Welcome to this series of books introducing the character of Tom Pascoe, a River Surveyor with the Marine Police in the Port of London at the end of the 18th Century.
Although The Watermen (published in March 2011) and River of Fire (published in March 2012) are works of fiction, the events portrayed did, in many cases, actually occur and Tom’s spirit continues to exist to this day in the men and women of the Metropolitan Police Marine Support Unit who patrol the River Thames. Of course many things have changed and the police of the 21st Century have no need for cutlasses or the massive boat guns carried by the crews of the rowing galleys at the turn of the 19th Century. Nor do Tom Pascoe’s successors face the same level of danger or hardship as those incredibly tough men who joined the newly formed organisation on 2nd July 1798. Health and safety rules have taken care of that.
But some things do remain. The police office at 259, Wapping New Stairs from which Tom set out to patrol the reaches of the Thames is the same building from which modern officers still set out. Inside it is much changed from those far off days but if you stand still and listen you can still hear some of the sounds he would have heard and – who knows – might even feel the presence of the man himself leading his crew down to the river’s edge and the start of another patrol.
Historical context of the series
In 1798 England was in dire straits. Her finances were at a very low ebb as a result of the war in America which had ended a few years before. Now she was at war with France and facing the immediate prospect of invasion from the Napoleonic army. The Dutch and the Spanish were also waiting their opportunity. All that stood in the way was the Royal Navy – a navy which, in the previous year, had mutinied almost within sight of a Dutch invasion fleet.
As if that were not enough, Ireland was being convulsed by an armed rebellion in which thousands were to die and thousands more were to leave Ireland to seek a new life in London. In Scotland, meanwhile, resentment bubbled just below the surface and threatened to go the same way as Ireland.
In the midst of all this, huge quantities of imported goods were being plundered from ships in the Port of London and, in the process, seriously reducing the revenue the government needed to prosecute the war. So serious was this problem that the Prime Minister, William Pitt, was considering a swingeing increase in the level of taxation – a measure that would probably have led to serious public disorder.
Into this particular breach stepped two men – both magistrates. One was Patrick Colquhoun and the other was John Harriot. Both, simultaneously and independently, developed the idea of a body of police to patrol the Port of London. But while the idea was met with cautious enthusiasm by the government, it insisted that much of the cost of the new organisation should fall on the private sector (in this case, the captains and owners of the West India Merchants and Traders’ ships who were to benefit).
On Monday 2nd July 1798, with the absolute minimum of training, the new organisation – the first professional police force in the country – went into action with just 60 officers patrolling the three and a half miles of the Thames between London Bridge and the Harbour Master’s house at Greenwich.