Murder, mayhem and an unexpected brush with fashion royalty: how the City of London Police Museum is full of surprises

City of London Police

The City of London Police has been responsible for policing London’s famous Square Mile since 1839. The smallest police district in the world, it also has its very Museum – the subject of this post.

I’ll be honest: when a friend recommended the Museum to me, I couldn’t see the attraction. Could not, to be frank, imagine that a museum about policing would be very interesting. I will hold my hands up now and admit that I was wrong. Small it may be, but this Museum is perfectly formed – and I was engrossed by its contents.

Built as a timeline, the Museum begins its journey in the 18th century, well before the City of London Police came into being. A pretty lawless time, any kind of policing was carried out by a team of watchmen – renowned for their “unreliability”. This Watch and Ward system lasted until the 19th century and a number of items belonging to the watchmen are on display, including a watchman’s rattle, an 18th century watch-house day report and a beautifully decorated truncheon dating back to 1737 that was made by the Worshipful Company of Bakers.

Fast forward to 1839, and it was apparent that the system was in need of a complete overhaul. An Act of Parliament was passed, setting out rules and regulations for a new police force and outlining roles for a Commissioner and Police Committee. Together, they would oversee policing in the Square Mile and the day-to-day running of the police force. This was never going to be an easy job: not only was the City fast-becoming the financial heart of Britain; in the 19th century it also bore witness to some of the country’s most high-profile murder cases. Some of these are profiled in the Museum, and there is a particularly touching account of the last hours of Catherine Eddowes, the fourth victim of Jack the Ripper.

Catherine Eddowes
Catherin Eddowes, one of the victims of Whitechapel’s notorious Jack the Ripper

What, then, was life like for the force’s new officers, all of whom were required to live in the City so that they could respond to emergencies quickly? Before long, a lack of housing led to overcrowding and poor living conditions, so the Force’s first Commissioner, Daniel Whittle Harvey (an interesting character, famous for arguing for his superiors and being imprisoned for criticising the king), recommended building apartments for married officers and incorporating accommodation for single men into local police stations – an idea that was finally put into practice in 1908.

It’s fair to say that police officers back then did not enjoy the benefits that they do now. Those interested in joining the force were often surprised by the low wages and unhealthy accommodation on offer. Worse, any officer calling in sick with an illness not caused by the job could be fined. Fines notwithstanding, illness was rife, and the average length time officers stayed employed was four years. Conditions did improve somewhat after 1856, though, when Police Surgeon George Borlase-Childs, established a police hospital at Bishopsgate Station to care for sick officers.

Moving into the 20th century and the impact of both World Wars on the Square Mile is harrowingly documented by the Museum. World War I saw the City ravaged by bombing, with thousands of people, including officers, killed. World War Two was equally devastating: incredibly, one third of the City was destroyed by bombing and some of the consequences are documented in the Museum by a series of very moving photos taken at the time by PC Fred Tibbs and PC Arthur Cross.

The ‘Technology’ section of the Museum provides some welcome light relief. As you can imagine, the way in which City of London Police communicates, and the types of technology it uses, have changed drastically since its conception – a point well illustrated by the Museum, which plays host to a number of fascinating artefacts. I was particularly taken with the Pedometer, which looks like a unicycle but in fact was used until the 1940s to measure distances, including police beats and the plan for the Lord Mayor’s Show. I also liked the ginormous 1956 walkie-talkie pack, nicknamed ‘Staggery Shouty’ due to its cumbersome size.

Evolved it may have done, but in some areas the Force has been disappointingly slow to adapt, one of which is the role of women. Although City of London Police has always employed matrons to look after female prisoners, women were only hired as officers following World War II and chronic staff shortages. In 1949, the Commissioner recruited one woman sergeant and six WPCs; these focused initially on caring for women and children. By the mid 1970s, female officers were involved in all areas of policing, yet it took them until the 1990s to reach high-level posts.

There have been other changes that the Force had to contend with. The past four decades have seen major advances in communications and technology, as well as alterations to geographical boundaries. At the same time, the Force is involved with an ever-increasing number of high-profile events – and is constantly adapting to new threats. Gradually, its priorities have evolved to tackling economic crime (cyber crime is a major problem), issues of public order and counter-terrorism.

The final section of the Museum takes a light-hearted look at how the uniform of a City of London police officer has changed over the years – there are a number on display, dating back to 1840s. The male and female uniforms are surprisingly different, as are the uniforms for different ranks. The second version of the female uniform was designed by Norman Hartnell, would you believe?

City of London Police officers dressed by Norman Hartnell
City of London Police officers, dressed by none other than Norman Hartnell

If the above has piqued your interest, I definitely recommend visiting this Museum. There is no admission fee, and there are a number of other places of interest in the Guildhall – its magnificent Library, for starters, not to mention the Guildhall Art Gallery. And then there’s the Roman Ampitheatre, which is at the very top of my places to visit next…

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