‘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]

A boy steals a horse and cart as Whitechapel wakes up to news of a serial killer in its midst

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On Saturday 1 September 1888 the East End was digesting the news that a woman’s dead and mutilated body had been discovered in the early hours of the previous morning. At some point around 3am an unknown killer had attacked and murdered Mary Ann ‘Polly’ Nichols as she walked near the board school in Buck’s Row (now renamed as Durward Street). No one had heard anything despite several people living nearby and there being workmen in the knackers’ yard around the corner.

Polly was the first of the ‘canonical five’ female victims of  ‘Jack the Ripper’ and her death sparked the attention of the world’s press to cover what became known as the ‘Whitechapel murders’. Polly was a desperately poor woman who lived a hand-by-mouth existence, supporting herself by prostitution when she had no other options. She wasn’t alone in being poor, Whitechapel was among the poorest quarters of Victoria’s empire.

Despite the murder in Buck’s Row life went on as normal in the capital police courts and reading the reports from these you would be forgiven for thinking that nothing untoward had happened that week. On the Saturday The Morning Post reported goings on at the Thames Police court, the magistrates’ court that covered part of the East End of London (Worship Street being the other).

There an eleven-year old boy was charged with stealing a horse and cart from a carman while he was delivery goods in Lower East Smithfield. The boy had climbed into the cart and was driving it along Worship Street when he was stopped by PC William Thames (421G). When he asked him what he was doing with a cart the lad replied:

‘I am going to take it home. I have been with the carman to take some goods to Wood-green but the carman got drunk and had to go home by train’.

Later he claimed that the carman had fallen out of the cart. It was a lite and in court it was revealed that this was the firth time young John Coulson had been found in possession of someone else’s vehicle. Given that he was so young this was quite an amazing record and the magistrate  Mr Lushington told his mother that she would be best advised to get her son into an industrial school.

Lushington then had more serious case to deal with. Nathanial Rose was charged with violently assaulting a police officer. PC William Gunther (133H) had been called to attend to an incident on Betts Street, near Cable Street by several local tradesmen. A group of local ‘roughs’ were terrorizing passers-by; pushing them off the street, verbally abusing them, and generally behaving in an anti-social manner. When the policeman reached the scene there were about 10 lads gathered there and he told them all to go home.

He then strolled off thinking his work was done. It wasn’t. Within minutes they jumped him. He was jostled by several lads before Rose hit him on the side of te head with a bottle, cutting his eye. As he recovered they ran off.

PC Gunther knew who the culprit was and once he’d been patched up went round to Rose’s lodgings and arrested him. Mr Lushington sent him to prison for 10 weeks with hard labour.

Over the next three months or more the police of Whitechapel and the East End were kept very busy as a manhunt developed in response to Polly’s killing and the subsequent murders of at least four more poor local women. No one was ever successfully prosecuted for the murders and to this day there is considerable debate as to how many victims were killed and who exactly ‘Jack’ was. We all have our own theories and if you’d like to read mine it is available to buy from Amazon and all good booksellers.

[from The Morning Post, Saturday, September 01, 1888 ]

Another dreadful attack on the police and an echo of PC Culley, the first officer to be killed ‘in the line of duty’.

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It was claimed last week (by the Daily Express) that assaults on the police had risen to ‘28 attacks a day on officers in crime epidemic’.1

With recent events in mind it is easy to suggest that our police men and women are at a greater risk of harm than ever before but as one independent fact checking organization has shown, it isn’t really possible to compare rates with those in recent years because reporting criteria has changed.

The reality is that from their very inception, in 1829, members of the public have subjected the police to attacks. It has not become then a dangerous occupation, it always has been. The first officer to die to be killed in the line of duty was PC Robert Culley. He signed up for Peel’s new force in September 1829, joining C Division. On 13 May 1833 he was part of a team sent into break up a demonstration of the National Union of the Working Classes (a group  of radicals demanding parliamentary reform). The gathering at Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell descended into violence as the police moved in to disperse it and PC Culley was fatal wounded in the affray.

Hundreds of officers have died since Culley, with PC Andrew Harper being the most recent. Many thousands more have been injured and it is unlikely that we would ever have a true figure for this because statistics for common assault are notoriously unreliable. During the first 20-30 years of policing in England the police were deeply unpopular in working class areas. Seen as ‘class traitors’, and busybodies their use to suppress Chartism or demonstrations against the hated Poor Law won them few friends. Nor did their efforts to close down markets or stop street gambling endear them to working-class communities.

While they enjoyed gradual acceptance by the end of the century it would be fair to say that the public still saw the police as a ‘necessary evil’ rather than the ‘lovable bobby’ that 1950s and 60s television dramas like to depict.

In 1883 William Aldis was brought before the magistrate at Thames Police court in the East End of London. Aldis was a costermonger – a small trader who sold goods from a barrow. Costers were always being asked to ‘move along’ by the capital’s police and they resented these attempts to interfere with their traditional way of life. They saw the police as their enemies.

On the 2 August 1883 PC James Simpson (135K) was on duty just after midnight on Salmon’s Lane in Limehouse. He noticed Aldis and a group of ‘roughs’ standing outside the Copenhagen pub. They were drunk and rowdy, and making quite a noise so PC Simpson moved over to tell them to go home.

Aldis saw his opportunity to ‘serve out a policeman’ (as one coster had famously boasted to Henry Mayhew) and punched the officer in the face, blackening his eye, and sending him crashing to the pavement. The other roughs steamed in and rained down blows and kicks on the stricken policeman as he lay helpless on the ground. When they’d finished their work they ran off before help could arrive.

William Aldis was arrested later but it took a while for the case to come to court because PC Simpson was too sick to attend. Even two weeks later he was still unable to appear to give evidence in person. Evidence was obtained however, which satisfied Mr Lushington that the costermonger was to blame for the assault and he sentenced him to six months at hard labour.

So before we carried away in thinking that we have a ‘crime epidemic’ on our hands today and that something different is happening in society it is worth remembering again (as my blog yesterday argued) that violence towards the police and others is nothing new. That may not be very comforting but it is the reality.

[from The Illustrated Police News, Saturday, August 18, 1883]

The democratic process under stress: riots at the Middlesex Election of 1852

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With a new prime minister about to be announced this morning thoughts turn to a possible General Election. British politics is going through a tumultuous time and it was interesting to hear the new leader of the Liberal Democrats describe the Conservatives and Labour as the ‘two old parties’ when the Liberals are just as ancient and established as the Tories. They used to be the radical party of British politics, a tag they still like to revive when it suits them (as it does today with their opposition to Brexit).

In the mid 1800s parliament was made up of Conservatives (Tories) and the Whigs; the parties that had dominated politics for a century. But within the Whigs there was a splinter of MPs who described themselves as ‘Radicals’. They were dedicated to extending the franchise to include the working classes (who were largely excluded from the vote until the 1860s) and had been agitators against the hated Corn Laws (which kept food prices high for the poorest).

At the general election in 1852 the Radicals stood candidates against the Whigs and the Tories in the two seats that served the London constituency of Middlesex.  Middlesex had been a hotbed of radical politics from at least the late 1600s. The most famous radical MP for Middlesex was probably John Wilkes, and widespread rioting accompanied his election in 1768. Wilkes was a fierce opponent of the government of the day and had to flee to Paris to avoid prosecution for libel and debt. When he returned and stood for parliament he was elected but then promptly imprisoned in the King’s Bench prison. His supporters went on the rampage. Wilkes was a populist with great appeal but deep down he was also a cynical self-serving politician who would later order troops to fire on the Gordon Rioters as he was, by then, one of the City’s magistrates.

In 1852 there were more riots in Middlesex as supporters of the Radical candidate Ralph Bernal Osborne (below right) clashed with those of John Spencer-Churchill (the Marquis of Blandford) who stood for the Tories. An effigy of the Marquis was carried through the streets along with a stuffed fox and a pole with the label ‘a Derby puppet’ attached to it. Lord Derby had become PM in February 1852 following the fall of Lord Russell’s Whig ministry. It was a minority government and it too collapsed in December that year. He is sometimes credited with creating the modern Conservative party (an honour more usually credited to Disraeli). 220px-Ralph_Bernal_Osborne,_Vanity_Fair,_1870-05-28

The riots resulted in a series of arrests and led to three men appearing before Mr Paynter at Hammersmith Police court. Thomas Hall (25) was a sweep; Edward Hewett (33) and William Cook (19) were labourers, so all were working class. After the poll had closed disturbances had erupted at Hammersmith and the police who were there to keep order were attacked. Some of the police were in plain clothes, watching the crowd, and Hall was seen parading with the stuffed fox. PC John Jones (210T) stated that he was assaulted by Hall and as he tried to arrest him a ‘mob’ closed in on him.

PC Petit (194T) went to help and was thrown to ground by Hall. The prisoner then kicked him in the face, bruising his chin. The other two defendants joined in the fracas. PC John Searle (69T) was threatened by Cook who carried a large stick, which had been used to carry a flag, but was now simply a weapon. The police had taken the men into custody after a struggle and at the station it the men had bragged that any fine they got would be paid by the candidate they’d supported, Ralph Osborne.

Gangs of ‘roughs’ were a feature of election campaigns in the period just as they had been in the eighteenth century. Intimidation was common in elections – there were no secret ballots until 1872 so everyone knew who you voted for. The magistrate established that none of the trio were voters and the police said that all of the were known ruffians who’d appeared for assault before. Perhaps they were hired by the radicals, although they would have denied this. Politics was a dirty business in the 1800s, although one wonders whether it is much better today.  Even if Osborne had agreed to pay any fines it didn’t help the men. Mr Paynter told them their behavior was ‘disgraceful’ and said they had ‘interfered with the freedom of the election’, by preventing voters for going to the hustings.  He sentenced Cook to a month in gaol and the others to three weeks each.

After sentencing Cook claimed that he been employed to cause trouble by Dr Simpson and Hall said he was bring paid by a man named Rainbow. It neither of them any good as they were all led away and to be locked up.

The election returned the two incumbent MPs, Osborne for the Radicals and Robert Grosvenor for the Whigs. John Spencer-Churchill (the grandfather of Winston) came a narrow third. He entered Parliament in 1857 when the death of his father meant that he inherited the title of the duke of Marlborough. There were only 14, 610 registered voters in Middlesex in in 1852, returning two MPs. Only about half of them turned out to vote. Now the former Middlesex seat has been broken up into 8 separate seats in London, from Uxbridge to Hornsey.

If the voting system of the 1850s seems undemocratic to modern eyes then perhaps we should note that our next Prime Minster has just been elected by a tiny handful of the electorate, roughly 180,000 people out of 47,000,000 (or less than 1%).

[from The Morning Chronicle, Friday, July 23, 1852]

A real life ‘Fletch’: The man who had (too many) convictions

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One of the innovations of the Victorian criminal justice system was its ability to track offenders over many years. In the second half of the eighteenth century the Bow Street Police court had (under the leadership of the Fielding brothers, Henry and John) pioneered the collection of data in relation to crime. John, who was blind, was supposedly able to identify an offender that had appeared before him previously by voice alone. The Bow Street Runners collected information on criminals in an early form of the modern police database, but much of this was lost when the office was destroyed in the Gordon Riots of June 1780.

Effective use of data would have to wait for the second half of the nineteenth century, and was supported by the invention of photography and the creation of a professional police force. The ‘garroting panic’ of 1862 led to the passing of the Habitual Offenders Act in 1869. This created a register of offenders who were obliged to check in with police on their release from prison, and continue to do so for the next seven years. Records now noted all previous convictions, physical characteristics, as well as age, occupation, place of birth etc.

It had now become very difficult for anyone who had been in trouble with the law to escape the consequences of their past, something modern offenders and probation and prisoner support services are only too aware of.

John McCann was just such a ‘habitual’ offender. Like ‘Fletcher’’, the anti-hero of the popular British TV comedy Porridge, John McCann was a criminal who ‘seemed to treat arrest as an occupational hazard’. By 1881 he had already noticed up 16 previous convictions when he appeared at Marylebone Police court in mid July.

On this occasion he had been found lurking around the rear of a property in Charles Street by a constable on his beat. PC David West (160D) discovered McCann hiding by a workshop door at two in the morning and, suspecting he was up to no good, challenged him.

McCann ‘became very violent’ and hit out at the policeman, punching and kicking him, and running away. PC West managed, with difficulty, to secure him and take him into custody.

At Marylebone Mr Cooke was told that McCann had convictions for assault, theft, and other offences. He’d served several prison sentences but none seem to have deterred him from his chosen life course. He had, the justice declared, ‘been guilty of almost every kind of offence and spent nearly all his time in prison’. He would now go to gaol again, this time for six months with hard labour.

I am no apologist for violence or the burglary that McCann was probably about to commit and it is hard to see him as anything other than a serial offender. But what chance did he have once he was in the system? Tracked by the police and subject to periodic shakedowns by officers whenever a crime fitting his MO occurred we might imagine that John McCann was a target for the police whenever he showed his face. His chances of ‘going straight’ (as ‘Fletcher’ eventually did) were limited at best.

[from The Standard, Monday, July 18, 1881]

Odin makes an appearance on the Pentonville Road as as a sailor seeks sanctuary on a London rooftop

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The Pentonville Road, looking west (John O’Connor, 1884)

When PC Baylis (442G) and his fellow constable (PC Apps) were called to a disturbance in the Pentonville Road they got a little more than they bargained for. When they arrived it was to see a man standing on the roof of number 196 pulling up the coping bricks and stacking them in a pile, presumably so he could use them as missiles.

They entered the house and got on to the roof to confront him.  As soon as the man noticed the police he started chucking bricks at them. One struck Baylis on the side of the helmet but fortunately he wasn’t hurt. He did knock him over though and both officers were fortunate that they didn’t lose their footing and tumble to the street below.

It was a difficult situation and it was made more so by the low level of light available at 9.30 in the evening, even if it was the middle of the year. The man, later identified as a Norwegian sailor, spoke little or no English and seemed terrified as well as belligerent. A stand off ensued until a local man took things into his own hands. A volunteer soldier named Smith produced a rifle and fired a blank round up into the air. Thinking he might be shot the sailor calmed down and surrendered to the officers who took him into custody with the aid of a ladder.

Next morning he gave his name as Edwin Odin, a 20 year-old sailor who had recently arrived in London on a ship. With the help of a translator he explained that he had running away from some sailors in East London who wanted to hurt him or worse, and he’d taken refuge on the roof of the building (a bedding factory). When the police had appeared he panicked thinking they were his pursuers, which is why he attacked them.

Mr Horace Smith presiding, seemed to accept this excuse but suggested that the sooner he return to Norway the better it would be for all concerned.

[from The Standard, Thursday, June 20, 1889]

Violence and intimidation on the Hornsey Road

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The early Metropolitan Police (note the stove pipe hats which weren’t replaced with the more familiar helmets until 1863)

Thomas Jackson was a ‘powerful fellow’. He had been arrested after a considerable struggle, and charged with assault and with threatening women in an attempt to extort money from them. This unpleasant character appeared at Clerkenwell Police Court on Saturday 28 May 1853.

His victim, and the chief witness against him, was police constable John Hawkridge (71S). Hawkridge explained to the magistrate that he had been on duty on the Hornsey Road at half-past eight the previous evening when he was told that a man was threatening women with a bludgeon.

Rushing to the scene he found Jackson walking menacingly behind a small group of women waving his club at them. When he saw the policeman however, he dropped his violent display and ‘pretended to be drunk’. He claimed he was only asking for few pennies for his night’s lodging. Unconvinced, PC Hawkridge decided to give him an alternative place to sleep, and arrested him.

He was marching him off towards the nearest police station but as they passed a ditch on Hornsey Road his prisoner jumped him and the pair fell to wrestling on the ground.

Jackson seized ‘him by the stock on his neck, and tried to strangle him, and struck him a violent blow on his head, which knocked him down and inflicted a severe bruise. He was half stunned’.

The fight continued with the copper’s assailant kicking and punching him as he lay on the street. Eventually however PC Hawkridge eventually gained the upper hand and again began to escort his prisoner towards the station house. Jackson made yet another attempt to escape, however, desperately trying to pull a concealed knife on his captor.

Fortunately for PC Hawkridge a couple of gentlemen travelling in a passing carriage saw the policeman’s difficulty and intervened to help. Having secured Jackson at last, all four men travelled to the Highgate police station. Even then Jackson had to be transferred to a stretcher, so belligerent was,  and it tookseveral officers tied him down to carry him inside to the cells. One imagines he passed an uncomfortable night there before being brought up at Clerkenwell the next morning.

The court heard that numerous complaints ‘had been made [that]  persons of the prisoner’s description had been the habit of prowling about the neighbourhood of Hornsey, etc. begging, and intimidating ladies‘.

The magistrate told the prisoner in the dock that had he actually been convicted of stealing money with menaces he would have faced a punishment for highway robbery. As it was he would go to prison for three months at hard labour.

[from Reynolds’s Newspaper, Sunday, May 29, 1853]