Dr Nick Hervey examines the historic role of the police in royal protection in the fourth in a series of twelve guest posts.
The police (or rather, the Bow Street Runners) had a long history of involvement with royalty, acting in the capacity of bodyguards. Buckingham Palace and the Mall still fall within Bow Street’s jurisdiction and it was to Bow Street that Queen Elizabeth II’s would-be assassin, Marcus Sarjeant, was taken in June 1981. The Bow Street Runner John Townsend was a favourite of George III’s, whilst Sayer and Macmanus regularly attended him both in and out of London. Another Runner, George Ruthven, who had been instrumental in crushing the Cato Street Conspiracy, gained extensive experience of working in the service of the Russian Emperor and also the Prussian government. In fact it became quite common for Runners to be seen at fashionable gatherings in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century where they provided some measure of security for important public figures. Thus the seeds of an embryonic royal protection corps were already in existence.1
The Bow Street Runners were not especially popular with the general public, several being guilty of extortion, receiving stolen goods and consorting with the criminal classes, but Peel’s New Police Force set up in 1829 was even less acceptable to the press and public. It smacked of continental absolutism, secret police, state power and centralising tendencies. The magistrates at Bow Street were also opposed to the new force and regularly obstructed its officers until 1839, when the second Metropolitan Police Act did away with the Runners and restricted the justices at Bow Street to a purely judicial role. Throughout the majority of our period the chief magistrate at Bow Street was, Thomas J Hall, (1839-64) and he dealt with many of the lunatics who were found in the environs of the Palace, although a number were also taken to the Queen-square, Marlborough Street and Guildhall police-offices.2
Despite the seriousness of Margaret Nicholson and James Hadfield’s attempts on George III’s life, security around the monarch was still relatively lax when Victoria came to the throne. One of the earliest madmen who tried to gain an audience with Victoria, Arthur Tucker, had in fact been following the Court around for several years and was already known to the police. In the summer of 1835 he had got into Windsor Castle and ‘succeeded in getting very near’ to William IV. This man was clearly insane and although wanting to obtain a hearing for what he conceived to be a righteous grievance, he might well have proved unpredictable and dangerous. Yet it seems the police adopted a more relaxed attitude to his presence, than they did to that of subsequent offenders in Victoria’s reign.3 This may be because of the number of serious attempts that were made on her life between 1840 and 1842, but it is also possibly a reflection of the increasingly intolerant attitude being adopted towards insane behaviour in the community.
In June 1837 when Victoria succeeded her uncle, William IV, she moved from her family home at Kensington Palace into Buckingham Palace, which had superseded St James’s as the Sovereign’s private London residence.4 Renovation work on the Palace had finally been completed in May 1837, but had left it in a far from satisfactory state. Apart from the smoking chimneys, which meant fires were kept low and the rooms were cold, ventilation was poor, cleaning was done irregularly, and smells emanating from rubbish and food in the kitchen area permeated the upper rooms. More importantly Palace security was ineffective.
Gaining entrance to Buckingham Palace was easy. In December 1838 the ‘boy Cotton’ was finally apprehended after spending more than a year there undetected. A 12 year old, he had lived unseen in the servants’ quarters and domestic offices. When caught, Cotton was covered in soot, and it was revealed that he had been hiding in the chimneys, occasionally sneaking out to snatch some sleep in whatever bed was available. He had never attempted to enter the state apartments, but had stolen and concealed a number of articles, amongst which was a sword. Cotton had also broken open a sealed letter to the Queen, and his incursion clearly represented a potential threat to her safety.5 Despite this a similar event occurred two years later.
On 2nd December 1840, Victoria’s monthly nurse heard a noise in the Queen’s sitting room just after 1am, and summoned a page. After a search a lad was found curled up under the sofa. He was at once recognised as ‘the boy Jones’ who had attempted to enter the Palace before. Jones stated that he could enter the Palace whenever he liked by climbing over the wall on Constitution Hill and creeping through one of the windows. When asked why he had entered the Queen’s rooms he said that he ‘wanted to know how they lived at the Palace’ and that ‘a description would look very well in a book’. It seems Jones had tried out the throne for size, and even caught sight of Victoria herself. A stunted youth of seventeen, he was the son of a tailor who earned a scanty living working from a shed in Derby Street, Cannon Row. The first time Jones entered Buckingham Palace he had been declared insane and discharged to relatives. On this occasion he was committed to the Tothill Street House of Correction for three months and put on the treadmill. Jones put on considerable airs, and requested the Police to treat him as a gentleman who ‘was anxious to make a noise in the world’. Three and a half months later when found for a third time in Buckingham Palace, on this occasion in the Great Hall, he was given a second spell of three months on the treadmill at the House of Correction, and then put on board HMS Warspite, bound for New South Wales. On two further occasions Jones jumped ship, but was returned on board, and subsequently served in HMS Inconstant and HMS Harlequin before being left in Malta, in 1847, to await passage home to England.6
To be continued…
1 Joan Lock, Tales from Bow Street (Robert Hale, 1982), pp.193-5.
2 Frederick Roe retired from Bow Street in 1839 (at only 50) immediately the second Police Act came in which deprived Bow Street of its police powers; Thomas J. Hall had been the first stipendiary magistrate in Liverpool before coming to Bow Street. For a good introduction to the debate about the origins of the New Police Force see Robert Reiner, The Politics of the Police (Wheatsheaf Books, 1985), chapter 1 passim.
3 Morning Post, 30 Jan 1838, p.3 and The Times 31 Jan 1838, p.3. Tucker claimed that there was a conspiracy against him and wanted to be paid for his attendance at Court.
4 Buckingham Palace was built in 1705, and had been bought by George III in 1762 as a Dower house for Queen Charlotte. He and the Queen continued to use St James’ Palace for ceremonial occasions. After the King’s illness removed him from public life, the Prince Regent contemplated rebuilding the Palace for himself. However because of work on Brighton Pavilion and Windsor, nothing was done on Buckingham Palace until 1825. In 1828 funds ran out, and public dissatisfaction with John Nash’s design which had resulted in a Select Committee, prevented further improvements being made. George IV’s death in 1829 brought building work to a standstill, and William IV never showed any enthusiasm for living there. Queen Victoria wasn’t a big fan either.
5 Cecil Woodham-Smith, Queen Victoria: Her Life and Times, Vol I, 1819-61 (Book Club Associates, 1973) pp. 207-8, 261.
6 ibid., pp.217-8; MEPOL2/44, Case No. 17 and mentioned again in the section dealing with the sane (as opposed to insane) persons who were arrested as a threat. S. Weintraub, Victoria: An Intimate Biography (Penguin, 1987), pp.151, 393.