Thames Police: The Wapping Coal Riot
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Table of Contents > Lead up to the riot. > Death in the High Street. > Hyperlink to the Old Bailey trial site.

The Wapping Coal Riot of October 1798

by PC Bob Jeffries

Lead up to the riot.

On 2nd July 1798, officers of the West India Merchants and Planters Marine Police Institute, generally considered to be this country's earliest organised police force, first patrolled the crowded waters of the River Thames from their headquarters at Wapping New Stairs. By October 16th of that same year, they had lost their first man killed on duty when Gabriel Franks (Master Lumper) attained the dubious privilege of being the first ever police officer to be killed in the execution of his duty. The following paragraphs are a synopsis of the facts relating to the incident as recorded in the official trial transcript from the archives of the Old Bailey.

Perhaps the first thing to note is that the embryonic Thames River Police as founded by John Harriott and Patrick Colquhoun, was organised rather differently from the manner in which we might envisage a modern police force being run. The job titles within the force were certainly very different from those of today. The men who made up the river police were described as watermen, surveyors and lumpers. There were only a very few constables in the force (five initially) and they were mostly employed on land patrols. Harriott recognised that a considerable amount of crime was committed by those people employed in unloading vessels arriving in the Port of London. He reasoned that if you could guarantee the honesty and integrity of those men employed in 'lumping' cargoes off the ships, then you would indeed go a long way to cutting down the thefts that occurred from those vessels. Thus, the lumpers employed in unloading vessels under the protection of the Marine Police Office were those with a reputation for honesty and they were accordingly paid above the usual rate because of that. These men were actually seen to be as much a part of the Marine Police Office as, say the watermen, surveyors or even the magistrates themselves. That becomes an important factor in the story that follows.

Coal was an important commodity in London at that time and its theft was perceived to be a major problem by the Thames Magistrates. Harriott and Colquhoun were both determined to stop the 'coal markets', which were openly held in the streets of Wapping. At these markets, coal unlawfully appropriated by coal heavers during the course of their work was on open sale. Unsurprisingly, the coal heavers took a dim view of any such attempt at cutting their extra income, which they saw as an unofficial 'perk' of the job.

On the evening of 16th October 1798 three persons were standing trial at the Thames Magistrates Court attached to the Marine Police Office. They were two coal heavers and one watchman's boy. All three were accused of theft of coal. They were all convicted and each fined forty shillings. As they left the building, friends arrived at the court and paid the fines. Upon leaving, one of the three, Charles Eyers was met by his brother, James, who said "Damn your long eyes, have you paid the money?" Charles said "Yes, I have." James then took his brother by the collar, dragged him toward the door and said "Come along and we shall have the money back or else we shall have the house down!" Within a very short period of time a hostile crowd had gathered outside the police office and stones and rocks were being directed against the windows. The action that was to follow was to leave two men dead and another wounded.

Continue to the next page "Death in the High Street." to learn more about the Wapping Coal Riot.

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