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

images

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]

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

3910f1fd9598021a4f995aa9cde92f90

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]