|Shipping in the Pool of London. © NMM|
In 1798 the Marine Police Force was founded. It was the first organized police force in Britain. It was also badly needed. By the end of the 18th century, trade had grown to such an extent that the Thames had become highly congested.
During the 1750s, nearly 1800 vessels were allowed to moor at the same time in the Upper Pool in a space intended for hardly more than 500. The congestion caused such chaos that a ship might have to wait two months in port before it could leave.
|Model of the Pool of London. c. 1750. © NMM|
Vessels were still moored in the river and their cargoes loaded into barges and lighters for transport to the legal quays. Once there, security was poor and goods were left in the open air for weeks on end. Combined with a lack of warehousing, this situation led to theft on a massive scale.
|Robert Milligan (c. 1746-1809). © NMM|
One estimate put the merchants' losses at £500,000 a year, including 2% of all sugar imported. Among the gangs that operated in the port were:
- The River Pirates
- Night Plunderers
- Light Horsemen
- Heavy Horsemen
- Mud Larks
Determined to end the pilfering, the West India Company, led by Robert Milligan, decided to act.
|The West India Docks in 1815. © NMM|
The company approached Dr Patrick Colquhoun, a merchant and magistrate, and asked him for his advice on how to deal with crime in the port. He proposed, and then organized, a force of 100 men equipped with muskets, swords and pistols. A second body of 100 special constables reinforced them. The force was commanded by John Harriott, another magistrate, and was paid for by both the Government (£980 a year) and the West India Company (£4020).
The first Thames police
The first men recruited tended to be sailors and watermen. For several years they led dangerous and violent lives, often being engaged in bloody battles with the river gangs.
|Raiding a gangs' hideout. © NMM|
Alongside the construction of enclosed docks, they helped bring stability to the port and reduced the losses from theft. Harriott was appointed Superintendent of Ship Constables and his new force leased premises on the riverfront at Wapping.
|Ship Constables' cottages, Garford Street. © NMM|
Five Surveyors, who were rowed in boats by police watermen, patrolled the river, while another four visited ships as they were unloaded.
Ship Constables, who were appointed and controlled by the Marine Police, but paid for by ship-owners, supervized the dock gangs. A Surveyor of Quays, with two assistants and 30 Police Quay Guards, watched over cargoes on shore.
Amalgamation with the Met
|Thames Police at Wapping Wharf. © NMM|
In 1829, Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police Force, by which time the Marine Police had three stations at Wapping, Waterloo and Blackwall, and 15 boats.
Ten years later, in 1839, the two forces amalgamated and the Marine Police Force became the Thames Division of the Metropolitan Police.