The Thames River Police

The forefathers of modern policing and London’s first police force, the Thames River Police has a rich and fascinating history

Thames River Police

Peter Watts

Posted on 16/04/2019

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It says something about the historic importance of rivers and waterways that London’s river police were founded 21 years before the Metropolitan Police – and that one of England’s leading philosophers played a major role in its creation. Still based in Wapping, the Marine Police Force was founded in 1798 by the West India Committee with a little help from Jeremy Bentham. The force is now recognised by UNESCO as the oldest continuously serving police force in the world and also has overview of London’s canals and inland waterways. In 1839, this private police force was amalgamated into the Met. “At that point it had 47 miles of Thames, from Teddington to Dartford, with five police stations and 250 coppers,” says Inspector Simpson of what is now called the Met’s Marine Policing Unit. “We now have one police station and 64 coppers. But they only had rowing boats, whereas we have some pretty good bits of kit.”

The job has changed in numerous other ways over the years, with the Marine Policing Unit also responsible for policing 250 miles of London’s inland waterways, creeks, inlets, canals, marinas and reservoirs. When founded as the Marine Police Force, they were originally confined to the Thames and surrounding docks, having been created with the express aim of preventing theft from ships. This was a considerable problem around the Pool Of London, where thousands of ships could be moored in the open air – it’s estimated that at times an astonishing two-thirds of the world’s maritime trade were in these waters. Having so many boats containing such valuable cargo in such a cramped and largely unmonitored space was a gift to thieves. Regulation was lax and watchmen were corrupt. It was believed that losses from pilfering were around £500,000 a year – £150,000 from the West India Company alone. Goods could be taken at almost any stage of the unloading process. There were night plunderers and day plunderers, “scuffle-hunters”, who pretended to be porters, mudlarks and river pirates, who bribed watchmen before pinching the cargo. They would all then disappear with their booty into the lawless streets of east London.

The solution came from Dr Patrick Colquhoun, a Glasgow merchant and London magistrate, who wrote a book titled Treatise On The Police Of The Metropolis. Among Colquhoun’s acquaintances was the philosopher and legal expert Jeremy Bentham, who was interested in issues of justice – he once designed a prison that was created in such a way that the prisoners could theoretically be watched by a single guard. Bentham recognised there was a problem of theft in the Pool and helped drafted the 1798 Thames Police Bill. This promoted a utilitarian solution – that it was in the interests of the government and West India merchants to support the new endeavour. Also instrumental was John Harriot, a mariner and magistrate, who had tried to form a dedicated force around the same time and worked with Colquhoun to push this idea through. The new force was located in a riverside building in Wapping, right in the heart of the Pool.

The force were at first recruited among the seamen and waterman of London, and were frequently drawn into bloody battles with the plunderers, who were unhappy with the sudden appearance of this paramilitary crew. Dock labourers were also instructed to wear stockings and breeches rather than the baggy clothes that made goods easy to conceal and this created considerable bad blood. In one battle, 1798’s Wapping Coal Riot, a man called Gabriel Franks became the first person killed on duty for the new force. Franks was a lumper – he “lumped” cargo off the ship – a position reserved for those of great integrity and honesty and therefore considered to be an active part of the new force.

The embryonic force had a permanent salaried staff of 80, with another 1,000 reserves on call. This visible and sometimes violent presence helped reduce crime in the Pool, and further improvements came with the construction of enclosed docks, which made it much harder for thieves to slip in and out unnoticed.

These days, the river police are still located in Wapping, albeit in a new building. The carpenter’s workshop of the old Wapping Police Station is now the Thames Police Museum, which offers a unique insight into this historic force from its inception to the present day, featuring an array of uniforms, equipment and documents. As this is still a working police station, visits must be arranged by prior appointment.

However all is not lost. Over the last couple of years a neighbourhood watch scheme is taking shape on the London waterways, to promote a sense of community and help ensure waterways remain safe and enjoyable places for all. Following the Reclaim The Towpath/Human Chain event on the Lee Navigation in October 2017, boaters have created Canal Watch London – a towpath patrol providing a presence that deters crime, and encourages the community to take control of their space.

Working with local police, the marine police unit, Canal and River Trust, and the Shomrim(Community Safety Patrol) at Stamford Hill to adopt the most effective protocol and ensure a safe way to look after towpath users, Canal Watch is currently operating along the Regent’s and Hertford Union Canals in the Victoria Park area.

Canal Watch are organising events to raise safety awareness along the canal, in partnership with the police and us. Whether you want to be kept updated with towpath safety, or want to take part in patrols, Canal Watch would like to hear from you. Please email canalwatchlondon@gmail.com to register your interest.

James Albon