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Policing the Port of London

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The Thames Division

A variety of craft

Police rowing boat off the entrance to London Docks.
View full size imagePolice rowing boat off the entrance to London Docks. © NMM

The police of the Thames Division (formed in 1839) initially carried out their duties in rowing boats. Indeed, these boats were still in use in the 1920s.

In the mid-1880s, two steam launches were introduced and by 1898, the force had a further eight steam launches to supplement its 28 rowing boats. The first motorboats were introduced in 1910.

By 1888, the force consisted of 49 inspectors, 25 sergeants and 150 constables, under the command of a superintendent.

E. A. Carr pays a visit

In 1901, Ernest A. Carr visited the River Police station at Wapping. He described the officers thus:

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Steam police launch.
View full size imageA River Police Steam launch. © NMM
They are sturdy, upstanding, weather-bronzed fellows, these "Wet Bobs" of London’s police force; constant exposure and long hours of labour at the heavy oars have hardened them into men of iron, with muscles of steel. An indefinable something in face and bearing would stamp them anywhere as sailor-men – and, indeed, they are recruited wholly from the ranks of expert seamen and boatmen.

Their nautical aspect is heightened by the uniform they wear – a wide peaking yachting cap or waterman’s shining straw hat, a blue reefer coat (discarded for rowing), sleeved vest and broad-cut trousers. On every

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cap and coat-collar shines a nickel anchor – "the badge of their tribe".

Emergency at Blackwall

Carr also accompanied the police on a call. He wrote:

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Blackwall Police Station.
View full size imageBlackwall Police Station. © NMM

The sharp, sudden clangour of an electric bell proves to be a signal for assistance. A message from the smaller station down at Blackwall intimates that a brig proceeding upstream has caught fire, and has been run aground… Instantly, there is a call for a couple of boats' crews; and almost as speedily the two heavy "duty boats", swinging at their moorings below the police stairs, have been untethered…

River Police sword.
View full size imageRiver Police sword. © NMM
Three officers enter each; two of them seize the long, white-bladed oars, while the third, who is the inspector, settles in the stern-sheets to steer. We clamber into one of these galleys, and stow ourselves aft as it pushes off, past the trim little police launch that is waiting under steam, and so out upon the dark swirling current. Our crew's instructions are… "Pull, aft: back, bow", says the inspector; and the boat shoots round till her nose is pointing
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downstream. "Pull us!" is the next order; and, both oarsmen giving way with a will, we speed toward our goal.


Carr continued:

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River Police in a skiff near Tower Bridge.
View full size imageRiver Police in a skiff near Tower Bridge. © NMM

How thronged these reaches are with vessels of every sort and port! Dapper passenger ships, grimy colliers, fish trawls reeking of their cargo, blunt-nosed coasters, Dutch eel scoops, sailing ships laden with timber from Norwegian pine forests: all are here…

A strong glare of light round the next bend marks our objective, and a very few minutes more bring us abreast of the flaming vessel. There follow two hours of unremitting labour – aiding the crew of the fire-floats at their toil, taking wet lines aboard and fixing them to mooring posts and buoys, creeping down to windward of the flames to receive salvaged goods, and helping to fend the brig off by means of stout ropes into deeper water, where the volumes of water streaming in from the fire hose may submerge her. Not until, in an eddy of sparks and steam, the battle of water against fire has been won, do our boatmen relax their efforts. Then, with

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the oars "out-board", ready for instant use, we drift back homeward with the tide.

A difficult job

Working as a river policeman was always tough. Sometimes, more than eight hours a day could be spent in the boats. Whatever the weather, the police had to go on patrol and high winds and strong currents could make rowing the boats immensely difficult.

The work also varied. Carr described a typical week:

Police skiff on Bugsby's Reach, Charlton.
View full size imagePolice Skiff on Bugsby's Reach, Charlton. © NMM
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Pulling in and out among the crowded shipping of the silent highway, now skirting the wharves with an eye to long-shore thieves, now rounding the stem of a deserted schooner in quest of "snappers-up of unconsidered trifles" such as brass bolts or gratings, anon settling down to a hard race against the current in order to overhaul a suspiciously evasive wherry, there is plenty of interest and incident…

There are derelict craft to be captured, and polluters of

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the stream who must be caught red- handed.

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Occasionally, valuable hauls are made by searching barges and lighters for stolen or contraband goods… Now and then a waterside thief or "fence", hard pressed by the land police, commits his booty for the nonce to the river's keeping, marking the spot where it lies hidden in mud and slime on the foreshore. More often the property thus submerged is smuggled stuff encased in
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watertight bags and artfully buoyed.
Searching a barge.
View full size imageSearching a barge. © NMM

Frequent danger

It was also very dangerous work:

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Landing a prisoner at Wapping.
View full size imageLanding a prisoner at Wapping. © NMM
Sometimes there is a batch of mutinous foreign sailors to be removed from a British ship and taken ashore; next day, perhaps, an ocean going steamer must be stopped in mid-stream in order that some fugitive from justice may be seized. In a certain case a drunken, violent scoundrel armed with a knife had to be boldly faced and over-powered single-handed.

[One officer] had a perilous scuffle in mid-stream with a desperate prisoner who, hoping to swim clear in the darkness, sought to over-turn the little craft in which both men were adrift. Eventually, the officer lashed his captive

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to the centre thwarts, and thus prevented his escape.


Leaving Wapping Police Stairs.
View full size imageLeaving Wapping Police Stairs. © NMM
There were also numerous examples of officers drowning while carrying out their duties.  In 1857, PC James Denyer was drowned after falling into the London Docks while checking a suspicious light on a ship. Much later, in 1901, PC James Newbold drowned when he fell overboard from a steam launch that was involved in a collision off Poplar.

Sometimes, the collisions were deliberate. On one occasion, the police discovered the crew of a tug plundering coal from a barge. They tried to arrest the crew 'whereupon these miscreants made a murderous attempt to sink the duty boat – a design that came within an ace of success and allowed its perpetrators to escape in the darkness'.

Rescue work

The police also rescued drowning people from the river. Sometimes, they were drunken sailors or watermen who had fallen in. On other occasions, they were attempted suicides.

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Once snatched from the river’s jaws, the rescued receive at the hands of the Thames policemen everything that care and skill can devise for nursing back to a flame the flickering spark of life. Each member is thoroughly trained, not only in life-saving drill but also in the best methods of restoring the apparently drowned. And on the police pier at Waterloo a hot bath, a warm bed, and suitable clothing are always waiting the
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next arrival.
View full size imageRescue of a woman in the water near Tower Bridge. © NMM

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