As I mentioned in a previous post, undercover work was a significant part of policing London. The only problem was that, in the beginning, undercover police had no way to properly identify themselves. They had full powers of arrest as police constables, but when not in uniform they sometimes had trouble convincing the public that they were, in fact, agents of the government. This led to troubled (yet entertaining) encounters between police and the public in nineteenth-century London.
Two men were charge at Bow Street police court in April 1830 with assaulting the superintendent of Covent Garden. Superintendent Thomas had come across one of the young men having a heated conversation with a prostitute and, as was his duty, he warned the young woman to move on. Assuming he was a random stranger, the two young men grabbed Thomas by the collar and hauled him to the nearest police station. Although Thomas protested that he was a policeman, neither man believed him. Two of Thomas’ inspectors saw the two defendants “dragging Mr. Thomas along as though he was a dog, and abusing him very grossly.” Once it was ascertained that Thomas was, indeed, the divisional superintendent both men were taken before police magistrates and charged with assault. The magistrate required each man to provide between £40 and £50 in bail as well as two sureties each at £20 and £25.
In October 1841, inspector Baker of St. James’s division was trying to control traffic in Piccadilly. Baker attempted to direct an omnibus out of a crossing that was blocked. Being in plain clothes, however, the driver refused to heed him. After a brief and acrimonious exchange of words, Baker grabbed the horses’ bridles to prevent the driver leaving before Baker could determine the cab number. According to The Times, “The defendant immediately said that if he did not let go the reins he would cut his b– hand off” and promptly lashed him with his whip. To add insult to injury, Baker’s hat was knocked off during the exchange and was flattened by the omnibus. Magistrate Hardwick fined the recalcitrant driver £2.
The final case is that of poor constable Carpenter, who was on duty detecting pickpockets at Charlton Fair in February 1852. In plain clothes – as was usual for catching pickpockets – Carpenter spotted three men canvassing the crowd, so he knelt down to get a better view of their activities. While doing so, the woman he knelt beside mistook him for a pickpocket and smacked him across the face. Although the thief was caught and confined for three months, the episode indicates the difficulties of detecting crime in plain clothes.
To avoid such violent encounters, the Metropolitan Police introduced identification for plainclothes policemen in the 1860s. This consisted of an identity card, a truncheon and a rattle (see image below) that would indicate to the public and other officers that they were official policemen.
** This post is the result of independent academic work and is intended for future publication by the author. Please do not reproduce the content of this blog in print or any other media without permission of the author (reblogs excepted). Any questions or concerns can be directed to Rachael Griffin via the Feedback page.