PortCities London

Policing the Port of London

The River Police today

Marine Support Unit

Police launch in the Upper Pool.
View full size imagePolice launch in the Upper Pool. © NMM

The Thames Division was renamed the Marine Support Unit in 2001. It is part of an Operational Command Unit (OCU) called Specialist Support and is commanded by a chief inspector.

It has 89 police officers, supported by eight civilian staff and eight Special Constables and a fleet of 20 boats (15 patrol boats, one command vessel known as the Patrick Colquhoun, and four rigid inflatable boats).

Wapping River Police Station.
View full size imageWapping River Police Station. © NMM

The MSU operates out of its base at Wapping River Police station, about 1 mile (1.6 km) downstream from Tower Bridge, the third police station on this site since the first marine police station opened in 1798.

There are currently four response teams, each with two sergeants and 12 constables. They operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with at least one boat patrolling the river at night.


No. 1 Craft at Wapping.
View full size imagePatrol vessel off Wapping with Tower Bridge visible in the distance. © NMM
Each patrol boat is manned by a sergeant and two constables. The latter are all volunteers who have served at least two years as land-based police officers. On joining the Marine Support Unit, an officer undertakes a one-year probationary period. During this time they undergo a total of eight weeks formal training, of which search and rescue techniques form a part.

Bodies in the Thames

Notice board at Wapping Police Station listing dead bodies retrieved from the Thames.
View full size imageNotice board at Wapping Station, listing dead bodies retrieved from the Thames. © NMM

The MSU, like the Thames Division that preceded it, is also responsible for recovering bodies from the river. On average, between 80 and 100 people lose their lives in the Thames each year. About 80% of these are suicides – usually people jumping off one of the bridges that span the Thames.

After a body is recovered from the water it is taken to the mortuary at Wapping Police Station for identification. The sharp bend in the Thames as it rounds the Rotherhithe peninsular brings many bodies ashore at Limehouse. This is often after they have been in the water for 20 days or more.

Changing roles

Full hull model of the British Diver (1984), an Atlantic 21 lifeboat.
View full size imageFull hull model of the British Diver (1984), an Atlantic 21 lifeboat. © NMM

During the first 11 months of 1998, officers from the Marine Support Unit rescued more than 97 people from the Thames. From 2002, however, the MSU scaled down its involvement in emergency rescue.

In the aftermath of the 1999 Inquiry into River Safety, the government asked the following organizations to set up a single dedicated search and rescue service for the tidal Thames:

  • the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA)
  • the Port of London Authority (PLA) and
  • the Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI).

This resulted in the establishment of four lifeboat stations at Gravesend, Tower Pier, Chiswick Pier and Teddington.

A Metropolitan Police launch passing Greenwich.
View full size imageA Metropolitan Police launch passing Greenwich. © NMM

As a result of these administrative changes, the primary role of the River Police today is to:

  • fight crime
  • prevent disorder
  • combat drug smuggling
  • provide a visible deterrent against terrorism.

However, despite the fact that the Marine Support Unit is not a statutory SAR (Search and Rescue) organization, the recent growth in leisure activities on the Thames means that they still advise the public about safety rules and boating regulations in order to avert accidents.

Content on this page was made with a contribution from The River Thames website.