WHITECHAPEL SOCIETY INTERIM EVENT
BY TONY POWER
When we arranged to visit the River Police Museum in Wapping earlier in the year, we had no idea that we would all still have an interest in the World Cup—how wrong we were!! While England’s unexpected progress did have an inevitable effect on our numbers, a small intrepid band of enthusiastic explorers gathered outside Whitechapel station for what would prove to be a fascinating afternoon: an hour or two at the Thames River Police Museum, followed by a swift exit to one of the local hostelries to catch as much as we could of the England match.
The first thing to say about the museum is that it is only open four days a year and two of those days are part of the London Open House Weekend in September, so it’s best not to just turn up and hope for the best—you will need to know when it’s open. It’s located in Wapping, close to the Underground station, and around a hundred or so yards from a rather striking modern building that is decorated with white mouldings made of glass-reinforced plastic. It’s situated in what was once an old riverside house, that was bought in the 18th century, and converted into a workshop within the headquarters of the Metropolitan Police’s Marine Police Unit. It’s quite a compact space, but a lot of history has been crammed into it, and to quote from their website, this includes:
“… uniforms and documents, which trace the history of the Thames River Police from its inception in 1798 to the present day. There is also a fine collection of the everyday “Hardware” of policing from handcuffs to cutlasses”.
The River Police were one of the first uniformed forces in the world, and while it was a government body, it was funded by the shipping companies who were losing huge amounts of stock to pilfering locals at the time. The cost of setting up this force was £4,200 but within the first six months of its existence, it had managed to save local merchants over £122,000 as well as saving several lives! In fact, it was so successful that the local criminal populace rioted outside the station to protest their loss of earnings! Mr. John Harriott, confronted the crowd with armed officers and read the Riot Act to them ( and yes there really was one!) They refused to disperse, and a bullet was discharged hitting Master Lumper, Gabriel Franks, who later died of his injuries. The crowd were dispersed by further gunfire and many arrests followed.
Of the many interesting items in the museum was the original flag from the Princess Alice Disaster of 1865, in which six-hundred-and-fifty souls perished. The disaster was the greatest loss of life on the River and was one in which Elizabeth Stride famously claimed to have lost her husband, (although this is widely disputed). Another link to the Whitechapel Murders was the fact that the photographer who took the mortuary pictures of the Ripper victims was due to be on board the Princess Alice on the day of the disaster but was called away to a family event.
The highlight of the afternoon, however, was an opportunity to speak at some length to one of the museum curators, Richard Pattison, who had been a River Policeman since the 1970’s. He explained in detail the work of a Thames Officer and the type of things that they had to deal with. The worst of these was the recovery of dead bodies. There are around sixty bodies found in the Thames every year! This was heart breaking for him and was something that he stated he and his colleagues never got used to.
Some interesting facts he shared were; that a body floats down the Thames at a speed of seven miles an hour, and that even in the height of Summer, death due to exposure will occur in less than an hour, if the body remains submerged. In Winter, death can occur to a submerged body in a matter of minutes! Richard described the mechanics of retrieving a body. He also explained the issues that arose from contamination and how they eventually gave rise to the creation of two ‘dirty boats’ so that he and his colleagues had something in which to store the bodies as they pulled them ashore.
Richard had been heavily involved in the Marchioness Disaster in 1989, where the rescue and recovery operation was made all the more difficult by the large crowds of people that gathered on the banks. The almost permanent presence of television cameras meant that they had to be mindful of how the recovery operation was perceived. And, rather ghoulishly, bodies were still being discovered for months after the disaster.
All in all, it was a really enjoyable afternoon. If you do get a chance to visit, there are plenty of lovely old pubs in the area to refresh yourselves afterwards! The next Open Days for the museum will be Open House Weekend on Saturday 22 and Sunday 23 September and I would well-recommend a visit!