A Copper and his Coat



Alfred Rosling Bennett photographed in his late fifties. c.1908. National Portrait Gallery.

The versatile Alfred Rosling Bennett, writing about his childhood in the 1850s and 1860s, told a good story about a South London police constable. I say ‘versatile’ because Rosling was an engineer by profession. His achievements in this field were certainly impressive, but he had other strings to his bow.

You may have encountered him already in other articles on the London Overlooked website on subjects as varied as a model locomotive in a shop window in Westminster, a romantic butcher’s boy in Peckham, and, yes, a police constable in South London. However, the last of these, a fellow by the name of Walk On Jenkins, was a feature of the streets of Greenwich, whereas the fellow I am going to write about here was a feature of the streets of Borough.

Mean streets

Borough in Southwark had a number of interesting literary connections. The Tabard Inn in Talbot Yard, just to the south of the George Inn, and presided over by Harry Bailly, was the starting point for Chaucer’s pilgrims. The George Inn itself was frequented by Charles Dickens, and it was there that the feckless Edward Dorrit wrote his begging letters. Meanwhile the church of St George the Martyr in Borough High Street was where Amy Dorrit was christened, and where, fittingly, she married Arthur Clennam. And not far from St George the Martyr stood the notorious Marshalsea debtors’ prison, the setting for so many unforgettable scenes in Little Dorrit.

But the Marshalsea was not alone in bringing down the reputation of the area, and the young Bennett’s parents were wary of the dangers lurking on many a street corner. At the time the family lived close by in Camberwell, and the writer notes that, when he and his brother William were old enough to go out and about under their own steam, they were warned in no uncertain terms to avoid East Street in Walworth, and Kent Street in Southwark, and other thoroughfares known to be the haunts of undesirable characters.

Tabard Inn in Southwark. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 6 1878.

Calling the police

One day in about 1859 Alfred and William were strolling along Borough High Street, minding their own business, when suddenly it began to rain. They dashed for the nearest shelter, which was an arched passage near St George the Martyr. As it happened, the passage ran alongside a public house. Alas, that part of town boasted a good number of public houses, and it is anyone’s guess which particular one the Bennett brothers chose. The Crown and The Dun Horse were the two nearest to the church, but it hardly matters, for the real point of interest is that a police constable sauntered into the same passage as the boys, not, we must suppose, to get out of the rain — the London peeler was surely made of sterner stuff — but to pursue a rather remarkable and certainly an unexpected course of action.

Now, the adult Bennett had a keen interest in the uniformed guardians of law and order, and it is worth interrupting our story to consider some of his observations. He noted, for example, that the police constable was known by many names. Some of these — ‘Robert’, ‘Bobby’ or ‘bobby’, ‘Peeler’ or ‘peeler’ — are too familiar to need much comment here. Clearly they derive from Sir Robert Peel, who steered the Metropolitan Police Act through Parliament in 1829. A fourth, namely ‘copper’, has its origins in the verb ‘to cop’, which ultimately goes back to the Latin verb capere, and means to nab, which, by the way, is a word of uncertain history. The police constable was also called a ‘bluebottle’, for reasons I discuss in my article on Walk On Jenkins.

London peeler greeting the eponymous Sir Robert Peel. The Illustrated London News 31 January 1846.

The slops

However, the most curious of the slang names listed by Bennett must surely be ‘slop’. The Oxford English Dictionary explains it as an example of back-slang, being a modified form of ‘ecilop’, which is merely ‘police’ written backwards. Fine, but was the word ever used? Yes. The writer Frederick William Robinson, for example, in Coward Conscience, had Mr Hildebrandt warn the guttersnipe Larry in the following manner:

You’d better cut — the slops are after you.

And, lest you think that Robinson was exploiting artistic licence to offload invented slang on his admiring readers — one of whom was Dante Gabriel Rossetti — here is The Morning Post of 24 April 1868:

I saw the two [expletive] slops by the public-house, and I got afraid and ran away.

The speaker, incidentally, was John O’Keefe, who was on trial at the Old Bailey for his alleged part in the Fenian bombing of the Clerkenwell House of Detention in December 1867. The slops he was referring to had been keeping an eye on the Lion & French Horn in Pollen Street in Mayfair, where Fenians were known to gather.

Dark and dingy Boar’s Head Court in Southwark. Edward Walford Old and New London volume 6 1878.

The swinging door

But to return to our story of the two young Bennetts and the police constable. The latter, having sauntered into the passage, as described above, took his stand with his back close to a door. He was also whistling in the sort of nonchalant manner which is intended to divert attention but generally only succeeds in attracting it.

Then something odd happened. The door the whistling constable had his back to began to open. To be precise, it began to swing open, because it was one of a pair of swing-doors. The swing-doors opened into the public-house. And, as they watched in growing fascination, Alfred and William saw a hand slide forth through the open door towards the constable’s back. No doubt there was a second hand that belonged to the owner of the first and was holding the door ajar.

Move along!

Before we go any further, it is worth observing that there was now more than a suggestion that the constable was known to someone inside the public house. This would explain his furtive manner — the passage, the side door, the whistling — for he was putting himself in a compromising position. In the Instruction Book issued to all members of the Metropolitan Police Force it was stated plainly that the constable on his beat

must not loiter or stand in an idle and listless manner, or gossip.

However, in the case of our constable, worse was to follow. For the hand sliding through the open door was holding a flat flask. And, given that the hand belonged to a patron of the public house, or to a person employed by the public house, we may as well assume that the flask contained some sort of alcoholic beverage. The constable was now sailing very close to the wind, for he would certainly have read in his copy of the Instruction Book that

he is not on any account to receive drink from any one. If he requires refreshment, he can obtain the permission of his Sergeant to purchase it.

The penalties for misconduct were severe. A constable might be reduced in class — from 3rd class to 4th class, for example — with a corresponding cut in pay. He might be dismissed — no reason had to be given — with loss of pay and pension. He might have a ten pound fine slapped on him, or a prison sentence of one month with hard labour.

The slithering hand

Well, even as the two boys watched this remarkable performance, the fingers of the emerging hand rose to new heights of dexterity. Still holding the flask, they furtively parted the coat-tails of the whistling copper, disappearing between them. He — the whistling copper — affected not to notice. The hand remained there for a second or two, lost in the shadows of the copper’s apparel, before withdrawing. Once again it passed through the coat-tails, although it was now naturally travelling in the opposite direction.

And judge of the boys’ astonishment when the flask was no longer in sight. The hand slithered back into the inner recesses of the public house, like a snake retreating into undergrowth. The constable, still whistling in a carefree manner, and with the flask tucked safely in a pocket, walked from the passage back into the High Street. The performance was over: he continued on his beat.

Fine example of bluebottles in their varnished leather hats. Punch volume 26 1854.

A spreading pool

Bennett has a second story on the theme of police constables and public houses, and it acts as an effective counterbalance to the first, for it is dark and sobering, as it were. Again it is the memory of an incident in his childhood. He gives no particulars of location, and we must assume that the setting once more was South East London.

The story goes as follows. One afternoon, when he was still a boy, Bennett came across a crowd in a street. Approaching the crowd he witnessed a terrible spectacle. A police constable, sitting on the pavement, was propping up a man who had committed suicide by cutting his own throat. His head was hanging forward on his chest, and blood was streaming down over his clothes. A dark red pool was spreading across the road.

The boy, seeing a dead body for the first time, was transfixed. There were other police constables standing by, and with them was a man dressed in black. To the boy’s vivid imagination the man in black appeared to be an undertaker. He was in fact a doctor.

The public bar of a nineteenth-century public house. Punch volume 38 1860.

A blind eye

But the most vivid detail in Bennett’s account of the incident was what happened next. For when he went on his way and had got about two or three hundred yards down the street, he heard rapid footsteps behind him. Turning round he saw the constable — the constable who had been holding the dead man — hurrying in his direction. His face, deathly pale, wore an expression of horror and disgust.

Striding past the boy the constable stopped at a public house, which stood a few yards further on. He wiped his mouth with the back of his left hand, then disappeared into the private bar of the public house, where, the boy imagined, he called for a stiff restorative. The poor fellow had had a rough time of it, and one hopes that the publican had the good sense to serve him, even though he was in uniform. Rules, after all, are made to be broken.

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