Along London’s Wapping High St is one of the capital’s most unusual and intriguing museums – the Thames Police Museum. This museum covers the history of the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Policing Unit and the organisations which preceded it, but first a little history…
By the late 1700s, London was one of the busiest ports in the world and also one of the most crime-ridden. Everyone who dealt with sea-going vessels considered theft to be a perk of the job, from the lumpers (men who loaded the cargo from sea-going ships onto lighters which would then be unloaded on the shore) to the rat-catchers. In today’s terms, the shipping companies were losing several millions of pounds worth of goods in this way each year, with the major losses being incurred by the East India Company. A solution to this problem came about when John Harriot, an ex-sailor and Essex landholder happened to read A Treatise On The Police Of The Metropolis, penned by Scottish statistician Patrick Colquhoun.
Harriot devised a practical plan to stop thefts on the river by employing guards to protect East India Company cargoes and then sought funding to carry it out. At first his requests for help fell on deaf ears but then, by chance, he attended a dinner where Colquhoun was present. The men soon hit it off and decided that they should work together to hatch Harriot’s plan – Colquhoun wrote a paper and presented it to the Government.
Colquhoun was a well-respected gentleman and proved to be far more persuasive than the rather brusque and uncouth Harriot – the Government acceded to the request for money and £5000 was made available for a one year trial which would see a team of surveyors, watermen, master lumpers and lumpers supervise the unloading of East India cargoes, led by two magistrates – Harriot and Colquhoun. Establishing their headquarters at 259 Wapping High St, the West India Merchant & Planters Marine Police Institute was formed in July 1798.
By 1800 the organisation’s activities were so successful, saving many multiples of the operating costs in revenue and taxes, that the Government determined that they should be responsible for all shipping in London – the organisation was renamed the Marine Police and by this time formally employed 200 ‘ship constables’.
Before the Metropolitan Police was formed by Sir Robert Peel, law enforcement was carried out by various groups – residential areas around barracks would normally be patrolled by soldiers, for example. In Wapping that job fell to the river police, so quite early in their existence they were involved in what would be regarded as regular policing duties today. In 1811 they had to deal with that most chilling of criminals – a serial killer.
In what have become known as the Ratcliff Highway murders, two families and their servants were brutally murdered in December of that year – the Marrs, who owned a successful drapers, and the Williamsons, who were publicans. Found beaten to death and with their throats slashed, the police began gathering evidence. They made a major breakthrough when they discovered bloody weapons and clothing in a room at the Pear Tree Inn where a 27-year-old seaman, John Williams, was lodging. Williams was arrested, but unfortunately committed suicide in his cell before he could stand trial. One hundred and eighty thousand people lined the route as his corpse was paraded through the streets on the back of a cart – there were no further murders…
The river police were formally incorporated into the Metropolitan Police in 1839, becoming the Thames Division. They were quickly becoming involved in other policing activities on the river, including rescues. Unfortunately their training was of little use in a major incident which took place in 1878 and which still marks the greatest loss of life on the Thames – the Princess Alice Disaster.
Late in the evening of 3 September the Princess Alice was returning to London loaded with passengers that she had taken out to Gravesend and the pleasure gardens there. Rounding a bend in the Thames near the point where Bazalgette’s Northern Outfall Sewer dumped its waste into the water she strayed into the path of the Bywell Castle, a large ocean-going coal carrier. Despite the best efforts of the Bywell Castle’s captain, the two ships collided. The Princess Alice was almost cut in two and sank quickly, with many of its passengers succumbing to the massive amounts of effluent present at this point on the river – in all over 640 people were drowned.
One of the Thames Police Museum’s most treasured possessions happens to be Princess Alice’s ensign. One of the sons of William Grinstead, the man who had captained the Princess Alice, retrieved it from the wreck and later joined the Metropolitan Police, spending many years as a member of Thames Division. After his death the ensign was found amongst his personal possessions and was donated to the museum.
In addition to historical artifacts there are lots of interesting things to see at the museum – models of some of the vessels that they’ve used in the past, old nautically-styled uniforms, papers, weapons, trophies and so on. Please note that visits to the Thames Police Museum must be arranged well in advance, as it is inside a working police station – the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Policing Unit. This building has been their home since, yes you guessed it, 1798…
You can find contact details for the museum’s curator here if you would like to arrange a visit.
Fun (and not so fun) facts:
The Marine Police coined the term ‘police station’. In order to get to incidents quickly, in the early days of the service they placed the hulks of several old navy ships at strategic points along the Thames, manning them with a few officers each. When a naval vessel has reached a particular destination from where it will be conducting patrols, it is said to be ‘on station’. Thus the decommissioned vessels became known as ‘stations’, which was eventually adopted by the Metropolitan Police as a whole (they were known as police ‘offices’ up to this point).
In 2010′s ‘The Maul And The Pear Tree‘, authors P.D James and T.A Critchley contend that John Williams was not the man responsible for the Ratcliff Highway murders, centering around the fact that he had no previous convictions of any kind. Worth a read if Victorian mysteries are your thing…
Today the Marine Policing Unit employs 80 officers and has several rigid and inflatable boats which it uses to patrol the river and conduct rescue operations – they also police major riverside events, offer advice to river-users on water safety and ensure that vessels on the Thames follow the prescribed regulations and marine radio laws. In addition to their duties on the river they are responsible for all waterways and large bodies of water in London, and provide the manpower for the Metropolitan Police’s Underwater Search Unit – the divers who gather evidence in support of police investigations as well as having the gruesome task of recovering dead bodies from the water from time to time.