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]