Canal Policing after 1948

by Graham Major

The transport network was nationalised on the 1st January 1948. The first twelve months was a period of transition, with the old police forces that existed prior to nationalisation continuing as they had done before and it was not until the following year that policing came under the control of one single body known as the British Transport Commission Police to improve efficiency. There were five separate canal police force which were absorbed into the British Transport Commission Police, these being the Grand Union Canal Police, Lee Conservancy Police, Sharpness Dock Police, Sheffield and South Yorkshire Navigation Police and the Aire and Calder Navigation Police.

In order for officers to exercise their powers on all Commission undertakings including inland waterways, it was necessary to extend Railway Police powers. This was achieved by Section 53 of the British Transport Commission Act 1949. The country’s Docks and 25 Inland Waterways were divided into four districts for administration purposes, under a Docks and Inland Waterways Executive.

The British Transport Commission Police contingent dedicated to policing canals and inland waterways in the London area, was small by comparison to other the British Transport Commission Police groups and never probably exceeded thirty officers. Their main tasks were to deal with suicides, drownings and thefts from barges and canalside properties. Police posts existed at Bow Lock where a Sergeant and eleven Constables provided a patrol force for the River Lee and Grand Union Canal and at the Regents Canal Dock, which had a staff of a Sergeants, two Constables and eight Dock Wardens.

At midnight on the 31st July 1954 the British Transport Commission Police took over policing Goole Dock deploying a Sergeant and four Constables. Prior to this policing was still undertaken by West Riding Constabulary. It is not known why Goole did not pass to the British Transport Commission Police in 1949 like other inland waterways.

During the late 50s and early 60s, the British Transport Commission Police post at Kidderminster provided a patrol service along the River Severn. One of their task was the enforcement of the speed limit on the river, a task which led to a number of successful prosecutions. There was also at this time a constable employed to exclusively to patrol the canal network in the City of Birmingham.

In 1960 a notice was posted at BTC stations in London seeking volunteers to form a motorcycle unit to police the British Waterways System. Initially officers were given bicycles, but later these were replaced by BSA Bantam motorcycles. The unit comprised four Constables under the supervision of a Sergeant.

The British Transport Police formed on the 1st January 1963 to provide a policing service to the boards that had replaced the British Transport Commission. The British Waterways Board only remained in the scheme a short period of time. Indeed on the 1st January 1964 it set up its own 24 hour British Waterways Security Force. This force comprised a Superintendent and 12 men at the Regents Canal Dock, with a further 12 based at Bow Lock to patrol the River Lee and the Grand Union Canal. Five of the patrol officers were mobile having been issued with motorcycles. A three man unit existed at Gloucester Dock, who apart from patrolling the docks, had a “Water Baby” cruiser for canal patrols.

Interestingly though, in 1966 the British Waterways Board asked the Port of London Police for a costing to take over the Regents Canal Dock, which had been a thorn in the side of the PLA for many years. Nothing came of the request, as the cost of policing would have been more than the docks continued existence was worth. The nearest thing to a dedicated police force the canals have now is the British Waterways Board Patrol Unit formed in 1977, who are responsible for enforcement activities on the canal and inland waterways network.


This article originally appeared in the BTPHG Year Book 2013.

Graham Major is currently researching ‘Policing the Canals’ as a Project for BTPHG.