The Thames River Police Are Founded

When I was writing The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery LOTS of research was required, especially information about the policing practices in Regency Era London. One of my discoveries was the River Thames Police….

John Harriott - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

John Harriott – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

In the 18th Century, importers docking along the River Thames in London had lost £500.000 annually as cargoes were unloaded on the unprotected River Thames. In 1797, an Essex Justice of the Peace, farmer, and inventor from Great Stanbridge, Mr John Harriott, came up with a plan to change all that. Mr Patrick Colquhoun, LLD. (the principle magistrate of Queens Square Police Office), advocated for Harriott’s plan with the West India Merchants and the West India Planters Committees to finance preventative policing of the central shipping area of the Thames. The government approved the establishment of the Marine Police on 2 July 1798 in Wapping High Street. Originally, the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute was to operate for just one year, but as the Government was involved with the war with France, the time was extended.

A Surveyor (equivalent rank of an Inspector, by today’s standards) and three waterman Constables under the direction of a Superintending Surveyor manned each of the rowing galleys. The Superintending Surveyor also had a supervision galley with a crew of four. The Surveyors had taken an oath to the Crown and were issued an excise warrant by the Customs and Excise Service.

In addition, ship and quay guards were employed on a part-time basis. They were only employed when the West India fleets were on the river. Otherwise, they were dismissed until needed again. These “guards” were supervised by the boat patrols, which eventually became the first River Police Special Constables. Initially, it cost £4.200 to set up the force (hires and premises), but , by all  estimates, they had saved £122.000 in cargo and had saved a dozen individuals.

Only numbering in the low 50s, these Officers were expected to control some 30.000 + people who made their living on the river. One must realize a large portion (some 25-35%) of that 30.000 were likely criminals. Unfortunately, during the first six months, a riot took place outside the Office, and a crowd of 2000+ threatened to burn the building to the ground, with officers and magistrates inside. Harriott managed to quell the riot. Sadly, Gabriel Franks (Master Lumper) was shot and killed – the first recorded police death. “After a year, Harriott was able to give his first report to the Home Office stating ‘instead of many waterman’s boats hovering nearby while ships unloaded, the river now appears quiet and peaceful, except for those going about their lawful business.” (River Thames Police – History – Establishment)

Ship owners convinced the government of the value of the Marine Police. Letters from importers, shipmasters, and wharf owners praised the deterrent tactics of the boat patrols and quay guards. On 28 July 1800, Parliament passed the Marine Police Bill making the river police a public domain. The bill also increased the number of officers to 88. “They were taken with the Magistrate John Harriott to be directly under the control of the Home Secretary, who used their hard won experience throughout the whole of the Metropolis until such times as the Metropolitan Police were formed.” In 1800, Patrick Colquhoun released a book entitled The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. “As the only police body extant whole chapters were included about criminals of the Thames, its policing and the effect. The book was widely read and approved of, so much so that many other police forces were formed throughout the world on his principles, the most famous being Dublin, New York and Sydney, Australia.” (River Thames Police – History – Government Support)

By the time the Metropolitan Police began in 1829, the River Thames Police had grown in numbers and in stations. They had extended their jurisdiction to above Chelsea and down to Woolwich and had acquired two old naval vessels to patrol the extent of the Thames. “In 1817 an excise “Cutter” was purchased to patrol the lower reaches as far as the Downs, firstly to protect the Kings stores at Sheerness, a Magistrate with powers in the surrounding counties was then essential to empower the River Police to prevent such crimes and in particular crimping. Winter for the officers patrolling in open boats was most rigorous.” (River Thames Police: History

By 1839, the Metropolitan Police, under Commissioners Sir Richard Mayne and Sir Charles Rowan, who operated with the Home Secretary’s permission, had unified other police bodies in London, including the Bow Street Runners, Horse patrols, and the River Police. The only exception was the City of London Police force, which was founded in 1834 and remains a separate entity even today.

With this unification, the Thames Magistrate Office was moved to Arbour Square and renamed the Thames Magistrates Court. “Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police was built on the officers and experience of its earlier force. It was always that the land police were formed (and indeed their uniform suggests it) on the pattern of an army regiment and the River Police on the pattern of a Royal Navy ‘man of war’ (Hence their reefer jackets and naval boaters.).

Thames Police rowing galley around 1900.

Thames Police rowing galley around 1900.

For the next forty years the rowing galleys and sailing patrols continued and were found adequate, while the river trades slowly became merchandised and to a large extent iron replaced wood. In 1878 the loss of over 600 lives in the disastrous collision between the paddle steamer “Princess Alice” and the collier “Bywell Castle” made it obvious that at least some powered craft were necessary. In 1884, two steam launches were purchased for supervisory purposes and later a third was found necessary.” (River Thames Police: History)

PoMDC Cover-2-2The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin: A Pride and Prejudice Mystery
(Mystery/Suspense/Thriller; Fiction/Historical Fiction)

Fitzwilliam Darcy is enjoying his marital bliss. His wife, the former Elizabeth Bennet, presented him two sons and a world of contentment. All is well until Darcy receives a note of urgency from his sister Georgiana. In truth, Darcy never fully approved of Georgiana’s joining with their cousin. Major General Edward Fitzwilliam for Darcy assumed the major general held Georgiana at arm’s length, dooming Darcy’s sister to a life of unhappiness.

Forced to seek his cousin in the slews of London’s underbelly, at length, Darcy discovers the major general and returns Fitzwilliam to his family. Even so, the Darcy’s troubles are far from over. During the major general’s absence from home, witnesses note Fitzwilliam’s presence in the area of two horrific murders. When Edward Fitzwilliam is arrested for the crimes, Darcy must discover the real culprit before his cousin is hanged for the crimes and the Fitzwilliam name is marked by shame.






About Regina Jeffers

Regina Jeffers is the award-winning author of Austenesque, Regency and historical romantic suspense.
This entry was posted in British history, Great Britain, Living in the Regency, real life tales, Regency era, Uncategorized, Victorian era and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Thames River Police Are Founded

  1. Fascinating, Regina. I tweeted and shared on FB!

  2. This is great info- thanks for posting!

    • Thanks for joining me, Jennifer. I am in the midst of writing a new mystery set in 1816, and the research has slowed my progress, but it has been worth it to learn new things. The school teacher in me loves to learn.

  3. Pingback: History A'la Carte 4-17-14 - Random Bits of Fascination

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