Wapping Coal Riots of 1798
By Regina Jeffers
Coal was a major source of heat and an important commodity to London’s financial stability. As such, ships filled with coal called in at the various ports of London on the River Thames. Early on, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute (England’s first organized police force) patrolled the crowded Thames waters from their headquarters at Wapping New Stairs.
To understand the changes coming to the area at the turn of the 19th Century, one must realize that NO absolute authority existed to stifle the crimes, which followed the rapid growth of the area. John Harriott and Patrick Colquhoun organized their “Thames River Police” differently from what we know today of a marine police force. For one thing, the officers were watermen, lumpers, and surveyors. Initially, only five officers patrolled the area, and Harriott and Colquhoun learned to depend on “honest” workers among those who frequented the docks along the Thames. Harriott employed lumpers and watermen to help “police” the unloading of vessels. These men were under the protection of the Marine Police Office. They were paid extra for their diligence in stifling the crimes committed along the river. One such man was Gabriel Franks, the first “police officer” killed in the line of duty. When the coal ships were unloaded, thieves helped themselves to a substantial amount and sold it at “coal markets” along the streets of Wapping.
On 16 October 1798, three men had been accused of coal theft and were standing trial at the Thames Magistrates Court attached to the Marine Police Office. Two of the men were coal heavers, while the third was a watchman’s boy. “They were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, friends arrived at the court, and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers was met by his brother, James, who said, ‘Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?’ Charles said, ‘Yes, I have.’ James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said, ‘Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shave have the house down!’ Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd had gathered outside the police office, and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.” (Thames Police Museum)
Those inside the Marine Police Office attempted to secure the building, but as the crowd and the violence continued, Officer Perry removed his pistol and fired upon the crowd. One of the rioters was killed, and the crowd outside withdrew slightly, but they did not disperse. Patrick Colquhoun took the opportunity to step into the street and to read the crowd the Riot Act. However, they refused to abandon their mission.
A man named Gabriel Franks was in a nearby public house. Upon hearing the noise of the crowd, he made his way to the Police Office and asked to be admitted, but the crowd drove him away. He retreated where he might observe the goings on. Franks instructed one of his companions (Mr Peacock) from the tavern to keep an eye on the rioters while he went to secure a cutlass for their protection. Unfortunately, before Franks could return, he was shot along the Dung Wharf.
Franks did not immediately succumb to his wounds, but lived on for several days. William Blizzard, a surgeon at the London Hospital, treated him. Assumptions are made as to the reason(s) for Franks’ attack, likely he was singled out for his association with the Police Office. Despite there being little evidence to the act, James Eyers was eventually arrested and charged with Franks’ murder. Eyers’ inciting the riot was, as a point of law, was responsible for Franks’ death, and the court agreed. He was tried and convicted of the crime and sentenced to hang. “In passing sentence the judge, Mr Justice Heath, donned the traditional black cap and spoke the usual and well-known phrase, ‘Prisoner. May the Lord have mercy upon your soul.’ Eyers replied, “Amen, I hope he will.” (The Thames Police Museum)
The actual trial transcript can be viewed at the Old Bailey trial site:
Meet Regina Jeffers:
Regina Jeffers is the author of several Austen-inspired novels, including Darcy’s Passions, Darcy’s Temptation, Vampire Darcy’s Desire, Captain Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Phantom of Pemberley, Christmas at Pemberley, The Disappearance of Georgiana Darcy, Honor and Hope and The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. She also writes Regency romances: The Scandal of Lady Eleanor, A Touch of Velvet, A Touch of Cashémere, A Touch of Grace, A Touch of Mercy, A Touch of Love and The First Wives’ Club. A Time Warner Star Teacher and Martha Holden Jennings Scholar, Jeffers often serves as a consultant in language arts and media literacy. Currently living outside Charlotte, North Carolina, she spends her time with her writing, gardening, and her adorable grandson.