Today in London’s policing history, 1798: the Wapping Coal Riot

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, the UK’s earliest organised police force proper, launched their first patrols of the crowded waters of the River Thames, based at a HQ at Wapping New Stairs.

The new force was at first privately funded, and had been launched by Patrick Colquhoun, a Scottish businessman and statistician. Colquhoun had made his name and money in the lucrative commercial trade in Virginia, and later made more cash trading linen. When the American Revolution broke out, Colquhoun took the side of the British government against the rebellious colonists, and helped fund a Glasgow regiment to contribute to the war effort.

The British defeat saw him relocate back his energies to Britain. Colquhoun was interested in statistics, and collected economic data, which he used to lobby the government on behalf of the employers in various industries, particularly cotton and muslin (his background in textile dealing had made him a lot of contacts). He wrote numerous pamphlets and treatises promoting legal reform and changes in business practice – usually in the interests of powerful employers. Colquhoun was increasingly in political and government circles, and he aspired to a government position. In the late 1780s he was appointed a Magistrate in the East End.

The London docks were then the East End’s major industry; vast amounts of cargo were unloaded here, from all over the world. This was how the capital was supplied with food, cloth, sugar, raw materials… anything to supply what had become the most powerful and richest city in the world.

But there was a major problem for the dock owners and traders whose goods travelled through them – theft. Merchants were losing an estimated £500,000 worth (million in our money) in stolen cargo annually from the Pool of London on the River Thames. Many ships were unloaded on open docks or on the open river, accessible to looting; however, organised or individual theft by dockers, sailors and other workers was responsible for large amounts of disappeared cargo. There were any number of ways of making items vanish for resale on the many East End markets. The authorities had relatively little manpower to exert any force to prevent or detect theft or track missing goods down.

In 1797 Colquhoun, John Harriot, an Essex Justice of the Peace and master mariner, and utilitarian philosopher of repression Jeremy Bentham collaborated on a plan to remedy the losses to thieves. Harriot and Bentham drew up a proposal for a new police force on the docks, and Colquhoun went to work to lobby the West India Planters Committees and the West India Merchants to fund the new organisation, and applied to the government for permission to operate. The merchants stumped up £4,200 (about £543,000 in today’s moolah), and the state agreed to a one-year trial of the embryonic force. On 2 July 1798, the Thames River Police began operating with Colquhoun as Superintending Magistrate and Harriot the Resident Magistrate.

The very idea of a police was considered an affront by many in England; English folk of various classes held it outraged ‘the liberties they held dear’. Some in positions of power and wealth also thought the idea of a government-controlled police force ( as it existed in France) would be an expensive burden on the public purse. Colquhoun cleverly re-framed the political debate on policing, drawing on his economic statistics to try to demonstrate show that a police dedicated to crime prevention was not only “perfectly congenial to the principle of the British constitution” but also had potential to be cost effective.

The new force began with about 50 men, whose job was to police more than 30,000 workers in the river trades. Of these workers Colquhoun claimed a third were known criminals and “on the game”.

Whether these figures were reliable, the new river police inevitably received a hostile reception from the riverfront workers. For many of the workers on the docks, lighters and ships, and in the warehouses, a little bit of lightfingeredness supplemented what was usually low and irregular pay. Most of these jobs were casual, badly paid, seasonal; survival for these men and their families was generally a matter of daily worry. Meanwhile huge profits were being made on the tobacco, food, sugar, coal and myriads of other imports. The merchants at the top lived in luxury the dockworkers could only imagine. The temptation to help yourself to some of the profits passing through your hands had grown by tradition and struggle into a perk of the job. A lot of cracking down on ‘theft’ took the form of changing (or enforcing tighter interpretations of) perks and traditional right to take offcuts, spilled goods etc, which workers had established over decades of struggle and negotiation. Workers fighting to extend those perks ,and bosses pushing to restrict the, was part of a constant war between workers and employers; the creation of the river police could only be seen as an attack on a part of the workers’ income. And the London dockworkers were often prepared to fight to protect their interests.

The embryonic Thames River Police was organised very differently from what we might think of as a modern police force. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers – dockworkers enlisted to also police the job. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) – they were mostly employed patrolling the dockside. The rationale behind employing workers to police their workmates was that a considerable amount of crime, committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London, could be prevented if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in ‘lumping’ cargoes off the ships. ‘Lumpers’ employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty – and they were paid above the usual rate. These men were seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. A clever process of internalising policing into the mentalities of workers, setting some workers to spy on others.

The River Police was aimed not only control of the mass and endemic nicking of goods arriving at the docks, but also breaking any form of organisation by the workers. It was paid for by the bosses, and expected to serve their interest, and workers getting together was on its radar as part of the ‘crime’ it had to keep an eye on. Colquhoun was a magistrate, and the East End magistrates had powers over labour and wages; they set wage levels, and even had a hand in organising the trade itself, for instance organising coalheaving gangs. Rival views as to how this was to be interpreted had played a crucial and divisive part in the 1768 ‘river strike’– a cataclysmic strike for higher wages that had ended up in pitched battles, murder and hangings… Alderman William Beckford, an East End magistrate, had backed gangs of scabs collected to fight strikers and smash the strike; Beckford was also a major importer of goods through the docks. The same men were employers, law enforcers and politicians, and use these connections to their own profit, and to attack working people on a multitude of levels – as well as being slave traders and plantation owners in the West Indies. Beckford, for instance, was known as the ‘king of Jamaica’ for the size of his plantations, and was determined to protect the profits from his goods from the Caribbean that came through the docks.

Like Beckford, Colquhoun was deeply involved in both the East End dock trades and the Atlantic triangular trade. Historian Peter Linebaugh identifies Colquhoun as a crucial product of, and contributor to, the economic and social power networks that drove the Atlantic trades.

“He was a planner of the trans-Atlantic cotton economy compiling stats of the workers, wages, factories, and imports in order to assist the prime minister and cabinet of England maximise profits from the cycle of capital in England, India, America, Ireland, Africa. That work was interrupted by the revolutions in France and Haiti. In the 1790s he criminalised custom. He led the hanging of those committing money crimes. He led the apprehension of those in textile labour who re-cycled waste products to their own use. He organised political surveillance by spies and snitches of those opposing slavery. In addition to his Virginia cotton interests he owned shares in Jamaican sugar plantations.” There was a direct link in terms of goods arriving from Caribbean and the interests of planters, shippers, etc, in seeing maximum of profits from them and less ‘attrition’ by working people. The West India merchants and planters were major contributors to the funds raised to pay for the new police.

Transport of coal was at the heart of the docks, and theft of coal a crucial battleground. Houses, industry, offices – coal was vital for heating and came into the docks on a colossal scale. Possibly more than any other commodity, coal was ripped off by the dockworkers, often on an individual scale. Coalheaving was dirty, hard and backbreaking work, paid badly. As the 1768 strike had shown, the coalheavers were often the most volatile group of workers, with a potential for collective action and violence.

Coal was also to cause an early battle between the dockworkers and the new River Police. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the ‘coal markets’, selling of nicked coal from the docks, which were openly held in the streets of Wapping.

On the evening of 16th October 1798, three men stood trial at the Thames Magistrates Court, which was attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman’s boy, all accused of theft of coal (in fact of having coal in their possession and giving no reasonable explanation as to why), and were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, some friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers, was met by his brother, James, who said “Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?” Charles said “Yes, I have.” James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said “Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!”

Constable Richard Perry later testified: “I opened the door to let Charles Eyers out, when there was a voice cried, you b-y long thief have you paid the money? I saw there was a riot going to be, and I shoved the door of the office to immediately: then there was another voice said, here goes for the forty; with that the fan-light of the door was instantly knocked all over me, I suppose with a stick, they could not have reached it without; I went into the Magistrate’s room, and immediately the next light was beat, shutters and all, into the office, by large stones, I suppose twenty pounds weight, such stones as the streets were paved with; they then proceeded to the next light, that was beat in also with great stones.

– Q. Was the street quiet at this time?
– A. No, there was crying and shouting, and a great noise, and saying they would have the b-y Police-office down; they then proceeded to the third window, and beat that in also, and a large stone came in, which took me over the shoulder, and passed Mr. Colquhoun, the Magistrate.”

Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd – some reports reckoned it at around 2000 men – had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. There was talk of burning down the police office, with the police inside.

The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

The police inside the office secured the building. When a large stone smashed through a window, officer Perry took a pistol and fired a shot into the crowd, that shot killed a rioter (who was never identified at the trial). The crowd seemed to quieten and withdraw slightly. Perry asked the magistrates to leave the building where he obviously felt at great risk. Having gone into the street, Colquhoun read the Riot Act to the crowd, ordering them to disperse. They did not.

Gabriel Franks, a master lumper employed by the Marine Police Office (later described as ‘not a sworn constable but occasionally assisting in the Office’) was apparently drinking in the nearby Rose and Crown pub. Hearing the commotion, he made his way to the police office with two other men named Peacock and Webb, and asked to be admitted, but was told that nobody was being allowed in or out of the building. Franks returned to the main street, possibly to observe the disturbance and gather information and evidence. He told Peacock to keep tabs on one particularly active rioter, whilst he himself went off, telling peacock he would try and secure a cutlass for their protection. However, someone obviously recognised Franks as a Police Office agent, as according to Peacock, about a minute after Franks walked off, a shot rang out from the direction of the Dung Wharf, and Franks cried out that he had been shot. The shooting from inside the Police Office that killed the rioter and the shot that killed Franks apparently happened in quick succession.

Franks did not die immediately. He lived on for several days, drifting in and out of consciousness. During this time Franks was questioned about the shooting, but had no idea as to who had fired the shot. The actual identity of the person who pulled the trigger and fired the fatal shot was never discovered; however, the motive would clearly seem to be hatred of the Marine Police, Franks being known as someone associated with the police office.  He might have been deliberately singled out as he walked towards the Dung Wharf, or, he may simply have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Could it have been friendly fire – ie was he killed by a shot from inside the Police Office? Witness Elizabeth Forester later tried to persuade the court that both Franks and the unnamed rioter had been killed by the one shot fired from the police office, but her evidence was discredited by the court. However, there doesn’t seem to have been any other evidence of rioters carrying or using firearms.

Failing to identify anyone who might have really shot Franks, the authorities plumped for a blatant frame-up on the loosest of justifications. James Eyers, whose behaviour at the court was the initial spark that kicked off the riot, was eventually arrested and charged with the murder of Gabriel Franks.

No one produced any evidence to suggest that Eyers had actually fired the fatal shot, or even seriously tried to suggest he had anything to do with the shooting. The prosecution’s case was that his actions in starting the riot, therefore he was responsible for Franks’ death, under the law of ‘common purpose’ (today this might come under the ‘Joint Enterprise’ concept). This was conveniently also useful in removing an obvious opponent of the Marine Police and setting a grim example to the coalheavers that resistance to policing would reap the harshest of rewards. Eyers greatest crime, the judge freely admitted, was that he had called for the Police Office to be torn down, “in breach of the peace, and in open violation of the laws of the land, in the pursuit of a very wicked purpose, namely, the demolition of the house in which the Magistrates administered the justice of the country, and the destruction of the Magistrates themselves…”

Eyers was convicted of murder on the 9th January 1799, and sentenced the following Monday morning to be hanged.

Despite – or because of – the riot and resulting deaths, the success of the police force in reducing theft on the docks was enough to guarantee the Marine Police’s future. After its first year, Colquhoun reported that the force had “established their worth by saving £122,000 worth of cargo and by the rescuing of several lives”.

The government passed the Marine Police Bill on 28 July 1800, transforming it from a private to public police agency – making official the police as a centralised, armed, and uniformed cadre of the state. Colquhoun later published a book on the experiment, The Commerce and Policing of the River Thames. It found receptive audiences far outside London, and inspired similar forces in places in other countries, notably, New York City, Dublin, and Sydney.

Historians of policing credit Colquhoun’s innovation as a critical development towards the creation Robert Peel’s “new” police three decades later. Along with the Bow Street Runners, the Marine Police Force was eventually absorbed by the Metropolitan Police in the 19th century. Colquhoun’s utilitarian approach to the problem – using a cost-benefit argument to obtain support from businesses standing to benefit – allowed him to achieve what previous magistrates had failed – for instance the Bow Street detectives. Unlike the stipendiary system at Bow Street, the river police were full-time, salaried officers prohibited from taking private fees.

The Marine Police Force continues to operate at the same Wapping High Street address. In 1839 it merged with the Metropolitan Police Force to become Thames Division; and is now the Marine Support Unit of the Metropolitan Police Service.

 

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