Today (July 2) in London History – London’s First Police Force

The first professional police force in London – the Thames River Police – got started on July 2, 1798. This Today in London History podcast tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

The Oxford English dictionary defines history as “the narration, representation, or study of events or phenomena.” Which pleases me no end. Pleases me because I often begin my Hampstead walk by saying, “the most important event in London’s history took place 750,000 years ago. And that’s by way of saying, the river Thames used to flow several miles north of here, through what is today called the Vale of St. Albans. A glacier – and we’re talking about a big ice cube here – we’re talking about a mountain of ice a mile high – diverted the Thames down to its present location. Is that important? Look, no Thames, no London. It’s as simple as that.

And I’m always aware when I put it that way, that if you plump for a narrower definition of history – for example, “A written narrative constituting a continuous chronological record of important or public events (esp. in a particular place) or of a particular trend, institution, or person’s life” – and if written records are a fundamental building block of history, well, there were no written records produced 750,000 years ago. We’re not even sure there were human beings here 750,000 years ago. At least permanently here. Twelve years ago archaeologists in Norfolk found flint tools that dated to about 900,000 years ago. The people who used them were early humans – known as hominoids. But they will have been itinerants, tourists who rolled up in warmer eras between ice ages. So, in that narrower sense – important public events for which there was a written record – something that happened 750,000 years doesn’t qualify as history. And that’s why I’m pleased that first definition of history in the Oxford English Dictionary is “the narration, representation, or study of events or phenomena.” In those terms the action of that glacier – diverting the Thames to its present location – does count as history. And beyond question, it’s the most important event in London’s history. I would of course say there is a written record. That history is written in the landscape. The course of the Thames. The bowl of hills that London nestles in. The bowl of hills carved out, over aeons, by the Thames. And known as the Thames River Valley. I make the point that up in Hampstead we are in effect ridge walking, we’re moving along on part of the northern rim of that bowl of hills.

Anyway, so much for definitions, so much for the start of my favourite London Walk of all – Old Hampstead Village and Hampstead Heath. 

I brought all of that up because making that point about the most important event in London’s history being that glacier’s diverting the Thames to its present location and no Thames no London, well, a statement like that has the impact of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.

No Thames, no London you’re on your way – up ahead, you haven’t glimpsed it yet but I have, up ahead is something that happened, something that got started, on this day, July 2nd, 1798 in London history. Something that reinforces that fundamental point about London’s history – the quintessential importance of the Thames to this town. We’ll get there. But first, let’s just row this boat a little bit further. Row it by reading a couple of favourite passages. And no apologies thereof, I mean after all, I do introduce this podcast by saying, storytime. 

So first, here’s a fascinating couple of grafs Michael Hebbert penned nearly 30 years ago…[here I read those two paragraphs].

Magnificent stuff. Thank you very much Michael Hebbert.

And here’s another short read. This is me, David. These are the words that open the London Walks book – London Walks, London Stories. The opening chapter – no surprise, this – is called Thamesis, the which is the ancient name for the River Thames.

Five short paragraphs. Here we go: [here I read the first five chapters of the Thamesis chapter in London Walks London Stories].

And all of that’s by way of a scene-setter for Today in London History. July 2nd. July 2nd, 1798. 

Day One of the Marine Police who became the Thames River Police, the first professional police force In London. 

Policing in London – like London itself – is a legendarily complicated matter. There’s not even a simple answer to the simple question, how many police forces does London have? One list would say, the Met – Scotland Yard, in other words – the City of London Police, British Transport Police and the Ministry of Defence Police.

But I’m tempted to lengthen that list out by adding the Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection force – they guard embassies (and Parliament) and, yes,  they fall within the Specialist Operations directorate of Scotland Yard but they’ve got a lot of autonomy so it’s tempting to think of them as, in many respects, a separate police force. 

And ditto the Thames River Police, known today, officially, as the Marine Policing Unit. What a task they’ve got. They have responsibility for the 47 miles of the Thames between Hampton Court in the West and Dartford Creek in the east. 

As for their earliest beginnings, their history, they were started because the world’s largest port – the Pool of London – was plagued with thefts. Merchants were losing an estimated half a million pounds a year of cargo from ships docked in the Pool of London. It was walking, disappearing, stolen. In today’s money, that’d be nearly 60 million pounds down the tubes. West Indian planters and merchants were persuaded to stump up for the Marine Police to try to staunch the flow. So, essentially it was a private police force in those earliest days. 

It’s a great London story in so many ways. Not the least of which is the begetter was a Scot named Patrick [Kahoon] Colquhoun. Therein lies a point that cannot be overemphasised. London is a city of immigrants. It’s a city founded by immigrants – the Romans. And peopled by immigrants. Today, something like 37 per cent of Londoners were born abroad. And a lot of those immigrants – our Scotsman Patrick [Kahoon] Colquhoun being one of them – have made a huge difference. They’ve been the making of this town.

And the final point – the biggest takeaway nugget – that the first London police force should be a Thames police force, well, that’s exactly what you’d expect of a river town, of a city that wouldn’t exist were it not for its river. 

Now, Today in London. I’ve already recommended the Thames River Police Museum once in this Today in London History Podcast series. And here I’m going to break my rule – the rule being do a different-recommendation-every-day. I’m going to break it because how can I not – on the day London’s first police force – the Thames River Police – came into existence – how can I not recommend their museum. And you know something, there’s such a thing as leap year. So counting leap year we’ll still make 365 different Today in London recommendations in this series. Be of good cheer, All is not lost.

You’ve been listening to the Today in London History podcast. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. And that’s by way of saying, Good Londoning one and all. Nothing to add except… Welcome back! You were sorely missed. See ya tomorrow.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *