When drunk and disorderly behaviour almost results in an attack on the police

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Yesterday a tragedy unfolded in central London. I am writing this in the evening of the 22 March 2017 as the news of what seems to have been a major terrorist incident is still unfolding. What I know now (at 8 o’clock) is that at least 5 people are dead, and many more are injured, some critically. I’m not going to comment on the attack and its consequences because I only know what I’ve heard on the BBC and Channel 4. But I feel much as I did after 7/7: outraged, saddened, disgusted, and determined that this sort of inhuman, indiscriminate, and cowardly attack should not, and will not, change the way myself and millions of other Londoners behave as we go about our daily lives. I am proud to live in a liberal democracy which supports free speech, free association and the rights of  everyone.

One of those that died today was a policeman, PC Keith Palmer and today’s blog is respectfully dedicated to his memory.

PC Palmer was unarmed and standing on duty at Carriage Gates, outside the Palace of Westminster. He was simply doing his job and in the process he was stabbed to death in front of his colleague. The fact that he was unarmed is significant because it demonstrates that in this country, from their inception in 1829, the Metropolitan Police do not routinely carry firearms. The British ‘bobby’ is armed with a truncheon (albeit a modern version), just as they have been for 188 years. Questions are bound to be asked this week about whether in future such officers should be equipped with lethal weapons; personally I hope they are not but I will understand why that question is posed.

In 1884 (in a period when a different terrorist threat plagued London – that of Irish nationalism) another policeman was attacked in the capital – this time not fatally, although it could have been worse.

PC Shananhan (36XR) was on his beat in Kilburn at about 20 to 10 in the evening when he heard a disturbance ahead. He came across a crowd of people outside a public house on Cambridge Street and tried to calm things down.

Several of the angry group of persons were complaining that they and been assaulted by a woman. The woman was identified as Mary Ann Howley, an ironer, was clearly drunk and very disorderly. PC Shananhan arrested her and then tried to convey back to the police station.

However, as he took her by the arm and started to walk her away a man rushed up to him to try and affect a rescue. He drew a knife and threatened the constable, but the alert policeman simply knocked the weapon out of the assailant’s hand with his truncheon.

Having secured both offenders PC Shanahan duly appeared with his captives at Marylebone Police court on the following morning. There the sitting justice was told that Howley had started the affray by knocking some coins out of the hand of another drinker , Mary Grace Nottle. She complained and Howley then spat out some unpleasant invective and a full-on ‘barney’ ensued. Probably at the this point the publican intervened and the whole dispute escalated on to the streets, drawing the attention of the police.

It was a common enough disturbance in Victorian London, what elevated it to being newsworthy was probably the use of a knife. Police magistrates were as seldom tolerant of attacks on the police as they were on ‘civilians’ (at least as long as a so-called ‘fair fight’ was the outcome); assault that involved weapons were quite another thing, and an attempt to stab a policeman doing his duty was anathema.

Mr de Rutzen sentenced Mary to 14 days in prison for her behaviour but committed her would be saviour to hard labour for two months.

[from Lloyd’s Weekly Newspaper, Sunday, March 23, 1884]

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One thought on “When drunk and disorderly behaviour almost results in an attack on the police

  1. I expect and hope this tribute to those caught up in yesterday’s mindless attack, and especially to PC Keith Palmer and his family, will join the legion of others already in the media. Managing, in the moment, to link this attack to an incident 130 years previously has to be cause for congratulation of your knowledge.

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