Officer down!: the Perils of Police work in Victorian London

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Today, in a slight break from the usual format of these posts, I want to write about two incidents that didn’t appear in reports of the workings of the London Police Courts, but are closely related to them. This is because they involve officers of the Metropolitan Police, the body of men that brought the majority of defendants before the capital’s magistrates.

Police work was (and is) dangerous. The police have to place themselves in positions of risk when they are pursuing criminals (who might be armed and desperate) or protecting the public. In my lifetime and think of several three high profile events in which officers lost their lives. In 1984 PC Yvonne Fletcher was shot dead outside the Libyan embassy in London, while only last year PC Keith Palmer was killed outside the Palace of Westminster in a terrorist attack. In September 2012 Fiona Bone and Nicola Hughes were murdered by Dale Cregan when they answered a routine call to investigate a suspected crime.

Police work then, can be perilous and, for all the criticism the police receive, it is worth remembering this. It is also worth noting that it was ever thus; from the very earliest days of the Met the men (and in those days of course it was only men) who joined up were exposed to everyday dangers. In 1830, in the first full year of the ‘New Police’, PC Joseph Grantham was beaten to death when he tried to break up a drunken brawl in Somers Town. The public ambivalence towards Peel’s new force was reflected in the coroner’s verdict which suggested PC Grantham had ‘over exerted himself in discharging his duty’ and his death was recorded as ‘justifiable homicide’.

In November 1882 The Illustrated Police News (not an ‘official’ police paper but one that traded in ‘crime news’) reported the death of one officer (by drowning) and the shooting of another. The reports were carried alongside all those that recorded the ‘daily doings’ of the Police Courts.

PC Fitnum (240R) of Kent police was at Foots Cray in Sidcup. It was thought that as his night patrol took him across the River Cray by means of a narrow plank bridge he had slipped and fallen in. The river had been swollen by heavy rains and it is quite likely that he was unable to swim. He was found by his son about half an hour after he left the station to commence his beat. The 43 year-old, with 17 years service, left a wife and seven children.

In the same week at Hampstead PC Charles Ellingham (221S) was perambulating his beat around the home of Mr Reginald Prance of Frognal, ‘a man well known in City circles’ the paper noted. Hearing a noise behind some bushes he walked over to investigate.

All of a sudden a man rose up from behind them, ‘pointed a revolver at the constable’s head, and fired at him, saying “Take that! This isn’t the first time you have disturbed to-night”.’

The bullet passed through PC Ellingham’s helmet but, fortunately,  missed his head. With ‘great courage’ the copper rushed his man but was unable to stop him getting another shot off. This one took PC Ellingham in the thigh, passing through his ‘great coat, tunic, trousers and drawers’ before ‘lodging in the flesh’. As the constable fell his assailant made his getaway, clambering over a wall into the Redington Road.

Amazingly, the policeman recovered himself and set off in pursuit, chasing the supposed burglar across the nearby fields. He nearly caught up with the ‘cowardly ruffian’ but despite the constable ‘springing his rattle’ (these were the days before police were issued with whistles)  the would-be assassin got away.

Ellingham returned to Mr Prance’s home and made his enquiries. He could see no evidence that the man had attempted a break in and the footman confirmed that he had heard the shots fired. The following description of the attacker was circulated:

‘Age twenty-six; height, 5 ft. 8 in.; fair, light, moustache; dress, long dark overcoat; light trousers, black felt hat’. The paper also reported that: ‘Great activity prevailed among the police the whole of Sunday in endeavouring to apprehend the man’, but so far no one had been found responsible for the attempt on the constable’s life.

PC Ellingham was a young officer, just 21 years of age, a ‘smart looking young fellow’ and unmarried. He was receiving the very best in medical care the reporter assured his readership and CID were actively investigating the event.

Both incidents reflect the risks of police work in the late 1800s and to that we could add numerous accounts of drunken assaults on officers as they patrolled the capital’s streets. Historians of crime have argued over the extent to which animosity towards the police was confined to ‘professional’ criminals and the so-called ‘criminal class’ and most would accept that at least in the first 50 years of professional policing the public’s attitude towards the police was at best ambiguous. The press were apt to highlight police incompetence and corruption whenever they could, but, as these reports show, they were also quick to praise brave officers and remind the public of their sacrifice when it was made.

[from The Illustrated Police News etc, Saturday, November 4, 1882]

A burglar nabbed by a quick thinking householder and a brave bobby

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The men that served as Police Court Magistrates in the various summary courts of the capital were not appointed to a single court indefinitely. The policy seems to have been to move them around after a period to time so that they had experience of a variety of locations. This would serve a number of purposes: some courts (notably Bow Street) were more prestigious; others, (like Worship Street) were particularly busy with drunks and petty criminals.

It also meant that no single magistrate could (well not for long at least) establish a sort of fiefdom in any one part of London and so it guarded against corruption in public office. It also served to share they experience of the magistracy around the metropolis and make it that much harder for repeat criminals to avoid being recognised by the bench (something my research has shown they went to great lengths to do, providing a string of aliases to avoid the repercussions of revealing ‘previous convictions’ which would drawn down a heavier sentence.

On Monday 11 August Mr Tennyson D’Eyncourt was beginning his spell at Worship Street in the East End. He had replaced Mr Arnold who was off to the slightly calmer atmosphere of Westminster. D’Eyncourt’s first task to determine whether there was sufficient evidence to commit a burglar for trial by jury.

In the dock at Worship Street stood an ‘athletic middle-aged man’ who refused to give his name. He was charged with breaking into the house of Miss Jane Harriett Burgess, a ‘maiden lady’ living on the City Road at Fountain Place. Miss Burgess herself had played an active role in the arrest of the unarmed intruder and he had finally been apprehended by the determined work of police constable Mattock (G162) who was also in court that day.

Miss Burgess told the magistrate that at 10 o’clock on Saturday night she had retired to bed and as she entered her bedroom she noticed that the window was open. The room had been ‘thoroughly ransacked’ and she quickly determined that a number of her possession were missing including ‘a mahogany writing-desk’ and a carpet bag. She stated, for the record, that they had all been in the room earlier that evening.

Hearing a policeman’s rattle sprung (police were not issued with whistles until the 1880s) she rushed over to the window and looked out. There she saw a man moving carefully along the parapet to the next house along. When he got to the party wall in between the houses he couldn’t go any further though, and stopped.

Miss Burgess now demanded to know what he was doing there and the  man ‘cooly replied that a burglary had been effected, and that he had made his way up there to assist in apprehending the thieves’. He then turned around and tried to retrace his steps back past the lady’s window as quickly as he could. Miss Burgess pounced and grabbed the man’s leg as tried to make his escape. She clung on tight and was almost pulled out of her window and over the parapet, letting go just in time.

Meanwhile PC Matlock, who was walking his beat along Fountain Place, had been alerted to the crime by a gentleman in an adjoining house. He had seen the head and shoulders of a man appear from the window of an unoccupied house next to him. PC Matlock made his way up to the roofs of the buildings via a trap door and soon found Miss Burgess’ property arranged so the thief could retrieve it. He also picked up two (probably stolen) silk handkerchiefs the burglar had dropped.

It seems the thief was making his way along the roof of the properties dropping down and through windows where he could to plunder the rooms below. PC Matlock caught up with him and challenged him. The man gave the same story about being engaged in catching burglars and then again tried to slip past the constable. He was too slow however, and PC Matlock took him into custody and back to his station.

In court the burglar offered no defence and no clue to his identity so D’Eyncourt remanded him in custody so that the paperwork could be completed for the man to take his trial.

The trial was called for the 18 August that year and the man, now revealed as George Andrews (42) pleaded guilty to ‘theft from a specified place’ and was sent to prison for 12 months. It was a lesser charge than burglary and perhaps he was offered (or his brief suggested) owning to that rather than risking being found guilty by a jury of that more serious offence  which carried a punishment of transportation to Australia.

[from The Morning Chronicle, Tuesday, August 12, 1851]