‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’: a policeman fights for his life

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PC James Baker (127E) was on duty in Chenies Street, off Tottenham Court Road, one late evening in early April 1863. As he walked his beat he noticed a man acting suspiciously so he kept his eyes on him. Following at a distance he saw the man disappear into nearby Bedford Square, where he lost sight of him.

Baker looked around and then found the man, in the company of two others, leaving 60 Gower Street. The policeman was sure they had just committed a burglary so rushed across to apprehend them. Two of the men managed to evade him altogether and ran off, but the other he nabbed. PC Baker told that if he came quietly he wouldn’t hurt him, and the man stopped resisting arrest.

If must have a been a common problem for beat bobbies unless they could quickly call for back up. Baker was on his own and could hardly be expected to collar all three suspected burglars. It seems unlikely that PC Baker carried handcuffs as these were initially at least, only issued under special circumstances usually being held at police stations.

Even if he was carrying a set they would have been of limited use. A pair of barrel handcuffs, D shaped and opened with a key, were hardly on a par with the efficient snap shut device modern officers can use. Moreover police in the 1800s were cautioned to only use handcuffs when the prisoner was deemed to be violent, and PC Baker had extracted what he believed was a sort of promise from his prisoner not to be.

Sadly for him the promise wasn’t worth the candle. Soon after the officer and his captive had set off for the nearest station house the suspected burglar whipped out a life preserver 111130b5-5592-46b7-c288-8b3979db59d4(right) and thumped the constable over the head with it. As the officer shouted ‘stop thief!’ and tried to call for help the man cried:

‘I’ll do for you now, you ____’ and beat him again. More blows rained down on the officer as he lay on the ground and the burglar escaped leaving PC Baker lying in a pool of his own blood and severely concussed.

Fortunately for Baker he was found by a fellow officer not long afterwards and helped to University College Hospital where he was treated for his injuries. Tow men, named simply as Egan and Sinnett, were rounded up and charged – both with burglary and Egan for attempted murder – and brought to the Bow Street Police court in late April when PC Baker had recovered sufficiently to give evidence. The policeman was better but far from well. He still suffered from his injuries and may well have sustained long term brain damage. He hadn’t returned to duties yet and may not have been able to continue in the force.

Egan and Sinnett denied any involvement and given the circumstances there has to be some doubt that they were the men responsible for the crimes of which they were accused.  I can find no trial for the attempted murder of PC Baker or any record of a trial or imprisonment of men fitting their identities in 1863 at all. However, they were described as ticket-of-leave men, former convicts released early from previous sentences of imprisonment (for previous burglary offences). This suggests that while they may have been the guilty parties (and the report states that the magistrate committed them both for trial) they may also have been rounded up as ‘the usual suspects’ by local police determined to get someone for the near murder of a colleague.

It reminds us that the Victorian police were vulnerable to violence from desperate criminals. They were lightly armed and hardly armored (no stab vests in 1863, no helmet even) and usually patrolled alone equipped only with a rattle and a lantern (whistles and torches came later). It was no picnic being a bobby in nineteenth-century London.

[from The Morning Post , Monday, April 27, 1863]