David Wells of the West India Committee considers the Thames River Police and the origins of modern policing

The Metropolitan Police, founded by Robert Peel in 1829, proudly styled themselves as the ‘new force,’ yet in reality. this was an overstatement. They defined themselves as first and foremost a preventative police force, using men drawn from the local community for law enforcement. However, another police force was already in existence, founded by West Indian merchants. Created in 1798, over 30 years before The Met, it already employed the principles of crime prevention with a record of proven success. The story of the Thames River Police reveals not only the forgotten history of modern policing, but hidden links between policing and the Caribbean, as well.

In the last years of the eighteenth century, crime on London’s River Thames was rife. Ships from all over the world came to the Pool of London, a stretch of the river located between London Bridge and Limekiln Creek, to unload cargo. Amongst the most highly-prized of these commodities were those from the West Indies, such as coffee, rum and, predominantly, sugar. With many hundreds of ships packed into a small space, and with goods being unloaded and placed on a flotilla of small boats to be carried to the quays, the port was chaotic, providing many opportunities for theft.

In his studies of crime and policing in London, Patrick Colquhoun, a magistrate originally from Scotland, identified many different types of criminals operating on the river, with strange names such as the Light-Horsemen, Heavy-Horsemen and Scufflehunters. He estimated that the total loss to West Indian trade from theft could have been as much as £232,000 a year, approximately £27 million today. This represented a huge financial loss, not only for West Indian Merchants and Planters but also for the revenue through lost customs duties. The river had long possessed a reputation for criminality, and though there was some rudimentary law enforcement, it was highly inefficient and often corrupt, with many constables and watchmen either turning a blind eye or being criminal gang members themselves. The situation was not helped by the fact that many river workers believed that custom allowed them to take a portion of the goods that they unloaded.

The West India Committee, composed of West Indian Merchants and Planters living in London, wished to adopt a method of reducing crime levels; their previous attempts of offering rewards for convictions having failed. To this end, they contacted Patrick Colquhoun in late 1797. His 1796 Treatise on the Police of the Metropolis  not only identified the types of crime affecting London, but also outlined a system of preventative policing to combat such felonies.

In the first six months of 1798, Colquhoun and the West India Committee devised a suitable plan for a preventative marine police force to protect West Indian trade, enlisting the help of merchant, ex-sailor and Justice of the Peace, John Harriott. This was approved by the Duke of Portland, the Home Secretary, and was implemented in July 1798. The new force operated out of the Marine Police Office at No.259 Wapping New Stairs, which sat in the middle of the Pool of London. Primarily financed by the West India Committee with some governmental support, the Marine Police employed officers who were sailors and boatmen from the river community, and who had the necessary skills to patrol in rowing galleys whilst being aware of issues affecting the Thames.

The Marine Police had an immediate effect, and were lauded for cutting river crime considerably in the first few months, not just reducing thefts from West Indian ships but also intercepting stolen cargo. However, some were displeased at the new force’s success, particularly the river workers who felt aggrieved of being deprived of what they felt was their customary right to take some goods as a perquisite of the job. This resulted in a riot at the Marine Police Office in October 1798 in which one rioter and a police officer were killed. The Marine Police were undeterred by the incident and proved to be so efficient that in 1800 they were fully adopted by the government, with a new mandate to protect all trade on the river. They were also given a new name, the Thames River Police, by which they have been popularly known ever since.

The need for an effective preventative force on land became apparent during the Ratcliffe Highway murders of 1811, when the Thames River Police secured the murder weapon at the first crime scene and patrolled the streets of Wapping to protect the public. Eventually the calls for police reform led to the creation of the Metropolitan Police, founded on the same principles that the Thames Police had already demonstrated to be beneficial in combatting crime.

The Thames River Police continued to exist as a separate force until 1839, when they joined the Metropolitan Police as Thames Division, though they still remained a distinct Unit until the end of the twentieth century, coping with such incidents as the sinking of the Princess Alice  in 1878, the worst maritime disaster on the Thames with the loss of over 600 lives. During the World Wars they had to deal with the effects of both blackouts and bombings, rescuing people from heavily damaged riverside buildings and ships. The last quarter of the twentieth century was marked by the Marchioness  disaster of 1989, the worst accident on the Thames since the sinking of the Princess Alice . Thanks to the quick reaction of the Thames River Police, 51 lives were saved.

The Thames River Police were renamed The Marine Policing Unit in 2001 and, though the Docklands have declined, they continue to protect people and property  on the river. Still based on the same site in Wapping in London’s East End as they have been since 1798, the Thames River Police are recognised by UNESCO as the oldest continuously serving police force in the world and must be regarded as the forgotten forerunners of the Metropolitan Police and modern policing.


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