Police news: slavery era origins of the London plod

IT seemed like a good week to revisit the birthplace of the capital’s constabulary, a brick-built pile wedged between the converted warehouses of Wapping High Street and backed by a pier jutting into the Thames.

Welcome to the headquarters of London’s Marine Policing Unit, nicking waterborne villains since 1798, three decades before the establishment of the Metropolitan Police amid much kerfuffle over whether the latter would impinge on civil liberties.

Until the dawn of the 19th century the metropolis had depended on a localised system of part-time parish constables and night watchmen – often old but always drunk – to guard property and keep the public peace.

Sir Robert Peel, the Home Secretary of the day, is usually credited for replacing this ad hoc set-up by establishing the first modern police force.

The truth is that a bunch of slavery era entrepreneurs got there before him.

The slave plantation owners and merchants of the recently formed West India Committee, dedicated to preserving the institution of slavery in the face of do-gooding abolitionists, had the bright idea of establishing a permanent police force to patrol the Thames. The aim was to prevent the growing number of thefts from unprotected vessels transporting the wealth of the Caribbean to the capital of the empire.

A prime mover was Glasgow-born Patrick Colquhoun, who began his career as a 16-year-old apprentice among the plantations of colonial Virginia and went on to make his fortune and fame as one of the Scottish city’s Tobacco Lords.

The initiative was only partially successful. As the London docks expanded in the coming century, thefts and petty pilfering from the stores remained an integral part of dockland life until they finally closed in the 1980s. It was seen by dock and river workers as semi-legitimate compensation for an insecure, casualised work regime that would have made Deliveroo blush.

In the age of Peel and Colquhoun, those with money and status were becoming increasingly disturbed by the emergence of an uppity proletariat. Until the late 18th century, however, high society rejected the concept of a permanent police force as an authoritarian idea better suited to the French.

That attitude began to change after the Gordon Riots of June, 1780 when tens of thousands of the lower orders took to the streets and brought London to a standstill in a wave of ostensibly anti-Catholic riots.

Among the anti-papist hordes, however, was a fair sprinkling of dangerous radicals, some of whom supported the rebellion of the American colonists. The rioters, who targeted symbols of the institutions of the state – the Bank of England, the House of Commons and Newgate prison – came to be known as “King Mob”.

As Edmund Burke, the politician and philosopher who sat in the House said: “Wild and savage insurrection quitted the woods, and prowled about our streets in the name of reform.”

As revolution subsequently erupted across the Channel, fear among the “haves” of the threat posed by the “have-nots” was to overcome their reservations about restricting the inherent rights of every free-born Englishman. The era of modern policing, first the Marine Police and then the Met in 1829 into which the former was incorporated, was born.

In exchange for their guinea-a-week wages, London’s first coppers were to protect the property of those who possessed it from an unruly proletariat who didn’t and from which they themselves had been recruited.

The them-and-us, property-focused origins of policing help to explain the ingrained antipathy and suspicion towards the rozzers that persists to this day among what’s left of London’s working class.

Modern criticism of the Met focuses rightly on the widespread misogyny and racism within the force. In earlier times, suspicion was founded rather on the often justified perception that half the Met was on the take.

Growing up in southeast London in the 1950s, there was an unspoken rule in the most upstanding families that the police were a last resort. Better to sort out problems within the community rather than belling 999.

Some units were best avoided altogether. Deptford, Peckham and Carter Street nick in Walworth always figured high on the list.

Local coppers were always assumed to be on the lookout for a “drink”, maybe to turn a blind eye to illegal off-track betting or the frequent appearance of dodgy gear being flogged on the streets.

The local publican was turned over one night by the boys in blue, who demanded £50 to forget about a camera he had that they claimed was stolen.

It was the early-1970s, a time when the excesses of the London constabulary was prompting demands for a clean-up. In an atmosphere of moral panic about the state of the police, a reforming Met Commissioner, Robert Mark, set about the task, noting that “a good police force is one that catches more crooks than it employs.”

Our publican friend was approached by Mark’s newly-formed anti-corruption unit A10, better known as the rubber heel squad, whose job was to root out dodgy coppers. (Some of their successors were themselves investigated a few years ago for protecting crooked colleagues).

I met a couple of the rubber heelers when the publican took a bunch of us to a slap-up West End dinner. He regarded it as an investment to keep them onside. But I’m not sure he ever got his 50 quid back.