PortCities London

Policing the Port of London

Colquhoun and the Marine Police Force

Poor security

Shipping in the Pool of London.
View full size imageShipping 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.

Model of the Pool of London.
View full size imageModel of the Pool of London. c. 1750. © NMM
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.

Massive losses

Statue of Robert Milligan
View full size imageRobert Milligan (c. 1746-1809). © 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.

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
  • Scuffle-Hunters 
  • Mud Larks

Determined to end the pilfering, the West India Company, led by Robert Milligan, decided to act.

Colquhoun consulted

The West India Docks.
View full size imageThe 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

Revenue men raiding a gang's hide-out.
View full size imageRaiding a gangs' hideout. © NMM
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.

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.

Constables' cottages, Garford Street.
View full size imageShip 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.
View full size imageThames 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.