Talk Report: 2017-09-13

Report on Steve Davis talk The History and Work of the Thames River Police

On Wednesday 13th September members of Wells U3A meeting in the Museum had a rousing first lecture of their season from ex-policeman Steve Davis. Steve joined the Police force in 1971 but after 20 years on the beat transferred to what was then called Thames Division - subsequently the Thames River Police. With great humour and many fascinating contemporary images Steve took us through the development of the force from its very early days.

In the late seventeenth century, there were no docks on the river Thames. The Port of London was a confusion of boats awaiting their turn to reach the wharves where they could load and unload goods. At any one time, there were up to 1500 craft of all shapes and sizes blocked up together, full of desirable produce and products. Farther down the river towards the sea, there could be 5000 boats awaiting a berth. There were no police to deter thieves, and looting and thieving were rife. It was estimated that of 33,000 men working in the port, 11,000 were known criminals!

At that time, a magistrate would ask a constable to go and arrest a suspected villain, but no police force was there to deter or prevent crime. A gentleman named Patrick Colquhoun knew the situation – he had worked for the West India Company whose ships had suffered in the Port of London. Together with one Captain John Harriet, a mariner turned magistrate, Colquhoun pushed the government and the Company for what became the first ever preventative police force in the world. In 1798 the new force established its base by the river in Wapping. The constables had to be known as trustworthy, wore uniforms with no pockets and operated in small rowing boats which they themselves rowed up and down the river. The force cost £5000 to set up; in the first six months, it was calculated that it had saved the companies £14,500.

Stealing coal from the barges had become accepted as a right so when three men were arrested for this practice a mob marched on the Wapping police station. The Riot Act was read, shots were fired and the first ever policeman was killed on duty. However, after the ‘Battle of Wapping’ the new policy of preventative policing was accepted and three years later the government took over the newly formed Marine Police. By 1830, with Robert Peel in power, the new force had three stations along the river and subsequently became an important and accepted part of the new Metropolitan Police. Charles Dickens is known to have been rowed by the flat-hatted constables on their nightly beats of the river.

The Illustrated London News had several pictures of a terrible accident in 1878, when the steam ship Princess Alice, a passenger paddle steamer, collided with the collier Bywell Castle. This was the greatest loss of life in any Thames shipping disaster: over 650 people drowned. The accident lead to a call for greater safety measures on pleasure boats and also for powered police craft which could arrive swiftly in emergencies. After many delays steam powered launches were introduced in 1900 to replace the rowing boats and from this time onwards - very slowly - the working conditions improved. By 1933 – all boats were power driven and in 1945 cabins were introduced to protect officers and (Steve suggested more importantly!) the new radio telephone from the elements.

Provided with these, communication between vessels became possible and the Thames Division was for the first time a really reactive force. With the Docks still functioning to capacity these were busy times for the Thames Division as they patrollied the river from Teddington Lock at the end of the tidal river right down to the Pool of London. Larger and faster Inflatable speed boats were introduced which could achieve 35 knots, creating so much noise that the officers had to work with ear muffs. The vessels all had names which recalled the Force’s long history: amongst these was the Gabriel Franks – named after the police officer who was murdered in the 1798 ‘Battle of Wapping’ and there were the John Harriot and the Patrick Colquhoun, those first men who way back in 1793 had galvanised the River Police into action

in 1989 when there was another collision with much loss of life: this time between the pleasure boat Marchioness and the dredger Bowbelle. The accident took place at night in poor visibility and, although many lives were lost, many more were saved by the River Police. Steve joined the Thames Division shortly after this and we were told about the many aspects of the work in which he was involved. This included inspecting commercial shipping and picking up information about the incoming and outgoing vessels in cooperation with Customs and Excise as well as backing up the various police forces whose areas board the Thames. When he was serving the Thames, with its many bridges and the Houses of Parliament on its banks, were seen as easy targets for the IRA and the force was much involved with preventing and combatting terrorism. Important visitor’s vessels had to be escorted, as were nuclear submarines when protestors overstepped the mark of their own and others’ safety. Steve often took part in the unhappy work of retrieving dead bodies from the water, and more happily, could sometimes prevent a desperate soul from committing suicide.

Container Ships have now grown too large to navigate the Thames and by 1960 the London docks had moved down river to Tilbury. The force, now known as the Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit, has been dramatically cut back; it now has only 66 officers serving from one station - still on the original site at Wapping. They work in cooperation with RNLI lifeboats and mostly operate fighting crimes to do with arms and drugs and, as ever, dangerous or illegal behaviour on the river.

Steve obviously loved his work and infected the audience with his enthusiasm. His talk was full of humour as well as information and he was thanked very much for an excellent lecture.