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Sam Plank update 42: February 2022

Home from home: police station houses, watch houses and bunks

Apologies: I somehow omitted to send out an update on 1 January 2022!

As some of you may know, I retired at the end of 2021.  My intention is to spend much more time writing my historical fiction – first to complete the Sam Plank series with “The Notes of Change” and then to embark on a new series (the Gregory Hardiman series) set in Cambridge.  However, I failed to take into account the exhaustion/inertia that hits at the end of a working life, and I have not been quite as quick off the mark with the writing as I had thought.  That said, I am making steady progress with “The Notes of Change”, even if the intended publication date of 25 February is now looking rather unlikely.  And to prove my bona fides, you have a special freebie this month: the first chapter of that book!  Click here to download a PDF – I hope you like it.

One of the main themes of this final Sam Plank outing is, of course, change – and not least the change to London’s policing.  On the evening of Tuesday 29 September 1829 the very first Metropolitan Police patrols hit the streets of (parts of) London, but it was not an absolute handover.  The system of magistrates’ constables continued for years afterwards, the two bodies of constables working alongside – and sometimes against – each other, and there were still some Bow Street Runners plying their trade (and yes, it was very much a trade: they were notorious for commanding hefty fees for their work).  But the move to regularise and standardise the policing of the capital was underway – and one of the central tenets of the new force was the idea of the station house.

To quote from the marvellous “Metropolitan Police Instruction Book” (issued to the new officers on 12 October 1829 – yes, a fortnight after they started work): “There is in every Division a Station or Watch-house, placed as conveniently for the whole, as may be. From this point all the Duty of the Division is carried on. The men belonging to each Section shall, as far as may be found practicable, lodge together near to the place of their Duty, in order to render them speedily efficient, in case the services of such as are off Duty should be required for any sudden emergency.”  This is the expression of an ideal – but bearing in mind that the Metropolitan Police Act came into force only on 19 July 1829, there had been little time to build new station houses for each division.  (Six divisions – A to F – started work on 29 September.)  As a stop-gap, the divisions shared their men around various premises, depending on what was available – and we do not always have the clear records that you might imagine a new force would have kept.

For instance, I have been trying to determine the location of the station house – or equivalent – for Division E (known as Holborn).  I have been in communication with the Metropolitan Police Heritage Society, who have the largest collection of records on the matter, and they have come to this conclusion: “In short and so far as we know, from 1829 to 1843 E Division would only have had a single station. This may have been an old parish lockup at an unknown location passed on to the Met in 1829 or the station later known as Hunter Street (the earliest newspaper reference we have to a “station house” of that name is 1839 but this does not rule out its being earlier) – the former may even have become the latter!”  And in keeping with my credo as a writer of historical fiction: if we know something, I must keep to that fact – but if we don’t know, I’m free to fill in the gaps!

I have also been trying to find – for other plot purposes – the location of the station house for Division F (Covent Garden).  I had thought it might be the famous Bow Street magistrates’ court, but it turns out that the sitting tenants – magistrates and their constables – were not much given to sharing.  And so the Met Police officers had to bunk up in the old parish watch house in the churchyard of St Paul’s in Covent Garden.  It’s a sweet little building – see the picture opposite – but I can’t imagine that it was the most practical place for constables to rest between duties.  But how thrilled was I to find this image, showing police outside the building – and how sad am I that it has been demolished and is now (I think) a bank?
An early depiciton of the first Met Police patrols - I don't think beards were mandatory!  (It might be making a contemporary comment that I have missed...)
An early copy of the "Metropolitan Police Instruction Book" - I long to see it but the Met Police archives are currently in storage
A rather (over) glamorous image of Bow Street Runners, in a painting by Peter Jackson (1922-2003)
Bow Street police office and magistrates' court as it looked in Sam's day
The quaint and bucolic watch house in Covent Garden - I'm particularly taken with the flowerpots
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