Policing the Canals

Compiled by Viv Head

It’s a very long time since BTP policed the canals, nearly fifty years. Canals today are very much a haven of peace and tranquillity with lots of wildlife and hired cruising barges rushing sedentarily along with all the vitality of a lazy hedgehog. But it wasn’t always like that of course.

A vast network of canals laced Britain in the 18th and 19th Centuries before the railways claimed the upper hand.  They were the motorways of their day – huge numbers of barges carrying all sorts of freight choked the waterways. All along tow paths there were works of every kind. Men, boys and womenfolk; passenger an freight barges, horses, towing ropes, farriers, stablemen, victuallers and lock-keepers eager to exchange a few potatoes for a little coal to warm their cottages.  They rubbed shoulders with opportunists, free-loaders and hangers-on; oh yes, and urchins throwing stones at all and sundry.

Tempers often flared and quarrels broke out at queues at look gates. And there were often many locks to queue for- the Glamorgan Canal for instance, was only twenty-five miles long but the bargees had fifty-one locks to negotiate.

The water was black and filthy and often used as a receptacle for sewage.  The dirt, the smoke and the sweat and the sheer industry of all these comings and goings would have made a scene that can now only be imagined. That’s why the policemen were needed. But even the canal police were sometimes involved in the rough and tumble of the day. In 1859, Constable George Callaghan, who served in the Glamorgan Canal Police alongside his brother Thomas, charged recently resigned police constable Parkinson “with assault after he was beaten about the head on the canal bank”.

Pc “Jock” HERBERTSON was a canal policeman employed by the Lee Navigation Police at Bow Locks Police Station. When the force was taken over by the British Transport Police he had been retained by the British Waterways Board working as a door-man at their Headquarters until he later transferred to the BTP Headquarters. At Bow Locks a lot of canal-side factories workers often used the tow-paths to get to and from work.

During the great London smogs of the 1950s there were many accidental drownings, especially if they had called in at one of the many tow-path pubs.  In those days a reward was paid for bringing a body to the attention of a coroner.  The sum varied between 2/- and 2/6 (10p and 121/2p) depending upon in which borough the body was found. The canals often formed the boundaries between boroughs so the canal police soon realised the importance of retrieving the body from the right side of the waterway. A boat hook was a valuable tool in maximising the returns of recovering a dead body!

In 1953 canal police officer Sergeant A.G. WATERS, stationed near the tunnel between Caledonian Road and City Road in London submitted a report. He tells of an incident where an irate lady complained to him about cruelty to a horse pulling a barge containing 75 tons of goods. In order to placate the lady the good Sergeant took off his tunic off and pulled the barge himself for several yards!

Many thieves used the canal towpath to gain access to railway goods yards at the rear of Kings Cross and St Pancras Stations. The canal police made many arrests until the railway companies acted by lighting up the area at night. This however caused a different problem; on warm summer evenings as many as 100 swimmers used the canal as a floodlit bathing pool! On one night, with the assistance of the Metropolitan Police a raid was made on these illegal bathers and 64 people were arrested. On the way to the Police Station however a large fight ensued which resulted in only twenty-two being charged and convicted.

There are a handful of BTP staff record cards of canal policemen. One of them is unique- PC A. Ellis is shown as joining the “BCN” in 1917.  The BCN is the Birmingham Canal Navigation which was taken over by the Docks and Inland Waterways Executive in 1948. Ellis is actually shown as an “Assistant Constable” at “Birmingham Traffic” and appears to have been provided with a house for which he paid 6/- per week.

Perhaps the oddest story comes not from a canal but the River Severn in Worcestershire which was also policed by BTP in the 1950s. It was on the beat for Kidderminster officers and part of their responsibilities was to enforce the speed limits on the river. Police constable Graham Jennings, who retired to the Orkney Islands, tells us that two officers would stand on the bank at a measured quarter-mile distance apart, with stop-watch in hand to time the boats and work out their speed. In the early days, they would wave arms in a pre-arranged starting signal sequence. Later they progressed to telephones and later still to walkie-talkies. There was talk of a police boat being assigned to them but it did not materialise.

Tankers were the most concern because of their wash, but it was the pleasure boats that were prosecuted more frequently. The cases were brought before Worcester Magistrates Court and were often contested. In one case a witness for the prosecution turned out to be an old sea dog who easily confounded the evidence put forward by the defendant, and, it must be said, left the prosecuting officers not a little bemused as well. In another similar prosecution, the defendant claimed he was speeding because he had a split in the hull and he needed to beach the boat before it sank! The officer gave evidence that he had subsequently seen the boat out of the water and it did indeed have a split in the hull. The magistrates were singularly unimpressed with such an unlikely tale however and quickly found the defendant guilty.

Canals can be dangerous places for policemen. There is no record of a canal policeman succumbing to these placid waters, but two other officers have lost their lives in them. The death of Pc John Scudamore, serving with the newly formed Bute Dock Police, is the earliest recorded death on duty of a railway or dock police officer. In the early hours of the 4th November 1858, whilst on patrol on night duty, he fell into the feeder canal at Cardiff Docks and drowned.

Then on a summers evening in August 1902, railway detective Thomas Hibbs serving with the London & North Western Railway Police, was found dead in the Birmingham Canal. He had been attacked by coal thieves attracted to the adjacent railway sidings, hit over the head with his own truncheon and thrown into the canal. Despite a lengthy enquiry by the Birmingham City Police and the London & North Western Railway Police headed by Detective Superintendent Eustace Copping, no persons were ever detected for Hibb’s murder.


Drawn from various sources including Kevin Gordon’s canal police research.     VH