‘Fracas in the Seven Dials’: Police hurt as a mob runs riot in London

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Street fight in Seven Dials, by George Cruikshank c.1839

Seven Dials was notorious in the 1800s as a place of desperate poverty and criminality. It was an area that the police were not inclined to go, full of rookeries with traps set for the unwary and locals whose antipathy towards anyone in authorities made it a very dangerous place for the ‘boys in the blue’.

To give just one example of the risks officers took in entering the district we can look at this case from the middle of June 1883.

Officers were called out from the police station at Great Earl Street to tackle a riotous crowd that had gathered in the Dials. One of those involved had apparently been thrusting a muddied cloth into the faces of random passers-by in an aggressive manner. When the police moved in to arrest this man they were attacked and pelted with stones, ‘ginger beer bottles, and pieces of iron’.

The instigator of the violence – the man with the muddy cloth – was rescued by the crowd and it took police reinforcements to recapture him along with another man that had been identified as a ringleader in the riot.

Eventually, and not without a struggle, the two of them were conveyed to the station house. On the way the officers were kicked at, bitten and wrestled with as their prisoners ‘behaved like wild beasts’. A passing solicitor and an off duty police officer came to the aid of the lawmen and helped subdue their charges.

All the while the crowd had followed from Seven Dials and continued to try to affect a rescue of their friends. Stones rained down on the officers and one struck the off duty copper, PC Bunnion, on the ear. He was hurt so badly that he lost his hearing (hopefully only temporarily) and was placed on the police sick list. A woman rushed in and grabbed one of the officers’ truncheons and started to beat them with it – she too was eventually arrested.

After a night in the cells both men and the woman were brought up before Mr Vaughan at Bow Street Police court. William Learey was given four months at hard labour for his part in the assaulting on the police but the other man was cleared. John Hurley’s solicitor was able to persuade the magistrate that his client had taken ‘any part in the original disturbance’. He’d been falsely arrested therefore, and so was excused his subsequent behaviour.

Mary Taylor – the woman who’d used the police’s own weapon against them – didn’t escape justice however. She was given 21 days for one assault and 14 for another, a total of just over a month in prison. An unnamed gentleman who gave evidence in court challenged this decision. He alleged that the police had used unnecessary force in arresting Mary but Mr Vaughan upheld his decision while suggesting that the man take his complaint to the Commissioners of Police.

It is always hard to know who is to blame in a riot. The very nature of the event makes its hard to identify those who are active participants and those who are innocent bystanders, or even individuals whose motive is simply to stop the riot escalating.  One of the functions of the New Police after 1829 was to deal with exactly this sort of disorder but it was not until over 100 years later that the police began to receive the sort of specialist training and equipment they needed to be able to do so.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, June 17, 1883]

A ‘common evil’? London’s police in their early years

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I have referred previously to criticism of the police in the decades after their creation in June 1829. Historians such as Robert Storch have pointe out that far from the smooth transition described by early historians of the force, the ‘New Police’ were openly abused, distrusted and despised by ‘ordinary’ working-class men and women.

It wasn’t just the lower order that disliked the ‘boys in blue’. The upper and middle classes resented them as burdens on the rates and for overstepping their class position. In short the wealthy were not at all keen on being told what to do by their social inferiors.

The working classes were equally disgruntled about being told off or told to to ‘go home’ by someone of their own class who seemingly lauded it over them. The p’liceman who earned a steady wage where others of his class struggled, was bound to attract some unfriendly comments at the very least. Policeman were also recruited from outside the capital, often former agricultural labourers (who could be relied upon to be strong, dependable, and not ask too many questions).

This case illustrates some of the underlying tensions that existed in the first 20 or so years of the Met and reflects the awkward position of both the police officer on the beat and the ‘Police’ Magistrate (who was not a part of the same organisation). It also gives the paper an opportunity to aim some fairly typical racist barbs at the Irish.

One of Mr Greenwood’s cases at Clerkenwell Police Court on the weekend of the 18th-19th June 1842 concerned a man (unnamed) of ‘decent-looking’ appearance. He appeared with the policeman (also anonymous here) who had arrested him and accompanied him to court. The PC was Irish and possibly a new recruit. This, it was explained, might have accounted for his behaviour.

There was no obvious charge levelled against the man and it soon became apparent that there was little reason for him to be in court at all. He had been arrested, effectively, for loitering on Grove Lane, Holloway.

The policeman testified that he had seen him standing in Grove Lane two days in succession, presumably passing him on his beat. On the second occasion he asked hi what he was doing there but the man refused to answer.

He then asked him where he lived, and was told ‘Islington’.

‘”Where” ses I’ continued the policeman.

‘What’s that to you?’ replied the man.

“Be the powers, are yer respectable?” I thin [sic] remarked’, the officer told the court, ‘and he still refusing to give any satisfactory explanation, I marched him off to the station-house’.

The magistrate now examined the policeman directly:

‘What was he doing?’ he asked. ‘Nothing at all’ responded the bobby, to peels of laughter from the courtroom.

‘And that was why he was locked up?’ enquired a clearly puzzled Mr Greenwood.

Yes, yer Worship. He wouldn’t say anything about himself but told me to mind my own business’.

Well, that was as it should be the magistrate chided him. He told the policeman that he had no more right locking up this person than would have in arresting him or anyone ales for that matter. The man had done nothing wrong; had broken no law and was simply being locked up for being slightly impertinent to a copper.

He said that this should not have resulted in a charge and for that the policeman was less to blame than the desk sergeant. However, he added, ‘I have frequently of late had to complain of the conduct of the police, and if there is not an alteration, they will be become a common evil’.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Monday, June 20, 1842]