THE METROPOLITAN PROTECTIVES
By W.H. Wills & Charles Dickens
From Household Words No. 57
transcribed by Dr. Russell A. Potter
NERVOUS old ladies, dyspeptic half-pay officers, suspicious quidnuncs, plot-dreading diplomatists, and grudging rate-payers, all having the fear of the forthcoming Industrial Invasion before their eyes, are becoming very anxious respecting the adequate efficiency of the London Police. Horrible rumors are finding' their way into most of the clubs: reports are permeating into the tea-parties of suburban dowagers which darkly shadow forth dire mischief and confusion, the most insignificant result whereof is to be (of course) the overthrow of the British Constitution. Conspiracies of a comprehensive character are being hatched in certain back parlours, in certain back streets behind Mr. Cantelo's Chicken Establishment in Leicester Square. A complicated web of machination is being spun -- we have it on the authority, of a noble peer against the integrity of the Austrian Empire, at a small coffee-shop in Soho. Prussia is being. menaced by twenty-four determined Poles and Honveds in the attics of a cheap restaurateur in the Haymarket. Lots are being cast for the assassination of Louis Napoleon, in the inner parlours of various cigar shops. America, as we learn from that mighty lever of the civilised world, the" New York Weekly Herald" -- at whose nod, it is well known, kings tremble on their thrones, and the earth shakes -- is of opinion that the time bids fair for a descent of Red Republicans on Manchester. The English policemen have been tampered with, and are suborned. The great Mr. Justice Maule can't find one anywhere. In short, the peace of the entire continent of dl Europe may be considered as already gone. When the various conspiracies now on foot are, ripe, the armies of the disaffected of all nations which are to land at the various British ports under pretence of "assisting" at the Great Glass show, are to be privately at and confidentially drilled in secret Champs de Mars, and armed with weapons, stealthily abstracted from the Tower of London: while the Metropolitan Police and the Guards, both horse and foot, will fraternise, and (to a man) pretend to be fast asleep.
Neither have our prudent prophets omitted to foretell minor disasters. Gangs of burglars from the counties of Surrey, Sussex, and Lancashire, are also to fraternise in London, and to "rifle, rob, and plunder," as uninterruptedly as if every man's house were a mere Castle of Andalusia. Pickpockets -- not in single spies, but in whole battalions -- are to arrive from Paris and Vienna, and are to fall into compact organization. (through the medium of interpreters) with the united swell-mobs of London, Liverpool, and Manchester!
In short, it would appear that no words can express our fearful condition, so well as Mr. Croaker's in "The Good Natured Man." "I am so frightened," says he, "that 1 scarce know whether I sit, stand, or go. Perhaps at ,this moment I am treading on lighted. matches, blazing brimstone, and barrels of gunpowder. They are preparing to blow me up into the clouds. Murder! We shall be all burnt in our beds!"
Now, to the end that the prophets and their disciples may rest quietly in their beds, we have benevolently abandoned our own bed for some three nights or so, in order to report the results of personal inquiry into the condition and system of the Protective Police of the Metropolis: -- the Detective Police has been already described in the first Volume of "Household Words." If, after our details of the patience, promptitude, order, vigilance, zeal, and judgment, which watch over the peace of the huge Babylon when she sleeps, the fears of the most apprehensive be not dispelled, we shall have quitted our pillow, and plied our pen in vain! But we have no. such distrust.
Although the Metropolitan Police Force consists of nineteen superintendents, one hundred and twenty-four inspectors, five hundred and. eighty-five serjeants, and four thousand seven hundred and ninety-seven constables, doing duty at twenty-five stations; yet, so uniform is the order of proceeding in all, and so fairly can the description of what is done at one station be taken as a specimen of what is done at the others, that, without farther preface, we shall take the reader into custody, and convey him at once to the Police Station, in Bow Street, Covent Garden.
A Policeman keeping watch and ward at the wicket gives us admission, and we proceed down a long passage into an outer room, where there is a barrack-bedstead, on which we observe Police-constable Clark, newly relieved, asleep, and snoring most portentously -- a little exhausted, perhaps, by nine hours' constant walking on his beat. In the right-hand corner of this room- -- which is a bare room like a guard-house without the drums and muskets -- is a dock, or space railed off for prisoners: opposite, a widow breast-high at which an Inspector always presides day and night to hear charges. Passing by a corner door into his office on the other side of this window we find it much like any other office -- inky,, dull, and quiet -- papers stuck, against the walls -- perfect library of old charges on shelves overhead -- stools and desks -- a hall-porter's chair, little used -- gaslights -- fire -- sober clock. At one desk stands a policeman, duly coated and caped, looking stiffly over his glazed stock at a handbill he is copying. Two Inspectors sit near, working away at a great rate with noisy pens that sound like little rattles.
The clock points a quarter before nine. One of the Inspectors takes under his arm a slate, the night's muster roll, and an orderly book. He proceeds to the Yard. The gas jet, shining from the office through its window, and a couple of street lamps indistinctly light the place.
On the appearance of the inspecting officer in the yard, and at the sound of the word "Attention!" about seventy white faces. peering out above half-a-dozen parallel lines of dark figures, fall into military ranks in "open order." A man from each section -- a Serjeant -- comes forward to form the staff of the commanding officer. The roll is called over, and certain men are told off as a Reserve, to remain at the station for any exigencies that may arise. The book is then opened, and the Inspector reads aloud a series of warnings. P. C. John Jones, J, No. 202, was discovered drunk on duty on such a day, and dismissed the force. Serjeant Jenkins did not report that a robbery had been complained of in such a street, and is suspended for a month. The whole division are then enlightened as to the names, addresses, ages, and heights, of all persons who have been "missing" from a radius of fifteen miles from Charing Cross (the police definition of the Metropolis) since the previous night; as to the colours of their hair, eyes, and clothes; as to the cut of their coats, the fashion and material of their gowns, the shape of their hats or bonnets, the make of their boots. So minute and definite are all these personal descriptions, that a P. C. (the official ellipsis for police Constable) must be very sleepy, or unusually dun of observation, if, in the event of his meeting with any of these missing individual, he does not put them in train of restoration to their anxious friends. Lost articles of property are then enumerated and described with equal exactness. When we reflect that the same routine is being performed at the same moment at the head of every police regiment or division in the Metropolis, it seems extraordinary how any thing or person can be lost in London. Among the trifles enumerated as "found," are a horse and cart, a small dog, a brooch, a baby, and a firkin of butter.
Emotion is no part of a policeman's duty. If felt, it must be suppressed: he listens as stolidly to the following account of the baby, as to the history of the horse and. cart, the little dog, the brooch, and the butter.
S DIVISION. Found, at Eight and a quarter P.M. on the 2nd instant by [a gentleman named], of Bayham Street, Camden Town, on the step of his door, the body of a new-born Infant, tied up in a Holland Bag. Had on a Calico Bed-gown and Muslin Cap, trimmed with Satin Ribbon. Also a Note, stating, "Anyone; who finds this precious burthen, pay him the last I duties which a Mother -- much in distress and trouble of mind -- is unable to do. May the blessing of God be on you!"
The book is closed. The mother "much in distress and trouble of mind," is shut up with it; and the Inspector proceeds to make his inspection. He marches past each rank. The men, one by one, produce their kit; consisting of lantern, rattle, and staff. He sees that each man is clean and properly provided for the duties of the night. Returning to his former station amidst the serjeants, he gives the word "Close up!"
The men now form a compact body, and the serjeants take their stand at the head of their respective ranks. But, before this efficient body of troops deploy to their various beats, they are addressed by the superior officer much as a colonel harangues his regiment before going into action. The inspector's speech -- sharp and pithily delivered -- is something to this effect: "Now, men, I must again beg of you to be very careful in your examination of empty houses. See that the doors are fast; and, if not, search for any person unlawfully concealed therein. Number nineteen section will allow no destitute parties to herd together under the Adelphi arches. Section Number twenty-four will be very particular in insisting on all gentlemen's carriages [it is an opera night] keeping the rank, close to the kerb stone, and in cautioning the coachmen not to leave their horses. Be sure and look sharp after flower-girls. Offering flowers for sale is a pretence. The girls arc either beggars or thieves; but you must exercise great caution. You must not interfere with them unless you actually hear them asking charity or see them trying pockets, or engaged in actual theft. The chief thing, however, is the empty houses; get from them into the adjoining premises, and then there's a burglary.
-- 'Tention, to the left face, march!"
The sections march off in Indian file, and the Inspector returns to his office by one door, while the half-dozen "Reserves" go into the outer-room by another. The former, now buttons on his great coat: and, after supper will visit every beat in the division, to see that the men are at their duties. The other Inspector remains to take the charges. A small man, who gives his name, Mr. Spills, (or for whom that name will do in this place as well as another), presents himself at the, half-open window to complain of a gentleman now present, who is stricken in years, bald, well dressed, staid in countenance, respectable in appearance, and exceedingly drunk. He gazes at his accuser from behind the dock, with lack-lustre penitence, as that gentleman elaborates his grievance to the patient Inspector; who, out of a tangle. of digressions and innuendoes dashed with sparkling scraps of club-room oratory, extracts -- not without difficulty -- the substance of the complaint, and reduces it to a charge of "drunk and disorderly." The culprit, it seems, not half an hour ago -- purely by accident-- found his way into Craven Street, Strand. Though there are upwards of forty doors in Craven Street, he would kick, and thump, and batter the complainant's door. No other door would do. The complainant don't know why; the delinquent don't know why; nobody knows why. No entreaty, no expostulation, no threat, could induce him to transfer his favours to any other door in the neighbourhood. He was a perfect stranger to Mr. Spills; yet, when Mr. Spills presented himself at the gate of his castle in answer to the thundering summons, the prisoner' insisted on finishing the evening at the domestic supper-table of the Spills family. Finally, the prisoner emphasised his claim on Mr. Spills's hospitality by striking Mr. Spills on the mouth. This led to his being immediately handed over to the custody of a P.C.
The defendant answers the usual questions as to name and condition, with a drowsy indifference peculiar to the muddled. But, when the .Inspector asks his age, a faint ray of his spirit shines through him. What is that to the police? Have they any thing to do with the census? They may lock him up, fine him, put him in jail, work him on the tread-mill, if they like. All this is in their power; he knows the law wen enough, Sir; but they can't make him tell his age --and he won't -- won't do it, Sir! -- At length, after having been mildly pressed, and cross-examined, and coaxed, he passes his fingers through the few grey hairs that fringe his bald head, and suddenly roars:
"Well then: -- Five-and-twenty."
All the policemen laugh. The Prisoner -- but now triumphant in his retort -- checks himself, endeavours to stand erect, and surveys them with defiance.
"Have you anything about you, you would like us to take care of?" This is the usual apology for searching a drunken prisoner: searches cannot be enforced except in cases of felony.
Before the prisoner can answer, one of the Reserves eases him of his property. Had his adventures been produced in print, they could scarcely have been better described than by the following articles:-- a pen-knife, an empty sandwich-box, a bunch of keys, a bird's-eye handkerchief, a sovereign, fivepence in half-pence, a tooth-pick, and a pocket-book. From his neck is drawn a watch-guard, cut through, -- no watch.
When he is sober, he will be questioned as to his loss; a description of the watch, with its maker's name and number will be extracted from him; it will be sent round to every station; and, by this time to-morrow night, every pawnbroker in the Metropolis will be asked whether such a watch has been offered as a pledge? Most probably it will be recovered and restored before he has time to get tipsy again-and when he has, he will probably lose it again.
"When shall I have to appear before the magistrate?" asks the prosecutor.
" At ten o'clock to-morrow morning,"-and so ends that case.
There is no peace for the Inspector. During the twenty-four hours he is on duty, his window is constantly framing some new picture. For some minutes, a brown face with bright black eyes has been peering impatiently from under a quantity of tangled black hair and a straw hat behind Mr. Spills. It now advances to the window.
"Have you got e'er a gipsy woman here,, sir ?"
"No gipsy woman to-night."
" Thank'ee, sir:" and the queerest retires to repeat this new reading of "Shepherds, I have lost my love," at every other stationhouse, till he finds her -- and bails her. Most of the constables who have been relieved from duty by the nine o'clock men have now dropped in, and are detailing any thing worthy of a report to their respective serjeants. The serjeants enter these occurrences on a printed form. Only one is presented, now: --
"P. C. 67 reports, that, at 5 1/2 P.M. a boy, named Philip Isaac was knocked down, in Bow Street, by a horse belonging to Mr. Parks, a newsvender.' He was taken to Charing + Hospital, and sent home, slightly bruised."
The Inspector has not time to file this document before an earnest-looking man comes to the window. Something has happened which evidently causes him more pain than resentment. "I am afraid we have been robbed., My name is Parker, of the firm of Parker and Tide, Upholsterers. This afternoon at three o'clock, our clerk handed to a young man who is our collector, (he is only nineteen), about ninety-six pounds to take to the bank. He ought to have been back in about fifteen minutes; but he hadn't come back at six o'clock. I went to the bank to see if the cash had been paid in, and it had not."
End of Part I
Continue on to part 2