In July 1890, some of the constables in the service of the Metropolitan Police, hoping to emanate the success of the match-girls and dockers, attempted to orchestrate a full scale police strike to persuade the authorities to increase their pay and pensions.
For a few days, its seemed like whole scale anarchy might reign in the West-end of London; and the newspapers delighted in bringing the story of the rioting – which began as a result of insubordination in the police ranks, but which was then picked up by the ubiquitous London mob – to their readers.
The reports make for interesting reading, as they provide a window by which we can look upon a period of unrest in the streets of Victorian London.
STRIKE AMONG THE METROPOLITAN POLICE
On the 12th July 1890, The Illustrated London News carried the following report on the strike:-
“A portion of the Metropolitan Police, demanding increased rates of pay and pension, has of late been giving some trouble to the authorities in command, not only by improper meetings for the purposes of agitation and denunciation, which cannot be tolerated in a force under a kind of military discipline, but also by scandalous acts of insubordination and refusal to obey the orders for their daily service.
This misconduct was carried so far by some of the constables of the E Division, whose headquarters are at Bow-street Police-Office, as to threaten a strike on Monday evening, July 7, which they expected would become general all over London.
Much alarm was felt among the shopkeepers and other inhabitants of the West Central district, lest the streets should be left unprotected that night.
But the resolute action of the new Chief Commissioner of Police, Colonel Sir Edward Bradford, and of the Chief Constable, Colonel Mansell, supported by the fidelity of the Superintendents, Inspectors, and Sergeants, with the prompt dismissal of thirty-nine young constables, earlier in-the day, for acts of wilful disobedience on Saturday night, had a salutary effect.
A DISGRACEFUL SCENE
What took place, however, in Bow-street, between nine o’clock and midnight, was sufficiently disgraceful to all concerned in the agitation, being a scene of outrageous riot, probably got up by gangs of common London roughs, but encouraged by the attitude of the dismissed constables and of those pretending to sympathise with them.
The street was repeatedly cleared by parties of mounted police, under the orders of the Chief Constable, but the mob again reassembled; mud, cabbage-stumps, and other dirty missiles were flung at Superintendent Fisher and the police on duty; and some windows of different shops and houses were broken.
THE LIFE GUARDS JOIN IN
It happened, fortunately, that the Prince of Wales, going to the Royal Opera at Covent Garden, had been provided with an escort of thirty or forty troopers of the 2nd Life Guards, under command of Lieutenant-Colonel Lord Dundonald.
A message asking the aid of their presence was at once complied with, and the appearance of those splendid cavalry soldiers, quietly riding up and down, put an end to the disturbance within less than half an hour.
In the meantime, within the precincts of the police-office, the Superintendent and Inspectors had some difficulty in getting the insubordinate constables, though in a decided minority, to parade for the regular night duty; but they prevailed so far as to defeat the attempted “strike,” and the patrol service was not interrupted in any part of London.
Much damage was done by the rioters to the plate-glass windows of several large establishments in Bow-street, and a baker’s shop was all but wrecked.
In the police-court, next day, two or three men were fined, and one constable sentenced to fourteen days’ imprisonment, for acts of violence on this occasion.”
A FULL ACCOUNT OF THE WEEK’S UNREST
On the 13th July 1890, Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper published a long and breathtaking article that treated the readers to what seems like a minute by minute account of the week’s events an unrest:-
THE POLICE REVOLT – SERIOUS RIOTING
“A remarkable scene occurred on Saturday night at Bow-street police station. It would seem that when the 10 o’clock men were paraded for duty, the order.”Right turn” was given, preliminary to the men marching out of the station, but not a single man obeyed the order; in fact they absolutely refused to go on duty.
The inspector in charge was at once spoken to by the officer, and he interrogated the men as to the breach of discipline, and was informed that the men’s refusal to go on duty was in consequence of one of the delegates being summarily removed to an outside station, and that they acted thus to expose their disapproval of what they characterised as one of their number being “marked.”
The inspector-in-charge parleyed with the men, and after some delay eventually succeeded in persuading the men to resume duty, and he promised in the meantime to do all that he could for them by means of pen and paper.
The men thereupon left the station and took up their duties as usual.
THE CHIEF COMMISSIONER
The Chief commissioner was immediately apprised of the affair, and he at once called a number of officers together and held a long consultation.
The situation in the yard when the men first refused to move, an officer who was present states, was to him apparently incomprehensible at this time, and he proceeded to interview the men individually and inquire what was the matter.
The windows of the section house overlooking the quadrangle are stated to have had their proportion of inmates who had assembled to witness the scene, which, although spontaneous in appearance, had undoubtedly been pre-arranged.
The men at the windows are said to have broken the stillness with cheers for the undaunted determination of their comrades on the parade ground, and one man on parade, said to have been a reserve man, acknowledged this encouragement by shouting “Three cheers for 134, that’s what the matter.” This remark led to an outburst of enthusiasm amongst those men who thronged the windows of the library, single men’s quarters, and other rooms overlooking the quadrangle.
Nearly fifty men were on Sunday suspended.
That evening constables were called in from three outlying divisions to make up the night contingent at Bow-street.
The Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr. Howard, and other officers were present, it being feared that some disturbance would occur. There was much animation in the neighbourhood, as constables in plain clothes assembled and hooted those who had been brought from the suburbs, but beyond this there was not much disorder.
RIOTING IN BOW STREET
The threatened strike of the Metropolitan police on Monday did not take place; but on Monday night Bow-street was the scene of tumult, and it was found necessary to summon a detachment of the Life Guards to clear the street and prevent violence.
In the morning Sir E. Bradford [The Metropolitan Police Commissioner] had about 40 constables who were guilty of insubordination on the previous night brought before him, and they were summarily dismissed.
When the men assembled at the police-station for night duty, a few who were insubordinate were suspended, but the bulk of them went on duty, and, with drafts from other divisions, all the streets were furnished with the usual patrols.
The police at all the other police divisions went on duty, and in most cases without demur.
A STRANGE SIGHT FOR LONDONERS
Seldom have Londoners seen so strange a sight as that presented in Bow-street on Monday night.
Early in the evening a number of suspended and dismissed constables assembled in the thoroughfare, together with friends and sympathisers, and effectually blocked the traffic.
Nearly 5,000 persons were assembled.
THE LIFE GUARDS
The shouting, groaning, and hooting were so appalling that the authorities sent for the assistance of the military, and about half-past 10, two troops of the 2nd Life Guards appeared on the scene.
They kept a constant patrol with the mounted police.
Just before the arrival of the 2nd Life Guards a small bag of flour was thrown from a balcony at the inspector of the mounted police, whom it whitened from head to foot.
A little later a pitcher of water was tossed from the upper windows of Bow-street police station itself and fell over the mounted men.
Still later at intervals three large pieces of crockery were thrown out into the street by the men of the E division, who, it was stated, were confined to quarters until the mob could be dispersed.
A big flower-pot was also thrown from an upper window or the roof of an adjoining building near the corner of Long-acre.
Fortunately no one was injured by these projectiles.
The constables in plain clothes mingled among the mob, and though taking little part in the rushes that were made, yet at the same time they joined in the shouting and cheering.
A number of bottles were also thrown at the men on duty, and at least in one case this was not done by any so-called “civilian.”
CHEERS AND GROANS
Ultimately, when the Life Guards rode up they were saluted with cheers and groans.
“Don’t help the blacklegs,” “Stick to your comrades, the people,” and similar cries were uttered.
At first the troopers rode slowly up and down, riding from Long-acre down Bow-street as far as Russell-street, when they made right-about-turn.
THE MOUNTED POLICE GO IN
On their appearance the mounted police made more determined efforts to break up the crowds, which, despite the drenching rain, maintained their ground, yelling, cheering, groaning; and, led by their inspectors, the men rode upon the pavement, cuffing and striking at the mob, many of whom resisted desperately.
The horses’ reins were frequently seized, and the animals thrust back, whilst others in the crowd struck with sticks at them.
In one or more instances knives were seen to glisten, and attempts were made to cut the reins.
Gradually, however, the mass of the people were forced out of Bow-street towards the Strand and Long-acre.
ROUGHS CLUNG ON
The troopers, about 11pm, acted more energetically, and, massing together, they moved up and down Bow-street, clearing everybody off the roadway.
Numbers of roughs, however, still clung to the pavement, and these the mounted police quickly endeavoured to disperse.
The crowd was thinner, but the people only appeared to become more violent.
THE MOUNTED POLICE BLOCKED
Numbers of cabs and carriages, which were passing to and from the theatres, were used by the mob in making temporary stands, for the vehicles were turned about, and the charges of the mounted policemen were blocked.
It was noticed that the constables kept closely together, and in the few instances when three or four became separated from their comrades they got severely handled.
Handfuls of mud, pieces of wood, baskets. and bottles were again hurled at the constables.
About 11.20pm, the mob began tearing down the iron gratings from off Messrs. Merryweather and Co.’s windows, and these they threw into the roadway at the mounted men.
The mob broke the plate-glass in several windows and also tore down wooden shutters and hoarding to get missiles to use against the police.
B DIVISION TAKE UP THEIR BEATS
Step by step, however, they were driven back, and the men of the B division, who could be induced to go on duty, moved out to take up their beats in parties of 10 and 20.
PEOPLE KNOCKED DOWN
In one of the many charges, just at the entrance to the police-court, a number of people were knocked down, and two men were seriously injured by the horses treading on them.
During a rush at the corner of the theatre another man was knocked down and hurt by the constables.
Three persons were so seriously injured by the mounted men that they had to be taken in cabs to Charing-cross; hospital, where their wounds were dressed.
At midnight there was still a number of rough characters hanging about, yelling and throwing missiles.
MORE LIFE GUARDS BROUGHT IN
As a measure of precaution, further drafts of Life Guards were brought from Knightsbridge.
They arrived on the scene about 12.10am.
A public-house in the vicinity, which was closed early in the evening owing to the excitement, was partially wrecked by the mob.
Despite the steady rain, the crowd continued at 12.30am to be of comparatively large proportions, and the hooting and shouting were maintained with almost unabated vigour.
It has been said that the accounts of Monday’s scenes are exaggerated, but those people so confident in their denial of anything unusual would have thought differently had they seen the mounted police charge; had they been witnesses of the military charge, which scattered the sightseers like hail; the cavalry dashing not alone along Bow-street, but clean over the pavements-and straight through the narrow tunnel that guards the opera house.
These good people, many miles away from the disaffected highway, will not recognise what it means to be “scattered like hail.”
A COUNTESS DOWAGER ATTACKED
During the disturbance near Covent Garden theatre on Monday night, the brougham of Countess Dowager Shrewsbury was stopped by a crowd of roughs, who pulled open the doors, threatened the coachman, and cried “Drag her out; get the diamonds.”
Fortunately, Lady Shrewsbury was taking home from the opera to his hotel Mr. Webb, of New York, who struck back energetically the assailants on both sides, throwing down three of them in succession almost under the horses’ feet.
In the scuffle, before the police could come up, one door of the brougham was wrenched from its hinges, but was pushed into the carriage by a policeman, and the coachman, whipping up his horses, made his way safely from the crowd.
OTHER VEHICLES ATTACKED
A similar attack, though less formidable, was made upon the carriage of Lady Hothfield on Tuesday night.
Several vehicles on their way to the opera were stopped for a time.
One, containing Mrs. Field, of New York, was surrounded by a crowd of women, who threatened and brandished sticks at the occupants.
Another occupied by Mr. Claud Have was also surrounded, but the driver put his spirited horses to a gallop and, knocking down several of the crowd, got through.
From an early hour on Tuesday morning, until a late hour at night, Bow-street was the scene of great disorder.
This was owing, however, to the action of men entirely outside the force, many of them pronounced rowdies, who looked upon the whole business as a gigantic joke.
Several of these were during the afternoon arrested and kept in safe custody for the rest of the night.
Although there was this element in the crowd, the disaffected police were still strongly represented, and it was clear that, despite the failure to bring off a general strike on Monday night, as had been arranged, the men who had been made the victims of the movement were inclined to keep up the struggle.
This was made manifest at the meetings held by them and their supporters who are still employed in the force, at one and four o’clock on Tuesday afternoon, at a public-house in Long-acre.
At the first meeting it was resolved that the dismissed men (about 40) bad been unjustly treated in being singled out from the 94 men who had refused to go on duty.
The resolution also called upon every member of the Metropolitan Police force to sign a petition praying for the reinstatement of their late comrades.
OTHER DIVISIONS SUSPENDED
It was reported that the E division was not the only one that had been subjected to severe measures, members of the Y and other divisions having been suspended for refusing to go on duty.
This question was discussed at greater length at the meeting at four o’clock, but the meeting broke up without any decision being arrived at.
In the course of the debate, one speaker created some amusement by stating “that with all due respect to the mob he thought that on Monday night they had done them (the police) more harm than good.”
A MAN ARRESTED
At four o’clock some half-dozen men of the reserve arrested in Bow-street a man employed in Covent-garden market whose friends declared that he had done nothing to provoke a breach of the peace.
There was immediately a great rush in the direction of the prisoner, and the mob, who pressed the police very hard, so that they could neither move one way or the other, began to yell and groan, shouting at the same time, “Let him go! Let him alone!”
The police, however, stuck to their man, and tried to push their way towards the police-station.
At last the police, finding they were making no headway, drew their truncheons.
The constables appeared determined to clear the way to the station, and the crowd gave in.
A LULL UNTIL SIX
There was a lull until nearly six o’clock, and, in the meantime, a visit was paid to the station by Colonel Monsell.
Various batches of constables left the station for duty between four and six o’clock, passing through a gang of hooting people.
At six o’clock three plain-clothes constables, who had come from outer divisional stations, arrested a young fellow outside the Globe hotel.
As they were bringing their prisoner to the station they were followed by a howling mob, and one of the constables, when he left the station again, was followed by a crowd.
THE POLICE ATTACKED
Nothing daunted, the constable and two other plain-clothes men walked down the street and turned a corner leading into Covent-garden.
“Let’s get them into the market!” shouted the mob.
The constables turned to bay, and a mêlée ensued.
The policemen, who were kicked and struck whenever the opportunity offered, fought desperately.
At this juncture a number of men in uniform appeared on the scene, and three prisoners were dragged to the station, the police having their staves drawn ready for use in case of any further interference.
DOUBLE THE MONDAY NIGHT MOB
As night drew on, the attendance of persons, orderly and disorderly, vastly increased, until it was quite double that which assembled outside the station on Monday night.
But if they anticipated any such serious scenes as those which took place on that occasion they were disappointed.
The people were allowed to circulate pretty freely up to nine o’clock, but at that time it was evident that the police meant absolutely to clear Bow-street.
Accordingly with advances by the men on foot in line, and charges by the mounted officers, the throng was gradually driven into the three outlets which converge at the base of Bow-street.
A REMARKABLE SPECTACLE
At this Stage of the proceedings Wellington-street presented a remarkable spectacle.
The roadways and footpaths were simply blocked with people, and how the mounted police forced a path through them is a matter for wonder.
But crowds are very elastic, and a man on prancing horse, careering along a footpath, generally manages to find a way for himself and his animal.
This summary method of dispersal was taken tolerably well by the crowd; though every charge the police made was resented by hoots, groans, and hisses; and in some cases by attempts to pull the officers off their horses.
No real resistance, however, was attempted.
If it had been, seeing the vast preponderance of the people in the streets over the policemen, the consequences would have been very serious.
A MARCH ON BOW STREET
There was, indeed, one organised attempt to break through the police line.
After the first dispersal, the crowd, having been driven down Wellington-street nearly to the Strand by the mounted men, re-formed in procession, and marched up towards Bow-street in fours, cheering as they went and being loudly cheered in return by their fellows on the footways.
But their front was not strong enough, and being met by a strong double line of police, after a short and desperate struggle they were turned off in the direction of Covent-garden, and Bow-street was saved from the incursion.
There was no attempt on the part of the police to use their truncheons, but they certainly assisted the progress of the obstructionists in a somewhat violent manner by pushing them along in the way they did not want to go.
CABS AND CARRIAGES ATTACKED
About this time – that is, from half-past eight to nine – a good many cabs and carriages were coming down Bow-street from the opera, and they were rather roughly handled.
One four-wheeled cab was turned over, and the doors of a number of carriages were opened.
A curious fact was that in the midst of the crowd, a costermonger with a barrow of strawberries was placidly pursuing his business, and doing a good trade, until he, too, came under the notice of the police, and was moved on.
It should be noted that the coachmen in charge of the carriages behaved with considerable self-possession and restraint, except in one instance, when the driver of a carriage, the door of which had been forced open, whipped at the people surrounding him, and nearly got himself dragged off his box.
A mounted officer, whilst sitting quietly on his horse and facing the crowd, was struck full in the face by a bottle. The wounded policeman was taken into Bow-street, and the doctor reports that he must be invalided for sometime to come.
THE SITUATION IMPROVED
At 10 o’clock the situation became materially improved.
Bow-street was absolutely clear, and while traffic from the north end was allowed to pass through into Russell-street, nothing was permitted to go through the police lines at the south end. Russell-street, as far as Drury-lane, was practically clear, and the only thoroughfares left open were Wellington-street and the west end of Russell-street as far as Covent-garden.
WINDOW BREAKING AND STAMPEDES
Here window breaking was the fashionable amusement, varied with occasional and apparently inexplicable stampedes.
People coming out of the theatres were scattered in all directions.
Under the portico of the Lyceum there was a disturbance which prevented carriages driving up.
The police, evidently entirely new to the district, sauntered about in couples, afraid to or not caring to interfere too much.
Things quieted of their own accord.
The people – both rough and orderly – wended their way home and, by midnight, tolerable quietness reigned.
On Wednesday night, for several hours, Bow-street was the scene of considerable disturbance, owing to the action of the crowd of onlookers.
The crowd, composed chiefly of the “young-rough” element, however, generally contented itself with perambulating the neighbourhood of Bow-street, Drury-lane, and Catherine-street, where the people were kept moving by the efforts of strong detachments of police.
Some 250 men of the P, B, L, M, and K divisions were held in reserve at the Bow-street station, but their services, like those of a squadron of mounted police kept in the station yard, were happily not called into requisition, although there were frequent scuffles and outbursts of hooting.
By half-past eleven o’clock Bow-street was quite clear.
THE PRINCE OF WALES INTERCEDED
No intimation had been received by the authorities with respect to the status of the men and the reception of their petition, but a rumour was circulated (says the Daily News) to the effect that the Prince of Wales, who was an interested spectator of the scene in Bow-street on Monday and Tuesday night, had interceded with the Home Office in the interests of the men.”
THE POLICE PENSION BILL
Despite the British Government’s insisting that it would not be held hostage by the police demands, within a few weeks of the unrest Parliament passed the Police Pensions Bill, which ushered in a full pension scheme for all police officers.