What does ‘drunk and incapable’ actually mean?

For the next few days I am taking a short holiday from writing this blog so I thought that I might revisit some of the ‘highlights’ of the past few years, especially as more recent readers might not have seen them. So for today, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, there will be a series of ‘repeats’ : the most viewed posts from 2016-18.

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[NB this is not Sarah but a 16 year-old girl from a 1893 book of police mugshots depicting Dundee citizens banned from drinking houses]

In mid June 1877 PC Savage was called to the Two Brewers pub in Clapham, south London, to deal with a drunken woman. Sarah Weller was very drunk and the landlord had described as being ‘riotous’ and had refused to serve her any more alcohol.

Savage helped Sarah from the pub but she soon fell over and so he arrested her and took her back to the police station. When she came up at Wandsworth Police Court she was charged with being ‘drunk and incapable’. This puzzled the magistrate, Mr Briggs; ‘he did not know why the word “incapable” was put in, as it was not an offence’.

The constable’s inspector now appeared and stated that it was the old form of charge and they still used it. Mr Bridge restated his view that it was no crime to be incapable and Sarah’s defence lawyer insisted her behaviour was due to an illness. The justice agreed, suggesting that perhaps Savage had mistaken hysteria for drunkenness and so Sarah should be discharged.

Under the terms of the Intoxication Act it was reasonable to take individuals into custody for their own safety and then let them go once they had sobered up.In some cases a summons might be appropriate but not all. Mr Briggs therefore released Sarah but accepted that the police were not to blame for interpreting the law as they had.

I can’t find the specific act that Briggs was referring to but it is interesting that law, in essence, doesn’t seem to have changed much. It’s not a crime to be drunk; it is what you do that matters. So disorderly or riotous behaviour can be penalised. Today police are obliged to arrest drunk and incapable persons for their own safety and safety seems to be paramount. These people will be released when sober unless they have previously been arrested for the same offence or they are acting in a  disorderly manner, then they might well face a charge and a magistrate’s court appearance, like Sarah.

[from Daily News, Monday, July 9, 1877]

A lazy policeman, ‘regaling himself with coffee and cold meat,’ reveals early resistance to the New Police

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It is easy to think that the police have always been with us, so much a part of society have they become. Although we may not see them as often on our streets as our parents and grandparents did, a police presence of sorts is everywhere if only at the end of a surveillance camera. Moreover we accept this and (for the most part) value the police and the work they do to keep us safe from criminals, terrorists and others that would do us harm.

However, as I have been outlining to my second year History and Criminology undergraduates at Northampton, it took some time for the police to establish this place in our hearts. Very many people, including those in the upper echelons of society, resisted the creation of a professional Police force in the early years of the nineteenth century.

For much of the previous century the idea of a uniformed police was anathema to an English people schooled in ‘liberty’ and opposed to continental (French) forms of state run policing.  “I had rather half a dozen people’s throats should be cut in Ratcliffe Highway every three or four years than be subject to domiciliary visits, spies, and all of the rest of Fouché’s connivances’, commented one skeptic at the time.

Even after Robert Peel successfully (and quietly) steered his Metropolitan Police Bill through Parliament the New Police (as they were dubbed) struggled to gain acceptance. The working classes resented their interference in their street activities (like gambling or trading from stalls), the middle classes disliked the burden they placed on their pockets and the upper class feared the loss of localised control over law and order as these ‘bobbies’ answered directly to the Home Secretary, not the magistracy.

Some of these tensions can be seen in the early reports police actions that resulted in cases heard before the capital’s Police courts. In February 1830 for example, the magistrates at Bow Street sided with a parish constable (the ‘old police’) against two officers from the New Police in a dispute over a fire at the Covent Garden opera house.

Following this brief case was a longer one, also at Bow Street where a ‘wretched-looking young woman’ was accused of being ‘riotous and disorderly’ by PC 104. The officer appeared to give evidence stating that between 2 and 3 o’clock in the morning the girl had been in a coffee shop in Phoenix Alley and had refused to pay for her drinks. He’d been called to ‘turn her out’ and, since he was adamant that she was going nowhere, he arrested her.

Mr Halls, the sitting justice, turned on the officer and upbraided him for arresting the woman when he should have been more concerned that a coffee house was still open after hours.  What hadn’t he applied for a summons against the coffee house owner, he asked?

Here the young woman leaped in, the reason ‘was obvious’ she said. The constable hadn’t been ‘called in as he had stated, but was at the time seated in one of the boxes, regaling himself with coffee and cold meat’.

While the policeman denied this Mr Halls seems to have believed the woman because he discharged her and demanded that the police inspector, who had attended court to hear the case, immediately applied for ‘an information […] against the keeper of the coffee-house’. He added that the girl might prove a useful witness.

In the first year of the New Police accusations of corruption and collusion (with coffee house and beer shop owners, petty crooks, and prostitutes), as well as laziness and drunkenness, were commonly thrown at the new force. Some of this criticism was valid, some malicious, and there was a large turnover of men between 1829 and the early years of the 1830s. It probably took the police until the 1860s to be accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the public, and to the 1950s to be ‘loved’.

A Policeman’s lot, as the song goes, is not a happy a one.

[from The Morning Post, Thursday, February 18, 1830]