Spare a thought for William Trounce.
To be specific, spare a thought for Police Constable William Trounce of the Metropolitan Police’s “A” Division.
He was, to all intent and purposes, a conscientious officer, who held the utmost respect for his Sovereign, Queen Victoria. Indeed, so respectful was he of her that, in doing what he thought was his patriotic duty, his actions almost cost her her life.
THE QUEEN ATTENDS SUNDAY SERVICE
The story actually begins on the afternoon of Sunday 29th May 1842.
The Queen and her consort, Prince Albert, had attended their usual Sunday service at the Chapel Royal, St James’s Palace, and were in the process of returning to Buckingham Palace.
As was the norm, the chance to see the Royal couple was considered one of the Victorian Metropolis’s highlights and an immense crowd usually turned out to watch.
GEORGE PEARSON GOES SIGHTSEEING
Amongst the crowd on this particular Sunday was a sixteen-year-old wood engraver by the name of George Pearson.
He had only recently arrived in London, and was working for his brother in Castle Street, Holborn.
On his day off, he had set out to experience the wonders of the Capital, and had duly made his way over to the Palace quarter where, around two in the afternoon, he had found a position alongside St James’s Park, where he was soon jostling with a vast crowd of similarly minded spectators, all of whom were determined to get a good view of the Royal couple as they made their way back to Buckingham Palace in their open carriage.
Sure enough, he saw the carriage go by, and even caught a brief glimpse of Queen Victorian and Prince Albert as they waved to the crowd.
THE MAN WITH THE PISTOL
But, as his glance followed the back of the disappearing carriage, he caught sight of something that sent a chill of horror coursing down his spine.
A respectably dressed young man in the crowd, who was aged around 23, and who was standing several yards ahead of him, suddenly raised his arm, and pointed a pistol directly at the Royal carriage.
“..He did nothing more than present it,” George Pearson later recalled, “he neither drew the trigger nor attempted to fire, or any thing – the carriage was four or five yards from him at the time he presented it -this was almost in the middle of the Mall – he presented it as the carriage passed on – this was coming through the Mall of St. James’s-park – I do not know whether it was the side on which Her Majesty or Prince Albert sat – he was on the side of the carriage next to the Mall, on the left side of the carriage. When the carriage passed on he returned the pistol to his bosom, and said, “They may take me if they like, I don’t care, I was a fool I did not shoot.”
So saying, the young man hurried off and was soon lost in the crowd.
What astonished George Pearson, was that none of the other spectators seemed to have noticed what the young man had done.
However, he then noticed an elderly gentleman who had also witnessed the attempt on the Monarch’s life, and the two of them hurried away from the scene together discussing what they had seen. Having asked for George’s address, the man then hurried away – Pearson later stating that he believed the man was going to inform the police. Nothing though was done, and, intriguingly, this elderly gentleman was never heard from again and later police attempts to trace him proved fruitless.
THEY ATTEMPT TO WARN THE QUEEN
Returning home, he told his brother what he had seen, and, by way of several acquaintances who had “connections”, the two Pearson brothers, found themselves at Buckingham Palace seeking an audience with Charles Augustus Murray, Master of the Queen’s Household.
Unfortunately, Murray had just sat down to dinner at the Queen’s table, and royal protocol meant that he could not rise and leave the table. The brothers, therefore, had no choice but to leave the palace and delay informing the royal household of the likely assassination attempt till another day.
PRINCE ALBERT HAD SEEN IT TOO
The Royal couple, though, were already aware of it.
Indeed, as it transpired, George Pearson and the elderly gentlemen weren’t the only ones who had witnessed the attempt.
Sitting in the carriage, on the St James’s Park side, Price Albert had been waving to the cheering crowd when his eyes affixed on a “little, swarthy ill-looking rascal” who was pointing a pistol directly at his face.
Albert found himself in the same position as George Pearson, in that he was the only one in Royal group who had seen the “rascal.”
A hasty meeting was convened at Buckingham Palace, attended by the Prime Minster, Robert Peel, and one of the two Metropolitan Police Commissioner’s. Colonel Charles Rowan.
A PLAN TO CATCH THE ASSASSIN
Despite the fact that, as far as they were aware, no-one other than Albert had witnessed the would-be assassination attempt, the threat was taken seriously, and Rowan had soon returned to Scotland Yard where he formulated a plan to catch the assassin whom, he was certain, would be certain to make another attempt on the Queen’s life.
That plan was to send plain-clothes constables into the Royal quarter, armed with a description of the would-be assassin that had been provided by Prince Albert.
On the Monday morning, the Pearson brothers finally got to see Murray, and, the fact that there was now a corroborating witness to what Prince Albert had seen ensured that the attempt was taken extremely seriously indeed, and the plain-clothes officers were hastily dispatched into the area around the palace with instructions to be on the look out for anyone matching the description they had been given of the would-be assassin.
CONSTABLE TROUNCE TAKES UP HIS POSITION
Thus it was that, when Queen Victoria next ventured out in public on the afternoon of Monday 30th May, 1842, Police Constable William Trounce, A-53, was in the area looking for anyone who might be acting suspiciously and who might match the description he had been given by his superiors.
Now, in fairness to Trounce, he and his fellow constables had not been told why the suspect was wanted, only that he was wanted.
So, when he encountered a suspicious looking young man, who answered the description to a tee, he moved quickly in to keep him under surveillance.
As Trounce later recalled:-
“…He was just in the middle part of Constitution-hill. I was ten or twelve yards from him, and saw him go behind a tree to hide himself, as I was looking at him….He was looking at me at the time, at least he appeared so…”
Since Trounce was unaware of the previous attempt on the Queen’s life, he didn’t actually move in to detain the man, but, rather, he simply kept a close eye on him.
AN ALMOST DEADLY SALUTE
Until, that is, the Queen and Prince Albert came into view and proceeded to pass him.
Trounce had no idea what protocol demanded of him in his situation.
Should he ignore the Queen and keep his eye fixed firmly on the suspect? Or, should he take his eye off the suspect in order to show his respect to his Sovereign Lady?
In the heat of the moment, Trounce had to make a split second decision and opted to allow respect for the Monarch to overrule his duty as an officer of the law; and he turned towards the royal couple, stood to attention, and saluted the passing carriage.
It was a show of respect that could have cost the Queen her life.
For, no sooner had he saluted, than an almighty bang rang in his ear.
As he later recalled:-
“…as the Queen was passing, I heard the report of a pistol – my eye was not actually on the prisoner at that time – I then looked around – he was standing a little in the rear of me – he was leaning over a plug which they draw the water from, with his left hand, and standing just in this way with a pistol in his hand. I seized him. He was holding the pistol towards the carriage. I did not see him till I heard the report, and when I turned round, it was a little towards the carriage, I took the pistol from him.”
THE SUSPECT IN CUSTODY
Within moments, other officers had arrived and the would-be assassin was soon in police custody.
It transpired that the man’s name was John Francis and, at his subsequent Old Bailey Trial, he was found guilty of High Treason and was sentenced to death.
However, the sentence was later commuted to one of transportation with hard labour for life.
THE DETECTIVE BRANCH IS FORMED
The fact that another assassin (this was the second attempt on Victoria’s life in two years) had got close enough to the Queen to be of real and present danger, led to an awful lot of criticism of the fledgling Metropolitan Police force.
Since their inception it had been understood that the force was about crime prevention, rather than crime detection, and, there was no detective department at the time of Francis’s assassination attempt.
However, this state of affairs was changed quickly as a result of Francis’s actions.
Within two weeks of the attempt, the two joint Police Commissioners – Richard Mayne and Charles Rowan – had written to the Home Office outlining their proposal for the establishment of a Detective Branch of the Metropolitan Police.
On the 20th June 1842, they were given the go-ahead and the newly formed Detective Department, consisting of two detective inspectors and six detective sergeants, was established.
Policing in the Capital was, as a result of the attempt on the Queen’s life, inching towards a force whose detectives would become the toast of the land, and who would soon be deployed to investigate crimes all over the country and, by the second half of the 19th century, all over the World.
And all because of the actions of a “little, swarthy ill-looking rascal.”