David Swinden joined the Metropolitan Police in 1958. ‘When I joined as a constable in Stratford, all unmarried officers lived in the police section houses. There was a real sense of family that for better or worse is disappearing now,’ he remembers.
By the time Superintendent Swinden retired from the Met in 1994, things had changed beyond recognition. Now a senior lecturer at the University of East London, David has a lifetime of memories of his time as a policeman, and some great stories from earlier days. Now he has got together with Peter Kennison, another former police officer and now a lecturer in Criminology at Middlesex University, to co-author Behind the Blue Lamp. For fans of East End history it makes fascinating reading.
The book explores the social history of local police stations and the officers who, since 1829, have been keeping the peace in our neighbourhoods.
The Met was created in 1829, replacing the old Bow Street Horse Patrol, itself formed in 1805 to combat the many highway robberies around London. The recruitment criteria were surprisingly precise, with officers being ‘married ex-Cavalrymen aged 30-65’.
The officers were famously nicknamed ‘Bobbies’ or ‘Peelers’ after then prime minister Robert Peel. They were nicknames that faded with the twentieth century, with the soubriquet ‘coppers’ proving longer lasting.
Modern-day officers may think the force is a full-time job, but for their Victorian counterparts it really was. They got no days off and were expected to wear their uniforms at all times. Rules were relaxed a little in 1869 – constables were then permitted to wear beards.
And while the importance of drawing officers from the local area later became recognised, in the early days the Met avoided cockneys. Men were recruited from rural areas because country folk were considered less corruptible than local Londoners!
But even if they didn’t come from the local community, communities still grew within the stations and section houses. Until recently, snooker and billiard tables were standard issue in divisional police stations, along with boxing gloves, and sets of draughts, backgammon, dominoes and pick-a-sticks. In the early 20th Century, East Ham police station was famous for its tug-of-war team, which won many medals at the National Police Championships and sent members on to represent Britain in the Commonwealth and Olympic Games.
And family traditions grew up. Constable George Greenhoff of Canning Town station was heroic in saving lives after the 1917 Silvertown Explosion (covered recently in East End History). He died of his injuries but was posthumously awarded the King’s Gallantry Medal. Son Edward was just eight years old when he lost his father, but went on to join the Force, serving 27 years before he retired in 1955.
The East End had a long history of policing. The river-borne Thames Division predated the land-based force by some years, being formed in 1798 to combat high levels of crime on the river, especially theft from ships lying at the docks.
One by one, the local East End stations were built. In 1886, Bethnal Green Police Station became the Divisional HQ for the area right out to Wanstead, Chigwell and Barkingside. Bethnal Green housed London’s Aliens Registration Office, which dealt with deserting foreign seamen. It made sense, as most would desert from their point of landing – the London docks. But in 1951, the office was moved to Piccadilly Place in the West End.
In 1862 a new Bow Police Station was sited opposite Bow Railway Station, with three pubs – the Bowry’s Arms, the Bird in Hand and the Sailmakers Arms – for neighbours. And in 1938, Bow became home to the largest police stable in London. As well as 20 horses, the stables had a full-time farrier, Thomas Melody, responsible for shoeing up to 60 animals a month. Along with local kids, the horses had to be evacuated when the station took a direct hit from a Luftwaffe bomb during World War 2.
Commercial Street Police Station in Shoreditch was always nicknamed ‘Comical Street’, maybe in part because of its odd shape. Its most famous detective was probably Fredrick George Abberline, pushed into the public gaze during the Whitechapel murders, and recently recreated by Johnny Depp in the movie From Hell. After retiring in 1890, Abberline went to the US, and work for the Pinkerton Detective Agency.
On 28 May 1897, Limehouse Police Station opened for business; the next day, the Limehouse men supervised the grand opening of the Blackwall Tunnel. All went well until a Superintendent Beard was thrown from his horse, breaking his arm.
And there is more, much more. There were the Dagenham coppers involved in smuggling in the 1840s and transported to Australia; the Barking policemen’s annual walking race to Southend, only abandoned in the 1980s when the traffic got too heavy; and the handcarts used to carry injured people (and drunks) to a place of recovery.
It’s all a long way from the high-tech policing of modern London. Some things may have changed for the better, but the old fabric, and the colour, is gone for good. ‘I was inspired to write this book because no one had written about the social history of local policing before,’ says David. ‘Many of the old police stations in this part of London have been sold for residential or commercial use. But they house a wealth of memories of the generations of officers who have served our boroughs.’
Behind the Blue Lamp: Policing North and East London by Peter Kennison and David Swinden is published by Coppermill Press, ISBN: 0954653408