This month, a new display appeared at the Museum of London Docklands looking at the history of the Thames River Police. Judging by the description of it on the museum’s website, it sounded like a major new exhibit – and this would be appropriate, given the long history of the Thames River Police, or Marine Police, which was founded in Wapping in 1798.
However, if you’re expecting a lot, like I was, you might be disappointed. After immediately visiting usual ground floor exhibition space only to find it dark and empty, I was redirected by a member of staff to the second floor – but I had already visited this, and hadn’t spotted anything about the police. On looking round the floor again, twice, I found the display, and understood why I missed it. There is nothing directing you to it; and it comprises a single display board (albeit a fairly large one) and one artefacts display case at the side of it.
The artefacts include a copy of the Metropolitan Police Act of 1829; a copy of Patrick Colquhoun’s treatise, which inspired the creation of the police (he first published it in 1796, although the copy here is from the 6th edition); a police seal, hangar, scabbard, tipstaff, rattle and handcuffs, all dating from the first quarter of the 19th century,
Sources for these artefacts are the Thames Police Museum, the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and the West India Committee (the latter having curated the display); but placed separately like this, they actually lose something – I felt I understood more about the Marine Police from my visit to the Thames Police Museum, where the curator talked me through the history and artefacts, in the police’s actual base.
The display board is nicely designed, with its focal point being a map of the Port of London, from the city, out east to the mouth of the Thames. But understandably, given its size, it has to limit the amount of information it tells you: so there’s a brief mention of the 1798 Dung Wharf riot, and the inevitable paragraph on the Ratcliff Highway murders of 1811.
There’s better mention of Patrick Colquhoun than of John Harriott, the JP who devised a plan to police Thames shipping in 1797. It was Harriott’s plan that led Colquhoun to convince the West India merchants’ and planters’ committees to finance a year’s trial of this new police force, initially known as the West India Merchants Company Marine Police Institute – a trial which became a two year one, before, in 1800, government made the Marine Police a public police force under the control of the Home Secretary (see here for more on its early history).
I understand that this display is part of a larger project by the West India Committee to uncover the ‘little known shared heritage of the Caribbean and police services today’, and utilises its own archival resources. Yet given the Thames Police Museum’s own collection and expertise, it just feels like a wasted opportunity to publicise the history of the River Police to a wider audience, and to go into more detail about why it was set up, and the relationship between the police and the men they dealt with.
The West India Committee, meanwhile, claims on its website simply that it ‘founded… the Thames Police’ and that ‘West Indians ran, staffed and funded the force’, with its phrasing suggesting that West Indians were doing so prior to 1839. These claims (and potential differentiation between initiating an organisation, founding it, and funding it) deserved more detail than the limited information provided on the display board (I would have particularly have liked more detail on the Committee’s involvement with Colquhoun) – and the artefacts displayed fail to make any link to the West India Committee outside of them being simply police artefacts.
The Museum acknowledges that most people assume that the Metropolitan Police was the start of ‘modern’ policing in London, when actually, the Thames River Police is the longest, continuously serving police force not only in London, but in the world. I’m not sure the display is clear enough about its remit, and because of this, it frustrates by the bite-size pieces of information it offers visitors.
West Indians: Forefathers of the Metropolitan Police? runs at the Museum of London Docklands until 14 January 2018