached his home in Rock Avenue, Fulham one of his neighbours from across the road hailed him.

‘There’s never a policeman here when he is wanted’, cried Mrs Baxter, who may have just been on the end of bit of verbal or even physical abuse from her husband. Frederick Baxter was drunk and he wandered out of his home just in time to see the officer, standing toe-to-toe with his missus, declared: ‘One here’.

Tearing off his shirt Baxter squared up to the policeman and challenged him to fight. The constable carefully took off his hat and coat and put up his fists. Baxter struck first and, despite being the worse for drink, connected powerfully. The policeman reeled backwards sporting a rapidly blackening eye. A small crowd watched as they fought for four or five ‘rounds’ like a couple of prizefighters. Eventually, and possibly because he was coming off much the worst, the PC revealed who he was and told his opponent his was arresting him for assault.

The next morning Baxter was brought from the cells to face an examination before Mr Paget at Hammersmith Police court. Baxter claimed he had no idea that his opponent was a policeman, even though he lived opposite. He said he believed that his wife was being insulted, and perhaps was being propositioned. The officer thought he would have known but he wasn’t in uniform so, in his drunken state, he may not have. Mrs Baxter had no complaint against the office but he had ‘knocked up against her’ so we can see why Baxter might have been angered.

The magistrate reserved his ire for the policeman who he clearly believed had acted inappropriately. He should have declared that he was a police officer straight away, not halfway through a fistfight. ‘He was not entitled to because he was a constable off duty to take the law into his own hands’.

To put it mildly, he concluded, the officer had behaved ‘most injudiciously and in an improper manner’. He discharged the prisoner and recommended that the constable’s conduct should be investigated by his inspector, to see if any disciplinary action was necessary.

This incident happened in early September 1888 and by the end of that autumn the reputation of the metropolitan Police had been dragged through the mud yet again as they failed to catch ‘Jack the Ripper’. This – mostly unfair criticism – was added to deep-rooted working-class dislike of the police for their role as instruments of enforcing moral and economic rules, and as ‘class traitors’ in their own communities.

The 1880s, with Bloody Sunday, the Great Dock Strike, Fenian Terrorism and a serial killer on the loose, was not a happy decade for the ‘boys in blue’.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, September 06, 1888]

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