You are here:: London - 1800s Crime and Vice East End Policing in the 19th Century

East End Policing in the 19th Century

By the year 1820 it was estimated that in London, of a population of a million people, there were at least 30,000 thieves operating who annually stole property valued at two million pounds. Statistics revealed that crime had increased 41 per cent in seven years. Murder was becoming common place, in Shadwell alone in 1811 there were six unsolved murders, then came the horrifying Ratcliffe Highway murders.
The planners for the New Police aimed to create seventeen Divisions to Police London, the City of London not being included. The two joint Commissioners of the new Metropolitan Police Richard Mayne and Colonel Charles Rowan decided to raise a force of 3,350 Officers and men. A Division would consist of a Superintendent, four Inspectors, sixteen Sergeants and 144 Constables.
On 29th September, 1829, A.B.C.D.E. and F Divisions were operational and on 1st February, 1830 G.H.J.K.L.M. and N were in existence. It did not take the Commissioners long to realise that the idea of a standard strength of the Divisions was impractical. For example by June 1830 ‘K’ the Stepney Division, had the strength of 297 men, a number in excess of the original establishment.
It is no wonder that more men were needed in the East End when one authority wrote of the 1840's. There were plague spots, where herded together the vilest and lowest of the criminal fraternity - men, women and children - could be found. The Police did their best but there were places, where, if an officer dared to walk alone, he carried his life in his hands and where double patrols were the merest precaution. Such a spot was Ratcliffe Highway, running into the heart of Dockland. Its cosmopolitan inhabitants found their prey in the sailors, exuberant with freedom and flushed with money after a long voyage. Beer shops, dancing saloons, opium dens, lodging houses and gambling halls drew the pigeon and the hawks. No reputable person, man or woman, would pass through the streets.
Far into the night pandemonium reigned, a street fight where belts, knives and bludgeons were used were no uncommon occurrence' Time and time again the Police were assaulted, yet they made headway. Even as late as 1870, the Superintendent in charge of 'H' Division stated "Assault on Police was more frequent on this than any other Division", perhaps the area was too poor to support them. The Superintendent during this time was advised by the Yard to pay particular attention to the sale of wild birds in Club Row, Petticoat Lane and the Whitechapel Markets.
The Protection racket was worked in the Whitechapel area in the 1880's. A gang known as the Bessarabians, demanded tribute from a Jewish shopkeeper named Kikal. He refused to pay up and set about the gangsters with an axe.
The local people who had been intimidated by the gangs were so inspired by his example that they set up their own vigilante group for the mutual protection of the weak. But we find a few weeks later the Vigilantes under the name of Odessians were themselves demanding money with menaces. The climax came when the two gang met in a hall over the York Minster Public House in Philpot Street. It is said thai some 200 people fought over the spoils of the 'Racket', Kid McCoy (despite the name a Jewish Boxer), killed one of his rivals and the Police moved in. People could at last be found to testify and both gangs were smashed. Kid McCoy later went to the United States where it is said he led a decent life. But others of the gangs are said to have fled to Chicago, where they are alleged to have set up a protection racket on more fertile ground.
The Jack the Ripper murders have had dozens of films, books etc written about them that it is only necessary for me to mention them as perhaps the most notorious crimes of the 19th Century East End.
In the 1890's a notorious Westminster Gang, known as the 'Strutton Ground Boys' descended on Petticoat Lane Market one Sunday morning and demanded, 'Protection Money'. Their demands being refused, the gang rough handled both the traders and their goods, The clique departed with a warning to return if their demands were not met the next week. The 'Boys' didn't get any tribute, but they did get more than they bargained for. When the market closed the Street Traders, so incensed at their treatment, called a meeting and with their friends, set off for Westminster. Arming themselves with clubs, the angry mob descended on Strutton Ground and locating the home of the gangs proceeded to wreck them. The gang returned to find the market people in action and a fierce fight developed. Police were called and had the satisfaction of clearing up the gangs.
Mention must also be made of another illegal organisation predominant in the 1890's in their own particular field. 'The Blind Beggar Gang' - a twenty strong group of pickpockets who plied their trade in Petticoat Lane, until at last they over reached themselves and diligent observation by picked Police officers resulted in the termination of the gang's activities.
The Blind Beggar Public House is better known today for the killing within the bar of George Cornell by Ronnie Kray.
To end on a different note from 1892-1896 the Allied-Nihilist, a Pre-Revolutionary group of Russian exiles were busy formulating bomb plots. The group were not without some sort of reputation on the Continent, where they made several attempts on the lives of Statesmen and Monarchs.
In this highly civilised country the Anarchists ran a social club in Jubilee Street, Stepney, to raise money for their political activities. At one time they applied for permission to hold a public meeting in Trafalgar Square. The application was refused and returned endorsed. 'That after due consideration the application is refused". I cannot think of another country that would even have considered it. Apparently even then immigrants were treated with favourable consideration.

This article appears courtesy of the Metropolitan Police History Society ©