River pirates on the Thames

The river pirates

The London bobby on the beat is probably the most famous figure of the hundreds of police forces worldwide.
When home secretary Robert Peel finally forced through his Metropolitan Police Bill in 1828, after six years of Parliamentary and public resistance, he established a properly organised, city-wide law enforcement service for the first time.
Their distinctive blue uniform and top hats were chosen to emphasise to a hostile populace that this wasn’t an army set up to control the general public. Despite riots and attacks on the new force, the ‘Peelers’ were here to stay.
But it’s a common misconception that the Met – replacing the rag bag of detective agencies, watchmen and Bow Street Runners which patrolled the old London – was the first modern force. That honour goes to the Thames River Police, established some 30 years earlier. As so often before, the East End led the way, and certainly had a more pressing crime problem!

Silks, rum, tobacco

In the 1700s, London became the busiest and most important port in the entire world, sitting as it did at the hub of a huge new empire. The West Indies, the Americas, the Far East and India – all were stations in this huge global enterprise by British merchants. And as a result, tea, coffee, sugar, rum, spices, silks, furs, tobacco and many other valuable commodities flooded through the wharves of Wapping.
The East End had a valuable inshore trade, too, with coal from Newcastle and fishing fleets landing hauls from the North Sea. The merchants of Wapping flourished… but so did the thieves.
Some of the inbound ships never made it to the Pool of London. Pirates operating further down the Thames toward Tilbury would waylay the vessels as they came in.
Wapping locals would have all the time in the world to observe craft being laden with outgoing goods during the working day and would brief the pirates, who would intercept the unfortunate captains at night. Robbery with violence was the norm – any resistance would be dealt with at knifepoint.

Stolen goods

The processing of the stolen booty was a highly organised Wapping business in itself, with 12 factories in the town receiving the goods and selling them on throughout the City.
But the greatest criminal element was within the docks themselves. There were around 33,000 lumpers, as the 18th century dockers were known, and 11,500 of them were known thieves. With no organised force to patrol the river, the assorted band of mudlarks, long apron men, scuffle hunters, light horsemen and heavy horsemen (as the various types of thief were colourfully known) were free to steal without fear of capture.
The Rum Boat Act of 1761 was intended to prevent theft but was never enforced. Fortunately, in 1797, a man came along with a vision and a plan to establish law and order on the river.
John Harriot, a mariner and a ‘man of many parts’, constructed a plan for a force and took it to the Lord Mayor of London. The Mayor, also Conservator of the River, amazingly declared it to be of ‘no concern to London’.
Undeterred, Harriot teamed up with Patrick Colquhoun, an energetic Scot from Dumbarton who had founded the Glasgow Chamber of Commerce, the first in the UK. Colquhoun was now a London magistrate and worked with Harriot to set up the Marine Police Establishment. On July 26, 1798, the office was set up at 259 Wapping New Stairs – as near as possible to the vulnerable incoming craft.
Businessmen such as the West India Planters, which alone reckoned to be losing an astonishing £250,000 a year from theft, breathed a sigh of relief. The first modern police force had been born.
Patrols in rowing galleys commenced from Wapping, and the present headquarters of Thames Division still occupies this site.
The force cut cargo losses and led to the arrest of so many criminals that on October 16, 1798, a riot took place and an attempt was made to destroy the court building. During the riot two police officers were shot – one in the hand and the other subsequently died from his wounds.
The police officers were ordered by Harriot to fire into the crowd. The crowd dispersed and Dr Colquhoun set a legal precedent by allowing one hour to elapse before pursuing the ring leaders of the riot who were by this time known to the authorities. One was hanged and a further six were transported.
The Marine Police became an officially recognised body in 1800 when parliament passed a Bill to run for seven years. This was extended for a further seven years in 1806.

In 1907 a petrol/paraffin engine was developed at Wapping and was first installed into the rowing galleys. This unfortunately affected the balance of the craft and several capsized – leading to the death of one officer.
In 1914, purpose-built craft were in use, and a civilian engineering and carpenters workshop was opened, releasing the police officers to do what they do to this day: patrolling the river, keeping users safe and catching crooks.

Visit the Thames River Police Museum, 98 Wapping High Street, E1 (tel: 020 7481
1212). The archives contain
a comprehensive collection
of photos, documents
and artefacts.

About John Rennie

Writing about East London history. Sub at Daily Express. Teaching journalism at City University London. One presented a TV show called the Unsellables and the BT Walletwatcher blog. West Ham fan. Native of Basildon
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