Many of London’s smaller museums may appear to be private but they’re often more than happy to open their doors to the curious.
Such is the River Police Museum, still based at a Limehouse wharf, washed by the Thames and occupying a dusty room in the original police station that is still used today.
The curator, Robert Jeffries, is a former serving officer himself and what he doesn’t know about nefarious dockland deeds, secret smugglers, gruesome murders and shifty workers isn’t worth knowing.
The old carpenters’ workshop, complete with benches, chests of drawers and the odd left-over vice looks small. It is small – but don’t be fooled. I went from thinking ‘this will only take half an hour’ to wondering if I’d make an appointment I thought I’d scheduled enough time for. I hadn’t counted on Rob’s impressive knowledge, impeccable delivery and raconteur style. Holding Rob’s metaphorical hand, I descended into an 18th century world of murky docks and murkier practices.
The force (and it was a ‘force’, not a service) was originally paid for by ship owners tired of being ripped off by their own workers.
Each morning skinny East End ‘lumpers’ arrived to unload the ships’ cargoes wearing enormous coats. They would leave each evening so apparently well-fed their coats hardly met in the middle. Right up until the end of the docks in the 1960s, it was considered a perk of the job to fill your pockets with whatever ‘got spilled’ from ‘accidental breakages’.
The river police were created in 1798 to play an eternal cat-and-mouse game of find the lady, or, indeed, whatever else was being landed that day.
Robert Jeffries and I spent two hours in that room and still didn’t cover everything. In the end we repaired to the pub for yet more stories. A fine man, a fine museum and a fine way to spend an evening.
Contact Rob at the Thames River Police Museum. Factor in time both to see the museum and to buy Rob a drink (or three) at the Captain Kidd a few doors down, where you will get the best stories.