A Few Bad Apples

Brutality, corruption and abuses of power in the Metropolitan Police at the turn of the 20th century led to an inquiry – but no reform.

A Metropolitan Police officer, late 19th century © Popperfoto/Getty Images.

At 10.30pm on 20 March 1906, Mrs Victoria Norris changed omnibus outside the Peter Robinson department store at Oxford Circus in the West End of London. She was heading home to her husband, a naval architect, in south London. It was raining hard and she was carrying a large box. She dropped her umbrella and a gentleman stooped to pick it up. She thanked him. The next thing she knew, a police officer grabbed her chin in his hand and said: ‘Hello my good lady’. This was PC Arthur Cole, who then marched Mrs Norris off to nearby Great Marlborough Street police station. In court the next morning, PC Cole branded her a prostitute and claimed that she had been in Oxford and Regent Streets almost nightly, soliciting men. He had watched her that night for a minute or two, smiling up into gentlemen’s faces, he told the magistrate. After his initial caution, she went on to solicit two more men. One of these men allegedly said to Cole: ‘These women are a nuisance, constable.’ 

For her part, Mrs Norris said that on a previous occasion, PC Cole had pestered her to come and have a drink with him. ‘I told him to go away … I was a married woman. He said: “Yes, I know all about that – your husband is your ponce.”’ Cole held the record for Metropolitan Police Division C arrests for solicitation – having hauled in around 200 women in the shopping streets of London’s West End. 

In the cells at the police station on 20 March were a number of other arrested women who were indeed prostitutes. They told Mrs Norris that ‘that dirty dog’, PC Cole, regularly took money from them so that they could carry on soliciting without facing arrest. If they failed to pay up, he ran them in. Mrs Norris also alleged that, in the corridor before her hearing, a police officer said to her that it was the law that no single woman could be out after half-past ten in Regent Street. 

The magistrate Mr Denman dismissed the charge against her. He accepted her word – that she had been visiting a friend in Hampstead and was changing buses at Oxford Circus, as she always did. She was free to leave. 

Two weeks later, a Frenchwoman, Mrs Eva D’Angely, was arrested in Regent Street by Division C constables Lucas and Page close to midnight on a charge of ‘being a common prostitute and behaving in a riotous and indecent manner’. At her hearing, Mr Denman was inclined to believe her when she said that she had arranged to meet her husband, René, a jewellery salesman, at the corner with Conduit Street and had only mistakenly waved to other men in the belief that they were René. The police officers said she had been accosting men on that spot for some time. Denman remanded the case and at the adjourned hearing on 1 May the police backtracked – stating that they now believed the D’Angelys to be a ‘respectable’ couple. The case was dismissed.


No serious problem

In the House of Commons, ten days after the D’Angely acquittal, Wilfred Ashley, MP for Blackpool, told the Home Secretary Herbert Gladstone that the D’Angelys were now being followed – or ‘shadowed’ – by the Metropolitan Police. He demanded to know whether this was being done on Home Office orders. Gladstone claimed to know nothing about this and did not reassure the House when he said: ‘I cannot commit myself to an answer before I make inquiries.’ Gladstone then admitted that the D’Angelys had indeed been shadowed by the police on a single occasion, which caused indignant cries in the chamber. The prime minister Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman then said: 

The government are fully alive to the importance of this subject … and they find that there is a general desire, shared by the authorities of the police, for a full inquiry. In our judgement that inquiry should be directed to the duties of the Metropolitan Police in dealing with cases of drunkenness and solicitation in the streets.

The subsequent Royal Commission on the Duties of the Metropolitan Police sat for two years (1906-8) and took evidence from 292 witnesses concerning 19 cases (of a potential 855), of which four concerned arrests for drunkenness, ten for disorder and five for solicitation – the latter including the arrests of Eva D’Angely and Victoria Norris. In all but three of the 19 cases, there were glaring conflicts of evidence between the police and the arrested individual.

The majority of the complaints were that the arrest had been unfounded and even malicious and that there had been unprovoked physical aggression during arrest. The bulk of the more than 800 rejected cases concerned allegations that constables took bribes from prostitutes, bookmakers and publicans. 

Regent Street, London, c.1900 © Hulton Getty Images.

In its final report, published in 1908, the Commission took pains to point out that it considered it highly significant that no organised body had come forward to give collective voice to allegations of police corruption. This, it opined, gave great weight to the belief that there was no serious systemic problem with the Metropolitan Police. 

There was one exception: ‘Mr Timewell’s organisation’. The very fact that he and ‘his’ Police and Public Vigilance Society (P&PVS) had insinuated themselves into the topic powerfully undermined the entire notion that there was any problem with the police, the report warned. In taking the time to discredit Timewell and the P&PVS in the opening pages of the report, the Commission revealed a less-than-even-handed approach – which Timewell would not be slow to point out.

Nevertheless, it does seem odd that criticism of the Metropolitan Police should, by the start of the 20th century, have only this one small institutional channel. The Radical wing of the Liberal Party, the Progressives on the London County Council and sections of the press expressed concern from time to time that the force was answerable to Whitehall and not to any popularly elected local body. But no dedicated organisation emerged in the capital to pursue these matters. The Personal Rights Association (PRA), active from 1871, was the closest Britain had to a civil liberties organisation and might be expected to have interested itself in the Royal Commission. However, the PRA appears to have taken no part in the proceedings.

At the National Archives, the Home Office file containing abstracts of complaints made against the Met between 1904 and 1906 includes ‘interference’ with a blind organ grinder of Woolwich; ‘rough usage’ of women’s suffrage campaigner Teresa Billington-Greig at a demonstration; and Mr R. Long, an epileptic man, dying in custody, among various other accusations. Where these complaints did not originate from the alleged victim, the cases had been raised by MPs, a university settlement house and a vicar. The P&PVS shows up in these files as the only organisation collating evidence and offering support.

War Incidents, an ‘Over-zealous P.C.’ and a ‘Perfectly Innocent Young Lady’, by F.H. Townsend, Punch, 1913 © Punch Cartoon Library/Topfoto.It may be the case that, with significant numbers of European socialists and anarchists arriving in London, fleeing more unjust and brutal police activity, English activists recognised that they were, in fact, more sensitively policed than the majority of their comrades abroad. London was viewed as the last remaining European ‘open city’, in terms of freedom to congregate and discuss anti-authoritarian, anti-state ideas. This knowledge may perhaps unconsciously have acted as a brake on the formation of an overt, impassioned anti-police body. Moreover, many Radical Liberals may have been clinging to the belief that a revitalised ‘New’ Liberalism would incorporate policing reforms as part of a broader policy platform. Finally, and still speculatively, the fact that Parliament, as well as the Tory and Liberal press, regularly attacked the Met may have somewhat robbed progressive activists of the impetus to create their own campaign body. 

In October 1897, James Timewell appeared at the Old Bailey as a witness in the trial of four Metropolitan Police officers for assault. Timewell had been walking with his two adolescent children in Borough, south London, one evening when they were among passers-by who saw the officers attacking a young wheelwright. In court, he and his children gave accounts of what they saw. The officers were acquitted. Four years after the trial, Timewell founded his organisation. 

Timewell had previously established himself as an outspoken pamphleteer, critiquing a wide range of social and political ills, including the unequal distribution of land, rack-renting landlords, lack of voting rights for working people and the urgent need to democratise local government. It is not easy to place these early works of Timewell’s with precision on the left political spectrum: there is material that would please an anarchist, a Marxist, a democratic socialist, a radical liberal. His pamphlets were sold from the Labour Leader newspaper offices in Fleet Street, but not exclusively so. A deep scepticism towards what passed for parliamentary democracy suffuses the writing and he regarded most of what was being passed off as ‘progress’ as a sophisticated series of mechanisms that delayed the process of working people ever achieving their true rewards from their labour. 

Three years later came Timewell’s first exposé of a police brutality case, The Police and the Public: The Southwark Police Case and Its Moral, published in 1898, complete with an emotive illustration entitled ‘Midnight at Southwark Police Station, October 16, 1897’. This depicts two men lying flat out on the charge-room floor of the station house, having been assaulted by the police. 

‘The Police and the Public’ became a series title, with the sub-title, ‘Penny Pamphlets for the People’. The second in the series was The Police and the Public: A Marylebone Case – The Story of the Assault Upon George Wilson by PC Worsley (1904), which reported the assault by police officers of Wilson, a builder, and the subsequent trial and the perjury committed by the constables.

The violence of certain police officers, along with malicious arrests and ‘spying’ on perfectly legal political gatherings had come to public attention periodically in the 1880s and early 1890s. The national newspaper press had not been afraid to carry such stories. 

Nevertheless, outrage at police misbehaviour only flared up occasionally. Calls for control of the Metropolitan Police to be removed from the Home Department to a locally elected London body joined the disparate goals promoted by the fractured left of London. Among those professing admiration for Timewell were Ramsay Macdonald, at that time the secretary of the Labour Representation Committee, Edward Pease of the Fabian Society and Sir J.W. Collins of the London County Council. George Bernard Shaw twice offered financial support to Timewell, while Bertrand Russell’s brother, the 2nd Earl Russell, agreed to be titular head of the P&PVS (though he later denounced Timewell as ‘a fanatic’). 

The high-water mark of the P&PVS was the Royal Commission. Timewell was permitted to sit in on the session of Saturday 7 June 1907, in support of a young Belgian married couple, she a prostitute and he her ponce, who were given the protective anonymity of ‘Madame F. L.’ and ‘Monsieur F. L.’. Their spoken English was poor and Timewell had helped to put together their case for wrongful arrest.


Allegations and exonerations

As already noted, the Commissioners had sifted 292 complaints from the public about the police. The Home Office had supplied the Commission with a further 68 allegations; the police themselves let the Commission know of 128 complaints. Other sources, marked ‘strictly confidential’, also sent in complaints, including Timewell. Altogether, this made a total of 855 complaints across ten years. The most common allegations were of wrongful arrest and false charges, violence during arrest and demanding money and ‘sweeteners’ from book-keepers and prostitutes in order to permit their illegal actions to continue. The Commissioners decided to proceed with just 19 cases, of which 14 were those submitted by the P&PVS – an astonishing ratio, that lends a credibility to Timewell that the Commission’s Report would deny him. Seven of the allegations the P&PVS supported were upheld and resulted in action against officers; seven allegations were not upheld and officers were exonerated. Of the non-P&PVS-backed cases, two led to disciplining or dismissal and three resulted in ‘no further action’. 

Teresa Billington-Greig, c.1910. Courtesy LSE Library/Wikimedia/Creative Commons.The majority of the male complainants were skilled or semi-skilled working men, assaulted and arrested on charges of being drunk and/or disorderly. The exceptions were Arthur Tressadern, Edward Emms and John Norrey, well-known East End low-level criminals and Maurice A. Gerothwohl, D Litt, lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, who, along with his friend Henri Lavalette, a Belgian journalist, was arrested on the night of the Boat Race, taken to Vine Street police station and beaten. They were charged with being drunk and disorderly in Piccadilly. Their exceptional respectability within the ranks of the complainants was noted by the Commission, who nevertheless found against Gerothwohl and Lavalette, remarking: ‘Neither good breeding nor mental culture is a guarantee against misbehaviour, as the records of Vine Street police station too clearly show.’ 

In total, the Royal Commission findings led to the sacking or disciplining of eight constables, one sergeant and four inspectors. In one case, backed by the P&PVS, a constable was sentenced to nine months in prison for the unprovoked attack that hospitalised George Gamble for three and a half months with a ruptured urethra; he was permanently disabled. Gamble had seen the constable canoodling with a street prostitute and, when Gamble had remonstrated, the constable had knocked him to the ground and repeatedly kicked him between the legs. 

Timewell was also permitted to use the Commission to publicise his own main recommendations. He stated his belief that, with 16,667 personnel, the Met was too large for a city of nearly seven million largely peaceful, honest citizens. He advised shrinking the force to 10-12,000 men. He also recommended making legal action against police officers for perjury easier. 

The evidence of 18 of the 19 cases probed by the Royal Commission was published. One case had been so potentially devastating to the standing of the police that it was heard in camera and the proceedings were, to use Timewell’s phrase, ‘suppressed’. In an act that is difficult to understand, the Commission permitted Timewell to take away a copy of the shorthand report of the hearing. A year later, he published the record as The Royal Commission On the Metropolitan Police: The Truth About The Inquiry.

The Royal Commission  of the Metropolitan Police: The Truth About The Enquiry, by James Timewell, 1909. Courtesy LSE Library. Photo: Sarah Wise.The transcript was for Day 53 of the inquiry. In broken English, Madame F.L. claimed that upon moving to London, her husband had been unable to find white-collar work and so she had begun prostituting herself. On the recommendation of a Hungarian souteneur, or pimp, they had moved to ‘C Mansions’, near ‘H ___ Broadway’ and ‘F __ Road’ (almost certainly Hammersmith and probably Caroline Mansions, opposite today’s Hammersmith Apollo). The mansion block was opposite a police station which was on the ‘L ____ Road’. C Mansions had 25 flats, each home to two or three women working as prostitutes. The block’s caretaker, ‘W’, was a former policeman to whom they paid a weekly sum. Every day ‘W’ would bring police officers from across the road to consort with the residents. Whenever an officer asked for money, Madame F.L. would pay him anywhere between threepence and a shilling. She added that this type of behaviour was completely normal throughout London and that, when she had previously worked the streets of Soho and Piccadilly, police officers would regularly approach her for money. She had been told by the more established West End street women that the payments meant that they would not face arrest for solicitation. 

After 11 months, Madame F.L. left C Mansions because she had become aware that ‘one lady brought little girls with her’. This was a clear reference to the trafficking of underage girls for the purposes of prostitution. The 1885 furore around ‘the white slave trade’ and ‘the five-pound virgins’ had not been forgotten. The conviction of the supplier of girl children, Mary Jeffries, in that year and the ‘Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ articles by W.T. Stead in the Pall Mall Gazette had partially lifted the curtain on the taste among elite men for ‘unripe fruit’. These shocking incidents had been covered in distressing detail by a newly emboldened newspaper and periodical press. Now, 21 years later, here was testimony alleging that a brothel, in which ‘little girls’ were being prostituted, was not only protected by the Met but actually made use of by officers.

James Timewell claimed that the Commissioners themselves were keen to press ahead with the F.L.s’ case, regardless of the explosive allegations and the couple’s questionable honesty, but legal counsel for the Met had apparently applied heavy pressure to have the C Mansions case expunged from the published report. 


Systemic corruption

Ten days after the hearing, on 11 June, Timewell wrote to Sir Edward Henry, Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, to report the extensive ‘shadowing’ of the F.L.s. He had watched from his own windows as Monsieur F.L. was followed from Gower Street into Grafton Way and Tottenham Court Road by police officers in disguise; the men, dressed rather unconvincingly as navvies, also took to following Timewell himself. 

Two years later, Timewell returned to the subject of the inquiry, publishing, in 1911, The Royal Commission upon the Duties of the Metropolitan Police: Suppressed Evidence. He set out the steps by which the remit of the Royal Commission had been carefully shaped by the Home Office and the police authorities in order to highlight certain trends and to marginalise or excise certain other, more worrying, patterns of allegation. The manipulation of the scope of the inquiry, the careful selection from 855 complaints, could, at worst, result in a ‘few bad apples’ decision – which is exactly what the Commission opted for. Timewell claimed that the hundreds of cases not pursued by the Commission would have highlighted the sheer volume of allegations of officers demanding protection money, or involved in vice rings. These two phenomena, he believed, showed that there was systematic corruption – not just a few dishonest and thuggish constables. 

In Fabian Tract No 41, his supporter George Bernard Shaw wrote of ‘enthusiasts who mistake their own emotions for public movements’. Is this what Timewell was? Was he simply a querulant who had, for highly personal reasons, developed a monomaniacal dislike of the police and the judiciary? It is tempting to think so, since his work appears to have brought about no changes to policing. He was not a campaigner who was noteworthy at the time; and he has failed to make his mark among modern historians. The second half of the 19th century was rich in individuals who were considered to be cranks, faddists, or single-issue obsessives. This was one reason for Gladstonian Liberalism to be wary of extending the franchise, since it would lead to extra-party, issues-based politics, with charlatans grandstanding in the hunt for popularity. Votes for women, vegetarianism, temperance, anti-vaccination, anti-vivisectionism, rational dress, rational recreation – all such ‘causes’ sat uneasily within the parliamentary two-party system. The reform of the police was not a close fit even with Radical Liberalism. 

The consistency and depth of Timewell’s oeuvre, however, and the intelligence and cogency of his prose elevate him out of the realm of the crank. The improvements that he suggested were not unreasonable. 

His verdict on the Royal Commission was that it had been ‘a costly farcical performance’ and he believed it ‘astonishing’ that it had been a Liberal government that had overseen such a farce. Timewell’s final work, published in 1919, reveals that he had completed the journey away from Liberalism: it is entitled Notes on the Present: An Appeal to the Electors in the Interest of the Labour Party

E.P. Thompson wrote that one of the greatest spurs for Radical Liberals to become Socialists had been the disappointment, evident by 1881, at Gladstone’s mishandling of Ireland, of Empire and the trade and agricultural depression of the 1870s. Timewell’s trajectory seems to give weight to the notion of an ongoing wave of ‘disappointment’ in how far Liberalism would bring about meaningful systemic change – social transformations that would protect the powerless from the powerful. 


Sarah Wise teaches on the University of California’s London Study Programme and is the author of Inconvenient People: Lunacy, Liberty and the Mad-Doctors in Victorian England (Bodley Head, 2012).