Docks and Canals

by Bob Butcher

Extract from the April 2011 edition of History Lines (No. 20) (edited with the authors corrections)

At the top of our History Lines we note that our history includes that of dock and canal police. In the past I have written about them elsewhere but it may, perhaps, be permissible to summarise the subject here in what is a purely historical paper. I should, however, make it clear that most of what I write is really second hand knowledge.

The formation of the then British Transport Commission Police Force in the spring of 1949 drew in the police employed by docks and canals not in public ownership before the Transport Act of 1947. Thus the police of the Ports of London, Liverpool and Bristol and at Manchester Docks were excluded. However one undertaking that was included was the Regents Canal Dock in East London. In the forties and fifties it was quite busy and handled ships and not just barges. About twenty police were employed there almost exclusively on gate duties. There were two sergeants, one of who was ‘Tis’ Coleman’, was in charge. He acquired his nick name as the result of his habit of indicating agreement with the abbreviation of it is. He was a very active thief catcher and was regularly to be seen ‘rubbing down’ Dockers as they left work. When the Dockers learned that his daughter had just been married, the joke went round that he rubbed down the guests as they left the reception. After a few years several constables were transferred to Liverpool Street and at least two welcomed the change. I believe that the old dock is now a marina.

Also absorbed into the old Liverpool Street Division were a couple of men from Bow Locks (no wise cracks please) and from the River Lea Navigation. I know virtually nothing about their work or backgrounds but the man in charge of the Lea Navigation Police had followed his father into the job which had been kept open for him until he returned from the forces after the war. It was alleged that at the prospect of being taken over, he re-titled himself superintendent. For a while he did duty as an inspector in the Division but his knowledge of police work fell short of what was then even our own modest standards. After a short time he emigrated to Australia.

When I went to Birmingham in 1958 PC Ron ?? was employed exclusively on the canals (according to Birmingham PR, the city has more canals than Venice). I never found out just what he actually did but it was in plain clothes. So far as I can recollect he had been the only policeman employed by the canal and had got the job through the labour exchange. In the sixties the commercial traffic on the canals dwindled and the British Waterways Board opted out of the policing arrangements and Ron was absorbed, rather uncomfortably, into the main New Street establishment.

I have a very vague recollection that at some time during the sixties or seventies our Southampton Division had to absorb a policeman, probably employed by the town at a pier or something like that. I’m sure that one of our members will know more about it than I do.

To wrap things up can I just say the Liverpool Docks (including the port in Birkenhead) were policed by a division of the Merseyside Police. However that force was anxious to give up that commitment and the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board formed its own force of 170 in 1975. Manchester Docks, which was in Salford, not Manchester had it own police (about 100 strong in 1978) which also covered the Manchester Ship Canal.  I believe that the docks and its police are no longer. Bristol Docks are not actually in the City of Bristol and its police numbered about seventy in 1978. There was a little oddity in that the BTP policed Dover Western Docks but not the Eastern. During the seventies the Dover Harbour Board started to employ police under a former county inspector and when Sealink pulled out of the BTP scheme, they filled the gap.

I do hope that any member who spots any error or who can add to the above will not hesitate to let the secretary know.


The following addition was published in the next edition of History Lines (No. 21)

In the article by Bob Butcher last month re Canals and Docks, Bob makes mention of a PC called Ron who policed the canals around Birmingham in 1958. Rob Davison informs us that the PC was Ronnie Wright who used a Vespa scooter to patrol the canals. Ron then moved to Birmingham New Street and probably served at Birmingham Snow Hill as well. Bob confirms that the PC was Ronnie Wright. He also has a vague idea that there was another officer at the time serving on the canals, but cannot remember his name.


UPDATE: Guestbook comment:

Dave Wilkinson from Formby, Merseyside wrote on February 16, 2019:
I wonder if I may correct some information which is contained within Bob Butcher’s item on dock policing (History Lines No:-20, April 2011). Towards the end he talks about Dover Docks. “During the seventies Dover Harbour Board began employing police…..” You may be interested to know that the Dover Harbour Board Police (now the Port of Dover Police) were formed in 1933, following DHB’s withdrawal from a policing contract with the Dover Watch Committee. A small point which has obviously gone uncorrected for quite some time.