In late April 1842 four police constables appeared at Lambeth Police Court as defendants charged with pilfering from the London Docks. John Broughton, Robert Bird, Joseph Linscott and Thomas Trotman stood accused of stealing brandy and wine whilst they were supposed to have been on duty. The four men were represented by a solicitor, a Mr Pelham and the case was heard before Mr Henry, the Lambeth magistrate.
The case was brought by William Pierse, Police Superintendent at H Division (later to be the home of the BBC’s Ripper Street) , and he stated that he received information that the men had been taking home ‘quantities of wine and brandy’ when they had finished their shifts at the docks. Acting on this tip off he visited the home of Broughton (199 H) at 12 William Street, St George-in-the-East.
Pierse challenged the policeman with the information he had and Broughton denied all knowledge. The superintendent asked if he had any objections to a search of his property and Broughton said he neither had any objection nor any alcohol in the house. However, as soon as the senior officer began to open some of his cupboards PC Broughton quickly produced a bottle of brandy, claiming it was a gift from a ship’s mate aboard The Ocean.
If this was meant to stop there search then it failed and the brandy was quickly joined by ‘a champagne bottle and two smaller bottles, and a small earthenware bottle of brandy’. He tried to pass these off as presents, before he was cautioned and confessed to having taken them from the docks.
Pelham cross examined the superintendent but didn’t challenge his evidence, merely extracting a statement that up until then Broughton had held a good character in the force, and had served at the docks for the last 12 months. Superintendent Pierse then offered very similar evidence against each of the other officers in the dock.
So, we now had a policeman who, by his own confession, was guilty (at best) of a breach of trust and, at worst, of outright theft. The question now came of proving that he (and the other officers) had deliberately stolen it from the dockyards.
The court called in a Mr Clements who worked for the Dock Company as a ‘confidential constable’. This suggests that he was private security hired to protect the company’s stock. Clements said he was quite happy to let the police investigation take it course but he offered his own thoughts on the thefts.
According to him no brandy or champagne or other wine was left lying around the dock area but there were substantial stocks in the warehouses. So in his view the police must have carried away the alcohol ‘in small quantities’; and this, he added, ‘they had an opportunity of doing, as they always wore their great coats when leaving the dock, and they were never searched’.
Pilfering from the docks was widespread in the 1800s (as it had been in the 1700s, and would be till the docks finally closed in the late 20th century) but it was much easier if you were unlikely to be searched.
Mr Pelham now made a plea for his clients.
‘He expressed a hope that, as they all had wives and families who were solely dependent on them for support, and as their conduct in the present instance would lead to their dismissal from the force, he [i.e. Mr Henry, the justice] would merely fine them’.
That would indeed have been a good result for the men, and much better than ordinary thieves might have expected from the court. In the opinion of Mr Henry this was a very serious crime but he was mindful of the reality that proving that the brandy and wine found at the men’s homes was that taken from the docks would be difficult, if not impossible. For that reason alone, he said, he would not send them before an Old Bailey jury.
He was left with the only option available to send a message that this sort of behaviour was entirely unacceptable. He sent each of them to the house of correction for two months. One can imagine that for four young coppers, that was unlikely to be a pleasant experience. On top of that, they were unemployed and unlikely to find trusted work for some time, if at all.
[from The Morning Chronicle, Wednesday, April 27, 1842]