Protecting the Property of Slavers: London’s First State Funded Police Force

This article was originally posted on the AbolitionistFutures website in August 2021. The original can be accessed here –

A Spanish translation of this article is available here
Thanks Dani!

On January 23rd, 1798, nearly 30 years before the establishment of London’s Metropolitan Police, a meeting of the committee of the London Society of West India Planters and Merchants considered a letter from Patrick Colquhoun proposing ‘the Establishment of a marine Police Office for the prevention of River Plunder’. Less than 6 months later, on 2nd July 1798, the Marine Police Office opened at 259 Wapping New Stairs, on the Thames.

Originally from Glasgow, Colquhoun was a London merchant and magistrate. In 1796 he had published A Treatise on the Police of Metropolis which had articulated the fears that London’s business community had about the threat posed to their property by the working classes. In his book Colquhoun had focused extensively on the Port of London, which was the main entry point to Britain for foreign trade, and in particular the produce extracted from its colonies. Complaining of how the workers on the river were responsible for “immense plunder and pillage”, Colquhoun had been particularly concerned that this ‘crime’ was “deeply affecting the interest of the West-Indian-Planters” whose goods represented a quarter of the trade that passed through the port. Colquhoun’s book proved very popular among the propertied class and influenced politicians and capitalists as they sought to impose order on London’s emerging working class. 

The West India Planters and Merchants were a highly influential political lobby representing the interests of slavers in Britain’s Caribbean colonies. By the 1780s some 74 MPs were planters and the society co-ordinated their interventions in Parliament, ensuring the interests of slavers were promoted. Their wealth and power were generated by the exploitation of enslaved Africans and the Society were the most influential political advocates of both the trade in enslaved Africans and the maintenance of Britain’s Caribbean slave colonies. In the early 1790s they had successfully opposed attempts in parliament to outlaw the slave trade. 

The wages paid to those labouring on the Thames were often inadequate to live on and a tradition had developed where workers needed to raise their income to subsistence levels through ‘perquisites’ (perks). In particular it was customary that the dock workers were entitled to any spillage of cargo. Obviously with valuable goods in transit, particularly in a city characterised by great inequality of wealth, there were also enterprising folk keen to appropriate a portion of it, as it passed through the port. It is impossible to establish exactly how much ‘crime’ there was. Colquhoun portrayed it as being extensive and although he was undoubtably exaggerating, his analysis did suggest to the West Indian planters that there was an opportunity to increase their already substantial profits from slavery.

Colquhoun met with the slavers’ committee for a second time on February 2nd, having already met with the Home Secretary to obtain his political support for the planned police force. After a brief discussion it was resolved to submit Colquhoun’s plan to ‘the General Body of West Indian Merchants for their Sanctions’. Colquhoun subsequently met with Henry Dundas, the prime minister William Pitt’s closest ally and advisor, to successfully obtain his support.[1] Colquhoun had also been introduced to a Middlesex magistrate, John Harriott, who had developed his own plans for policing the Thames and the two joined forces and agreed to work together.

In the negotiations between the slavers’ committee and the government (and in the parallel discussions between Colquhoun and Dundas) two key issues needed to be determined – who would pay for the police and who would have control? Although Colquhoun was keen to legitimise the new police through an Act of Parliament – he had engaged Jeremy Bentham to draft a Bill – it was agreed in early June to proceed immediately with establishing it. With the approval of prime minister Pitt, it was agreed that the government would part-fund the establishment. Significantly, this included the salary of the two proposed magistrates.

Colquhoun and Harriott moved swiftly and within a month they had been appointed as the police-magistrates, 259 Wapping New Stairs had been leased as their new headquarters and court, and their workers recruited. This workforce covered wider functions than we would consider as police today. At its centre were Colquhoun and Harriot who exercised day-to-day executive command of the police operation as well as hearing and disposing of cases. They were supported by court and administrative staff based at 259 Wapping Stairs. The policing of the river and docks was carried out by the Surveyors’ department. Led by a Chief Surveyor, teams of Surveyors patrolled the river whilst others supervised the landing of goods. The department also included watermen, who rowed the boats; ship constables, placed on ships in dock; and land constables, based on shore. In addition Colquhoun established a Discharging Department, which directly employed dock workers to unload the slavers’ ships. Heavily supervised, subjected to routine searches, and subjected to detailed regulations (including a dress code banning clothes that could conceal goods), they were part of a highly regulated process designed to make it virtually impossible for goods to go missing. Despite the obvious advantage to ship owners, a significant proportion chose not to use this service. This suggests a desire to avoid their cargos being subjected to inspection, most likely due to smuggling and other illegal activities.

As a policing action, the Surveyors’ department was a substantial operation which swiftly and dramatically altered the social ecology of the Thames. On July 26th, just three weeks after its establishment The Times reported 

We are extremely glad to learn of the success of the New Marine Police establishment in Wapping, which offers so much accommodation as well as security to the merchants. It is astonishing the effect the Institution has already had, in preventing Piracies and Robberies, as well as Illicit Trade on the River. Instead of numbers of boats, engaged all night in various nefarious purposes, since the regular night surveys of police-boats have taken place upon Mr. COLQUHOUN”S plan, nothing is to be seen upon the river; and the saving of the Planters and Merchants, and of course the revenue, in the protection afforded to the West-Indian articles now under discharge, must amount to a very large sum.

Those who worked on the river found their vessels being routinely stopped and searched and their opportunities for informal work, legal, semi-legal and illegal were dramatically reduced. The social economy of Thames, based around long established customs, was transformed into a new political economy based around narrowly defined property rights. As Harriot explained in his autobiography, with reference to the coal-heavers, ‘these men had long been in the constant practice of each man taking his sack, containing two or three bushels of coals, whenever he went on shore from the ship he was unloading’. Under the new arrangements those who continued to do so were routinely arrested and brought before Colquhoun and Harriot as criminals. Once on trial, Harriot reported: ‘they conceived themselves to be the injured party. Custom was their invariable plea, (and so it was with every other description of working men on the river)’. The traditional ‘perks’ that had been an integrated part of workers’ wages became the theft of merchants’ private property. This transformation, long aspired to by the property owning elite, could now be rapidly advanced through the new river police.

This attack on the livelihoods of the river’s workers was not uncontested. The new political economy had to be imposed violently by both the river police and Colquhoun’s court. Initially rather than commit workers claiming their traditional perquisites to the Old Bailey for trial, Colquhoun and Harriot summarily tried and fined them. On the 17th October 1798, a few months after the river police’s establishment, a coal- heaver, Charles Eyes, appeared in court charged with stealing coal found in his possession. Outside the court, a crowd of several hundred river workers assembled to demand that Eyes was released. Their demand was ignored and Eyes was ordered to pay a fine or be imprisoned. In response the workers (described in the Times the following day as ‘a most furious and outrageous mob’) attacked the building, using cobblestones dug up from the road to smash its windows. The police responded with pistol fire, and the workers retreated after at least one of their number was shot dead. In the conflict one of the dock workers employed by the Marine police, Gabriel Franks, was also shot and died some days later. Given that the limited accounts of the conflict suggest that pistols were only used by the police, he is likely to have died from ‘friendly fire’. Nevertheless, as he had died during the ‘riot’ all who participated in the protests were potentially liable under the legal convention of ‘joint enterprise’. However, only one person, James Eyes, the brother of the coal-heaver’s whose arrest and fine had provoked the protestors, was arrested and tried for the murder of Gabriel Franks. He was found guilty and hung. As Harriot makes clear in his autobiography, the decision to only target Eyes was a strategic one, and he and Colquhoun had used the threat of further arrests and convictions to assist them in imposing their new order.

From the outset Colquhoun had been determined to make changes to the law and increase the penalties he could impose on the river’s workforce. He was limited by the provisions of previous Bumboat Acts and he continued to work with Jeremy Bentham to draft a new Act both to increase penalties and to ensure that the river police were established on a statutory basis. In 1800 Parliament passed the Bentham drafted Act for the more effectual Prevention of Depredations on the River Thames, and in its vicinity, making the river police an agency of the central state. The Discharging Department was closed and Colquhoun was appointed as Receiver for the Thames River Police. Harriott continued as a Magistrate and others were appointed to sit on the Thames Magistrates Court, which was now given jurisdiction over the whole river and the counties of Middlesex, Essex, Kent and Surrey. With their police transferred to the state, the slavers focused on the construction of their new West India Docks. These opened in 1802 offering slavers a secure dock to offload the produce of the labour of enslaved Africans. Built like a fortress, the dock’s security was enhanced by the recruitment of police constables, employed by the Thames River Police, but based in the dock and paid for by the West Indian Dock. The Thames River Police merged with the Metropolitan Police in 1839.

Most histories of the police in England start with the establishment of the Metropolitan Police in 1826 and ‘forget’ about the Thames River police. However, its establishment nearly three decades previously is important for three reasons. Firstly, the direct involvement of Colquhoun, who has been described as ‘the patron saint of the police institution’, and whose writing set out clearly how the policing of London was a class project, intended to impose a capitalist order that both projected private property and imposed wage labour on the emerging working class. Secondly, the central role played by the Society of West India Planters (whom I have more accurately referred to as the slavers) shows how it was a desire by the slavers to increase their profits, derived from the ruthless exploitation of enslaved African labour, by removing the customary rights of the labourers working the Thames. Thirdly, the role of the state in the establishment of this first English police force was highly partisan. The state worked in close co-operation with the slavers and other property owners, and utilised its power to use violence, to intervene in the established social economy of the river to restructure it to suit the interests of capitalists in general and slavers in particular. Together these show that England’s first police force was established as a tool of class domination. 

This history shows that the original English police’s purpose was to protect the wealth of slavers, created through the blood, sweat and death of Africans, and criminalised workers on the Thames who sought to retain their customary rights (and sometimes relieve their poverty with a little more). It also exposes the myth that the police were created to project or otherwise benefit the wider population. Like other criminal justice institutions the police were invented to maintain an unjust social order. Is it any surprise that they fail so spectacularly today to protect people from sexual violence or the harms of corporate criminality? 

[1] In 1792 Dundas, then the Home Secretary, had successfully proposed an amendment to Wilberforce’s parliamentary motion seeking to abolish the slave trade adding the word ‘gradually’. This had effectively deferred abolition and allowed the trade in enslaved Africans to continue. In 1798 Dundas remained a very powerful member of the cabinet holding, among others, the posts of Secretary of State for War (where he had led Britain’s war against France and the unsuccessful invasion of Haiti seeking to overturn the enslaved Africans’ revolution) and President of the Board of Control (whose responsibilities included overseeing the East Indian Company’s looting in south Asia).

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