The World’s Smallest Police District

True. Our museum isn’t big. But then, it does tell the story behind the smallest police district in the world.

Hidden next to the Guildhall Library in the City of London is a tiny museum with a big story to tell. The City of London Police has been helping to keep the City safe since it was established in 1839. Whilst they only police the “Square Mile” from Farringdon to the Tower of London, they are a very important presence in the City. Without them, London would be a more dangerous place.

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Before 1839, the City of London did not have an official police force, however, it was still policed in many ways. The museum begins with a brief history of the previous centuries. Ever since the City was established, watchmen have defended the City of London from attack. The watchman’s job changed in the 13th century to include reinforcing order within the City walls. Male citizens took it in turns to serve as a watcher for one year. Although deputies were appointed, no formal training was provided.

In 1550, the City was divided into 26 wards, each of which was manned by a single watchman per night. Not only were they not trained, but they also received no pay and if any trouble did occur, it was usually too much for a single man to handle. In 1663, an Act was passed stating that a thousand men should be on duty every night. Although these men were paid, it was a mere pittance and many of the men were old and frail. Nicknamed “Charleys” after Charles II (1630-85), each man was equipped with a lantern, a wooden stick and a pair of handcuffs.

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Marshalman’s Sword

By 1737, another Act had been passed, allowing additional men to be appointed each night when necessary. Two Marshalls and six Marshalmen were employed to oversee these men, attend courts and ensure watchmen were on duty. Each Marshalman carried a sword and enforced peace within the City. They also patrolled streets to ensure no beggars were sleeping rough or pestering London citizens for money.

Watchmen carried rattles to alert other watchers of criminal activity and indicate that they needed assistance. Later, watchmen were equipped with truncheons; an old example made by the Worshipful Company of Bakers is on display in the museum.

As of 1784, the City of London was protected by the City Day Police, which included paid constables. When the Metropolitan Police was formed in 1829 to cover the entirety of London, the City refused to be a part of it. The City within the Square Mile feared they would lose their independence and powers, therefore, ten years later in 1839, they established their own force. To this day, the Met and the City of London Police remain two separate forces.

The rules and regulations of the City of London Police were set out in an Act of Parliament. The Court of Common Council was formed to make decisions about how the City was run and a Police Committee was established. They also created the role of Commissioner.

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Daniel Whittle Harvey – Illustrated London News. March 7, 1863

In 1839, Daniel Whittle Harvey (1786-1863) became the first Commissioner of the City of London Police. Before this appointment, he had been a radical politician and founder of The Sunday Times newspaper. On one occasion, Harvey was imprisoned when his newspaper libelled the King, George IV (1762-1830), however, this did not damage his career. Initially, Harvey was appointed Registrar of the Metropolitan Public Carriages (now known as Taxicabs) at the beginning of 1839 before taking up his post as Commissioner. Harvey was known for his difficult and outspoken character and frequently argued with his superiors; nonetheless, he retained his post until his death in 1863.

The City of London Police were also responsible for setting up the London Ambulance service. Before 1907, there was no ambulance service in London and the only means of getting someone to hospital was by horse-drawn carriage or by foot – either walking or carried. The City of London Corporation purchased two electric ambulances to be manned by City Police officers. These were replaced by petrol vehicles in 1927 and, eventually, the NHS took over the ambulance service in 1949.

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Catherine Eddowes’ grave marker at the City of London Cemetery

Although the City of London Police only covers a small area, they have had their fair share of major incidents. One of the first significant events occurred in the early hours of 30th September 1888 when a Police Constable discovered the body of a woman in Mitre Square.

PC Edward Watkins had been a member of the City of London Police for 17 years when he set out on his routine walk through the streets of the City. He passed through Mitre Square at 1:30 am, and seeing nothing unusual, continued on his way. Retracing his steps at 1:44 am, however, Watkins came across the mutilated body of a woman. Alerting other policemen nearby, Watkins was soon joined by the acting Commissioner Sir Henry Smith and City Police Surgeon Dr Frederick Gordon Brown who concluded they were looking at the fourth victim of “Jack the Ripper”. Whilst this was the fourth victim, it was the first to take place within the City.

The victim was identified as Catherine Eddowes (1842-88), known to her friends as Kate. She was originally from Wolverhampton where she worked as a tinplate stamper. She married an ex-soldier, Thomas Conway and moved to London where they lived with their two sons and daughter. Unfortunately, Kate became an alcoholic and left her family in 1880, moving in with a new partner John Kelly the following year. It is believed she may have taken on casual sex work to pay the rent.

On the evening of 29th September 1888, the young PC Louis Robinson found a drunken Catherine Eddowes lying in the road on Aldgate High Street. Robinson arrested her and brought her to the station to sober up. She gave her name and address as “Mary Ann Kelly of 6 Fashion Street” and was held in police custody for a few hours. By 1 am, the police had no choice but to let her go; she had not committed a crime and they needed the space. With a flippant “Goodnight, old cock,” Catherine left the station in the direction of Aldgate.

Catherine Eddowes’ body was identified by John Kelly who recognised her description in a newspaper. Three witnesses claim to have seen her alive at 1:35 am talking to a man at the entrance to a passage leading to Mitre Square. In less than ten minutes she was dead. The murderer was never caught.

 

“City policemen murdered by alien burglars … who are these fiends in human shape?”
– The Daily Graphic, 1910

The next significant event in the history of the City of London Police is known as the Houndsditch Murders. On the evening of 16th December 1910, strange noises were heard coming from a house in Houndsditch. The police were called and arrived to discover a Latvian gang attempting to rob a jeweller’s shop. Armed with whistles and truncheons, the police entered the house and were promptly shot at by the gang. On that night, three policemen were killed and a further two injured.

Sergeant Robert Bentley had joined the City Police in 1898 and was only 36 years old when he was shot twice by one of the gang leaders. Although he was rushed to St Bartholomew’s Hospital, he died the following day – the day before the birth of his second child.

Sergeant Charles Tucker was due to retire after 26 years in the City of London Police. Sadly, he shared the fate of Sergeant Bentley and died from two gunshot wounds. The third victim, PC Walter Charles Choat, died from multiple wounds after he caught and held onto the gang leader, George Gardstein. Choat was only 34 years old.

George Gardstein was later discovered at a house in Stepney. He had been injured during the gunfire and the police had been tipped off by his doctor. By the time the police arrived at the house, however, Gardstein had died from his injuries. They were none the wiser as to the whereabouts of the other gang members and the Commissioner Captain Sir William Nott-Bower (1849-1939) issued a reward for any information.

 

Gradually the police began to locate all the gang members and on 2nd January 1911, they tracked down the final two to a house in Sidney Street. Knowing they were soon to be caught, the gang members refused to surrender and an armed siege followed. As the Home Secretary, Winston Churchill (1874-65) brought in the Scots Guards to assist the police, however, this encouraged the gang members to begin firing guns at the police on the street below. As a result, the house caught fire and both gang members died.

Despite the murders of three policemen, the remaining members of the gang were released from prison after their trial concluded there was not enough evidence to convict them. This led to debates about immigration but, most importantly, caused the police to think about the suitability of their weapons.

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War brought a series of challenges to the City of London Police. During the First World War (1914-18), bombing was a constant threat. It caused devastation in the City and many people were injured or killed. Unfortunately, many officers had joined up with the armed forces, leaving very few behind to cope with policing the Square Mile. Luckily, the Commissioner had the foresight to set up a First Police Reserve made up of retired policemen, plus a Second Police Reserve of younger, healthy men. These Reserve Forces went on to become the City of London’s Special Constabulary, providing extra assistance where it was needed.

Each member of the Reserve Forces was identified by Gold Bullion hat badges. They all contained the City Police logo and the motto Domine Dirige Nos (Lord Guide Us), however, the colour differed depending on the wearer’s rank. Red was used to identify a Constable, blue for a Sergeant and white for an Inspector.

Unfortunately, the year after the First World War was just as challenging. Policemen throughout the country were going on strike over salaries. Many of these policemen were then dismissed by their Commissioners. Although a committee was eventually established to address the situation and support pay increases, policemen were not allowed to form a union.

 

A policeman’s job could often be dangerous, however, they still had time for fun and games. The City Police were encouraged to take part in sport and they soon formed a successful Tug of War team. The team was so good that they entered the Olympic games, winning their first gold medal for Great Britain in 1908. Members of the City Police also won medals for heavyweight boxing (gold) and heavyweight wrestling (bronze).

Tug of War was only an Olympic event for six games, however, the police managed to win medals in two more games: silver in 1912 (Stockholm) and gold in 1920 (Antwerp). Although the event no longer features at the Games, the City of London Police continue to have a representative, for example, Pc Kate Mackenzie who represented Britain in the Rowing Ladies 8’s in 2000.

 

The Second World War had similar effects on the City Police as the First: officers were limited and the War Reserve Forces were once again heavily relied upon. During 1940, there were 57 consecutive nights of air raids. Over 300 people died and thousands were injured, leaving the Reserve Forces with more work than they could handle.

Approximately one-third of the City was destroyed in the Blitz and many police officers who had joined the army never came home. To cope with these challenges, the City of London Police embraced rapidly developing technologies to improve the way they worked.

Before the wars, the police relied on word of mouth and the postal system to pass messages between their teams. Eventually, they embraced the telegraph system and by the early 1900s had set up their telephone line. It was not until the 1950s that technology really began to improve methods of communication. The City Police began using walkie talkies to talk to colleagues, which sped up the process of reporting crimes and important matters. These machines, however, were not easy to use and were difficult to carry around but, in the 1960s, the police upgraded to the more efficient pocket phone and radio.

Another change brought on by the Second World War was the introduction of women to the City Police. In 1949, one woman sergeant and six female police constables were recruited to the City Police to help with staff shortages. Some of these women had been involved with the Women’s Auxiliary Police Corps during the war and were no strangers to carrying out vital work and driving police vehicles. Nonetheless, women were expected to deal with cases involving only women and children. It was not until the 1970s that women police officers were involved in all areas of policing.

“If you commit a crime in the city, expect to be caught.”

In the past five decades, policing techniques have developed so much that they are unrecognisable from the original force set up in 1839. London is now a leading financial centre and world-class tourist destination, coping with 10 million inhabitants and visitors every day. The City of London Police have their work cut out with high profile events as well as keeping the peace in the City. With the rise of digital technology, the police are also tackling economic crimes, cybercrime and fraud on a daily basis. Terrorism is also an ever-present threat.

The City of London Police Museum provides examples of fraudulant banknotes, examples of riots and terrorist attacks, including a can of Keen’s Genuine Imperial Mustard that the Suffragettes once turned into a homemade bomb.

Whilst the amount of cybercrime has increased over the past decade, the police have been able to use technology to their advantage. CCTV helps keep track of the goings-on in the City and can be vital evidence in investigations. The museum provides visitors with the opportunity to identify suspects by asking them to find each person in a series of grainy shots. This reveals how difficult it is for the human eye to identify someone who they have only seen for a matter of seconds. Fortunately, facial recognition technologies are proving extremely helpful in this task.

 

The museum ends with a line up of police uniforms from the early 1800s until the late 1900s. Uniform has always been an important aspect because it ensures they are recognisable and also offers them some form of protection. The earlier uniforms were based on the fashion styles of the time and were not as practical as the bulletproof vests police officers wear today.

The original City of London Police uniform was blue to differentiate them with the red of the army. It contained a stiff, high neck to prevent criminals from garrotting police officers, which was a common form of attack at the time. Different police ranks had slightly different uniforms, however, they all wore a top hat, which could also serve as a step when necessary.

The top hat was the most impractical aspect of the uniform and was replaced in 1865 with a helmet. Based on the look of ancient Greek helmets, the new helmets protected the neck, eyes and ears as well as the head. Police also stopped wearing tailcoats, which helped to differentiate them from other men who wore similar coats.

When women became part of the police force they needed a uniform tailored to their own bodies. The second version of the women’s uniform is the more famous, designed by Sir Normal Hartnell (1901-79) in 1969. Hartnell is most famous for designing the wedding dress of Princess Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth II). The women’s uniform included a white blouse with blue polka dots and a black handbag.

As time goes on, uniforms will continue to evolve to be appropriate to the contemporary world. Today, police tend to wear a less formal uniform during the day and only wear their smart coats and shirts to important events and ceremonial occasions.

“I, … … … … of City of London Police do solemnly and sincerely declare and affirm that I will well and truly serve the Queen in the office of Constable, with fairness, integrity, diligence and impartiality, upholding fundamental human rights and according equal respect to all people; and that I will to the best of my power cause the peace to be kept and preserved and prevent all offences against people and property; and that while I continue to hold the said office I will to the best of my skill and knowledge discharge all the duties thereof faithfully according to law.”
– The Constable’s Oath

The City of London Police Museum is an excellent source of information about the history of the police force that has looked after the “Square Mile” for almost two centuries. Although they only cover a tiny area, their presence is needed in the heart of the capital of London to keep citizens safe. When walking through London, there is a high chance of coming across a police officer on duty. They may not appear to be doing anything significant at the time but we remain grateful that they are there, protecting the heart of London.

The City of London Police Museum is free to enter and can be found next to the Guildhall Library.

2 thoughts on “The World’s Smallest Police District

  1. Very interesting and a great exposition of the work of the City of London Police and their history. They deserve out greatest respect and thanks. Thank you once again Hazel.

  2. “A copper for your thoughts?” Well this article was incredible. So well written and Hazel just brings the museum to life. I’ve no idea how she can find so much to write about. Once again a masterpiece. Thank you for sharing your amazing talents.

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