Report of the Society’s Visit to the Thames River Police Museum at Wapping

On 26 March, fifteen Members and guests visited the Thames River Police Museum at Wapping, where they were entertained by Rob Jeffries, the honorary curator.  A retired River Police Officer, he demonstrated his second career skill as a museum curator and raconteur, giving some interesting stories about life in Wapping during the 19th century.

The Thames River police predates the Metropolitan Police by 31 years having been formed in 1794. Indeed, Wapping was the first police station in the world.   At that time, there was only 1419 feet of legal quayside in London so most ships were moored in the river and hand unloaded, by 'lumpers', into barges (lighters).  They received little if any wages but in return they received 'perks of the job', otherwise known today as pilfering. Although it was accepted practice, it was discovered that it was costing the importing merchants £500,000 a year (£35 million at today's values).  The merchants were then persuaded, albeit with much difficulty, to create a river police force. The government paid for the magistrates, whose role was somewhat different to today's magistrates, but the merchants had to fund the men. As 50% of the losses were connected with the West India trade the first police force dealt solely with that area and went under the verbose title of West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute.  Success led to expansion and reorganisation, but even with the creation of the Metropolitan Police in 1829, the River Police were kept separate, like the Bow Street Runners.  Today, they are known as the Marine Police Unit (MPU) of the Metropolitan Police, covering the River Thames from Teddington to Dartford Creek, but still colloquially referred to as the River Police

Not surprisingly, the early clamp down on the perks of the job did not go down well and led to a riot in 1798 during which a police officer was shot dead: the first ever recorded police death.

The museums collection is large but very esoteric, being of particular interest to people with a focussed and dedicated interest in the River Police.  Some items are more like memorabilia rather than artefacts of a historic or cultural interest and it is easy to overlook its 'treasures'.  One such treasure is the flag from the Princess Alice; the passenger vessel that met with disaster in 1878 with the loss of over 650 lives.  A few days after the vessel sank, the son of the dead Master and brother of the Engineer, retrieved the flag from the vessel for the family.  That son went on to join the River Police and although the vessel's ensign was passed on from one generation to another within his family, it was eventually presented to the Thames Police Museum.   Another quirky exhibit is a lump of clay!  When the new London Bridge was being built in 1973, this piece of clay was saved from the base of the excavation, some 86 feet down!

What's there for genealogists? A treasure trove of names.  The museum is home to a number of ledgers and documents;  log books, punishment books, prisoner property books etc.  Surprisingly, the names in them have been indexed, but it isn't clear how comprehensive that index is and neither is it available for public access.

Sadly, when Rob Jeffries finally retires, there doesn't appear to be anyone sufficiently interested to take over this voluntary role and the museum contents are likely to be dispersed.  Those ledgers and the name index would be a valuable addition to our library and it might be advisable to reach an agreement now, with the Museum administrators (The Thames Police Association), to secure their future - and to give Rob Jeffries some comfort that at least that part of his treasured collection will be well cared for in perpetuity.

The Thames River Police Museum is located at Wapping Police Station on Wapping High Street London E1 and is only open by prior appointment.

Their web site is http://www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk

They can only be contacted be e-mail to: curator@thamespolicemuseum.org.uk

 

-Barry Hepburn

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