When the Victorian police officers set out for duty on the streets of London, they never knew what dangers the night might bring.
There are numerous reports in 19th-century newspapers that give details of attacks on constables carrying out their duties, some of which ended in tragedy.
Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, in its edition of Sunday the 23rd of May 1869, published the following article about the injuries sustained by an officer in the course of his duty:-
MURDEROUS ATTACK ON THE POLICE
On Saturday a disturbance took place amongst a crowd of drunken navvies, in the Lea-bridge-road, at about half-past seven o’clock.
Police-constable Robson, 67 N Reserve, while endeavouring to disperse the men, was assaulted by a plasterer named William Smith, of 2, Brook-street, Upper Clapton.
The constable was prevented from taking the man into custody by the crowd, but eventually, with the assistance of two other constables, Holmes, 17 N B, and Ward, 79 N, Smith was secured.
While the policemen were leading the prisoner away, a man, whose name is known, was seen to take a large brick-bat from beneath his coat, and hurl it with all his force at Ward, who was struck on the head and fell senseless to the ground.
The two other constables could render no assistance, as Smith was struggling and fighting to escape from them desperately.
TAKEN TO THE BEERHOUSE
Ward was taken to the King’s Head beerhouse, Lea-bridge, and Dr. Clarke, of Upper Clapton, was sent for.
The back of the constable’s helmet was found to be completely smashed in, and the back of the head was laid open by a terrible wound that must have caused death but for the protection afforded by the helmet.
THE RUFFIAN IN COURT
The ruffian who committed the assault was apprehended on Monday night. His name is David alias Thomas White, a “brickie,” or labourer in brick yards.
On Tuesday he was charged at Worship Street Police Court with the assault.
CONSTABLE HOLMES’S EVIDENCE
Police constable William Holmes, 17 N reserve, said that on Saturday night, at about half-past seven, a riot took place between some navvies at Lea-bridge, and the police were called to suppress it.
A constable (67 N R) was struggling with a man, and the witness went to assist him.
A second constable then came up to his aid, and the witness then saw the prisoner hurl half a brick at him, which struck the constable (Ward. 79 N) on the head, and he fell to the ground insensible.
The prisoner ran away, but the witness, who knew him well, gave information.
THE CONSTABLE MIGHT DIE
Mr. Newton asked how the injured man was.
Inspector Clements, N division, said that he was worse that morning, and handed in a certificate from Dr. Wright, the divisional surgeon, which certified that Police Constable Ward was suffering from concussion of the brain, was in a very dangerous state, and was unable to attend the court.
Mr. Newton remanded the accused, and refused to take bail, as it was not improbable that the man might die.
DAVID WHITE ON TRIAL
The Echo, in its edition of Friday the 9th of July 1869, provided readers with an account of the perpetrator’s subsequent court appearance and the sentence that was meted out to him:-
At the Middlesex Sessions, yesterday, David White, 19, pleaded guilty to assaulting and occasioning actual bodily harm to Willam Ward, a police constable, in the execution of his duty.
Mr. Cooper prosecuted; Mr. Warner Sleigh appeared for the prisoner.
On Whitsunday last, in the evening, there was a disturbance at a place called Mount Pleasant near Upper Clapton, and a man was taken into custody.
Ward, 79 N went up and urged the man to go quietly, when the prisoner came behind him and threw a brickbat at him with great violence. It struck him on the side of the head, behind the ear, cutting him through the helmet and knocking him down senseless.
He has since suffered from concussion of the brain, and had to be seated while in court,
The medical evidence was that, although he was no longer in danger, it might yet be some time before he could return to duty.
Previous convictions – two for theft and one for assault – were proved against the prisoner, and he was sentenced to five years penal servitude.