Commissioner Scrooge: Cracking Down on Drunken Excess and Snowball Fights

wreathChristmas is nigh upon us and in honour of the holidays I’ve decided to relate a few stories of (perceived) excess. I came across these incidents in the early stages of my research – a source of many stifled giggles (well, let’s be honest, snorts) in the archives – and now seems a good time to share them.

Mid-nineteenth century London policemen were not always the well-behaved civil servants they were expected to be. Many of them were farm boys unused to the strict discipline and exacting moral code of the force. For some, the temptations on offer in the capital – women, drink, nightlife – were irresistible. Bobbies were meant to be on their beats like clockwork from the moment they stepped out until the end of their shifts. They weren’t supposed to loiter and they were prohibited from taking shelter from the elements (especially in pubs). They were also forbidden from fraternizing with prostitutes, the very women they were supposed to clear from the streets. Off duty they were likewise expected to exhibit moral rectitude in every aspect of their lives. In reality, though, policemen often flouted these regulations.

Many were fired for drinking and cavorting with prostitutes – likely a great novelty to the newly arrived country lad. In January 1840 William Willison and David Davies (both of whose parents seem to have lacked imagination) were caught “out of the Section House in plain clothes in company with prostitutes drinking in a public house.” The following month James Pond, a constable in Stepney, was found “Absent from his Beat for 1 ½ hours, found in a Beer Shop.” A little while later, one of Pond’s brother officers was found “in an indecent position with a Female while on duty at 11:45pm in Brewers Lane Wapping.” All four men were dismissed, while Islington constable William Baker, found drunk on duty, was both fired and jailed for his indiscretions.[1]

MEPO 7/20, January 6 1859

MEPO 7/20, January 6 1859

The holiday season was no exception when it came to drunken foibles. The police commissioners, recognizing the propensity of their men to drink, exhorted them to behave. A few days before Christmas 1852, the commissioners “fe[lt] it necessary at this season, to repeat the caution given on former occasions against the commission of any excess of drinking by the Police,” especially while one duty.[2] Some of these appeals seem to have worked, for in January 1859, Commissioner Mayne noted in the daily orders how pleased he was that “the offence of drunkenness during the late holidays has been much less than last year!”[3]

Mayne was also a little Scrooge-like in his dislike of snowball fights. Citing a section from the 1839 Metropolitan Police Act prohibiting street nuisances, he directed his men to suppress them. Although the Act doesn’t mention snowballs specifically, my reading of the text indicates that Mayne considered them ‘missiles’, which are mentioned in the Act, and thus within the scope of police activity.[4]


Clearly the thrill of pelting someone with a snowball was too tempting for the young (one must assume boys) of the metropolis, because nearly ten years later Mayne was still waging a war against snowballs. Vigilance, he felt, was necessary to combat those wintery projectiles. So he decreed: “whenever there is snow, and it is known beforehand that the practice of Snow-Balling will take place, arrangements are to be made to prevent it!”[5]

Safe and Happy Holidays to Everyone!

[1] These examples can be found in MEPO 7/6.

[2] MEPO 7/16, 21 December 1852.

[3] MEPO 7/20, 6 January 1859.

[4] MEPO 7/16, 19 January 1855.

[5] MEPO 7/25, 29 December 1864.

** 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


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