History Of the River Police

I don’t know haw many of you watched the ‘Flotilla’ or river pageant for the Jubilee celebrations in London, but if you did then you will have almost certainly seen the Thames River Police at work. I myself was sitting opposite here in Rotherhithe at the Angel Pub and saw a pleasure boat try to turn back upstream right in front of this building. Needless to say the boats of the Thames River Police swarmed around it and persuaded it to carry on downstream.

In 1799 Parliament passed an act allowing work to commence on the building of docks in the area that we now calldocklands. The reason for this was that trade in Georgian Britain had expanded so much that facilities, and crucially protection, was needed for ships when they docked loaded with goods from all over the world. Around a half a million pounds worth of goods were being stolen, an enormous amount in today’s money although low pay meant that many of the 33,000 dock workers felt this was part of their pay. Much of it was being lost by the West India Merchant’s Company.

river police station

River Police Station

You can visit various parts of the river on our Classic Tours of London

Even before this act, Ex master and JP John Harriot and Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun proposed a police force of fifty men with premises right here paid for by the company. It cost about £4,200 to set up and was judged a success when it prevented £122,000 worth of pilfering.The force they created prefigured the Metropolitan Police by thirty years so it is interesting to note the police as we know it was created to prevent commercial crime. Not surprisingly it was unpopular and in the first year a mob of 2000 dockers attacked the station here and tried to burn it down. The officers fought back bravely and saved the station but Gabriel Franks was shot and killed, thus becoming the first British police casualty.
In 1839 they were subsumed into the new Met Police Force and re-names Thames Division.

Todays ‘Marine Police Unit’ covers not only the Thames but also small rivers, canals, lakes, docks and reservoirs which as well as having safety issues attract criminal activity. Some of the boats used bear the names John Harriot and Patrick Colquhoun. The old building here has a morgue as bodies are often recovered and a museum that can be visited by appointment.
If you want to get a feel for the operations and life of the modern Marine Police Unit as it is snow called you can read William Boyd’s excellent 2009 novel Ordinary Thunderstorms which features a Marine Policewoman working the Thames.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

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