If you thought that the idea for the Metropolitan Police originated with Sir Robert Peel, you’d be wrong. If you thought the Met Police have never been armed, you’d be wrong again. In this fascinating episode I met up with Robert Jeffries—Curator of the Thames Police Museum in Wapping.
Robert is not only an expert on all things pertaining to the Thames River Police, he is also a consummate storyteller. Recorded at the original and spiritual home of modern-day policing, Robert recounts the wealth and violence that permeated the River Thames and surrounding areas back in 1798, and how the Thames River Police have, over the years, been a leading and integral part of preventive policing and heroically saving lives ever since. This is Your London Legacy.
“You could literally walk across the river on the decks of all these ships vying for space to unload their cargoes. There were never less than 1,000 ships in the port of London.”[8:50]
Robert starts our journey back through time at the start of the Thames River Police – originally hired to patrol the waters by the West India Trading Company. It was started for around £4,000, a sum the government wasn’t willing to pay for a variety of reasons—including public dissent. However, since the West India Trading company was losing £250,000 p.a year to thievery they were happy to pay—a payment that paid off. It is estimated the Thames River Police saved the company £100,000 in their first year.[25:40]
One of the key events that switched over to a proper land borne police force was a famous set of murders that took place in 1811: The Ratcliffe Highway Murders. This series of seven murders helped drive the need for a more efficient and disciplined police force – and the resulting investigation ended up with a guilty verdict, a sailor who was dragged dead through the streets after strangling himself at the end of his trial.[37:58]
A key event in Rob’s own service to the Thames Police took place in 1989 during a horrible event known as the Marchioness Disaster. The Marchioness, a pleasure boat, ran into a gravel trawler coming back from sea. The tide was flooding hard, the water fast, and for whatever the reason the two ships were unable to communicate. By the time Rob made it to the scene it had changed from a rescue mission to a recovery mission. 52 people lost their lives that night—however, the officers on duty did save 61 people in just four boats, in pitch black and fast moving water. Rob was on for the days after and saw firsthand how changes were made to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. The coming of the life boats afterwards took over search and rescue operations and stays in place now.
I highly recommend you make it to the Thames Police Museum, which has artifacts, information, and some of the oldest documents relating to policing in the whole world.