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Remembering the Port of London Authority Police Force

Copyright: Museum of London- PLA collection

Looking at the now famous photograph of policeman jumping into West India Dock was a reminder to write a piece about the little known Port of London Police who mostly disappeared when the London docks closed down.

Security was always an important aspect of the docks since the West India Docks opened in the early 19th century, however in the early days they did not have one police force for all the docks but rather the docks security had previously been run by five separate private companies London and St Katharines, Surrey Commercial, India and Millwall, the Royals (the Royal Albert Dock, the Royal Victoria Dock and the King George V Dock) and Tilbury, each with its own private police force.

All that changed in 1908, when the newly formed Port of London Authority (PLA) created the Port of London Authority Police Force. This police force were very specialised as a newspaper report of 1949 explains.

Port of London Police Are Specialists 1949

The sea routes from the world’s chief markets converge upon the Port of London, that gieat centre of commerce which stretches 26 miles from Tilbury to Tower Bridge and beyond. The ships of all nations, loaded with the produce of every land, nose their way through the swirling grey waters of the Thames and find their berths in one of the five groups of docks to the accompaniment of a melancholy symphony of sirens.

If you had business with one of these ships, wherever you entered the docks you would find at the gate at least” one policeman silhouetted against a background of rumbling derricks, mammoth warehouses, speeding lorries, hissing railway engines and moored vessels of every type and size.

As you approached you might well consider him to be just another London policeman going about his duty, scrutinising the passes of every vehicle leaving the docks, checking the load with an expert glance, and at the same time keeping a vigilant eye on the heterogeneous throng of stevedores, labourers, drivers, seamen,officials,lightermen, engineers, members of the forces and others who pass in an endless stream,in and out of the Port of London docks. But this constable, whose primary concern while on duty at the gate is the protection of property, is not a member of London’s Metropolitan Police Force, although his uniform is similar. He wears the badge of the Port of London Authority’s own police force.

It is one of the most efficient police forces in the world. During 1947 goods of all descriptions valued at hundreds of millions pounds passed through the port, yet there were only 1,011 cases of larceny reported to the police involving’ goods to the value of £18,129 of which £10,084 or 55.6 percent was recovered.The Port of London police made 820 arrests, charged 681 persons and 626 of these were convicted.Yet nowhere else in the world can one see so much valuable property in so small an area, apparently so easily accessible, and an easy prey for the thief.

It was in 1908 that the Port of London Authority, was created by an Act of Parliament to administer the Docks of the Port of London. It is a public trust, whichtook over the powers and undertakings of the old dock companies and whose business it is to administer the port for the good of the public. The P.L.A. took over, along with the rest of the dock companies’ personnel, the three separate police forces in being, and set about welding them into one force, reorganised on the lines of the metropolitan police.

To-day the P.L.A. Police Force has a, strength of 593, under the control of the Chief Police Officer W. H. Simmons, M.B.E. Their power extends over the 3,521 acres of land, 720 acres of water and 44 miles of quays of the Port of London. The port of London (Consolidation) Act of 1920 gave the police power to stop, search and detain persons reasonably suspected of being in possession of property stolen or unlawfully obtained, and this power is extended to include premises, vehicles or boats within a radius of one mile of the Port of London. It operates five divisions within the Port: London and St. Katharine Docks; East and West India, and Millwall Docks; Royal Victoria and Albert and King George V Docks; Surrey Commercial Docks; and Tilbury Docks. Each division is in charge of a divisional inspector.There is a police station and motor ambulance service at each control. Each group of docks is surrounded by a wall or fence and there are no fewer than 89 entrance gates, 17 water entrances and 38 beats. All gates are manned by police and the interior is covered day and night the beat patrols; the total length of the beats being 166 miles.

All goods leaving the docks must be covered by a pass, signed by an authorised person, showing the number and description of the articles. An important duty ofthe constables at the gates is to collect the passes and ensure that the quantities taken out tally and that the signature is correct. This is specialised work for the pass system is an intricate one, and many different types of passes are used, varying from P.L.A.,Baggage Clearance, Demand and Grain Sample, to Ship’s Officers and Private Companies which have manufacturing plant inside the dock area.

The work of the constables at the gates is augmented by those on the beat, and although one may spend hours in the docks and seldom see a policeman, their regular patrols of the quays and warehouses where cargoes are being handled act as a great deterrent to pilferage.The greatest deterrent, however is the P.L.A. Police Mobile Squad: Once a policeman has passed any given point on his beat it is unlikely that he will reappear for some time; but no-one knows when and where the Mobile Squad will appear next. They will swoop on one dock, make a thorough search of vehicles, craft and personnel, and’ perhaps thirty minutes later be at another dock miles away.

The Port of London Police regard their primary function as the protection of property, the property of the world which passes through the London Docks. Only when they fail in this, and then failures are microscopic as statistics show, it is their duty to detained and bring the criminal to justice.

Although the PLA police were restricted to the docks, the work did present some unique dangers and there were fatalities due to accidents and assault. A list of which is shown below:

Port of London Authority Police Fatalities

PC Alfred William V. Daws
Died 10 November 1913, aged 21
Found drowned in the docks where he was on patrol on a foggy night.

PC John Thomas Severn
Died 24 December 1914, aged 27
Drowned when they fell into the dock while on patrol in a dense fog.

PC William Ware
Died 24 December 1914, aged 28
Drowned when they fell into the dock while on patrol in a dense fog.

Insp John Joseph Jeffers
Died 22 August 1915, aged 60
Found drowned in the Millwall Dock while on patrol in the early hours.

SC Truman Ellis
Died 15 May 1917, aged 52
Accidentally killed on patrol when part of a ship’s cargo fell on him.

PC John Reilly
Died 15 April 1918, aged 59
Whilst on patrol in the early hours he fell into the dock and drowned.

PC Frederick Cheese
Died 9 October 1921, aged 31
Drowned when he accidentally fell in the dock while on patrol at night.

PC Frederick Edward P. Miller
Died 21 April 1923, aged 23
Fatally injured in a fall guarding the scene of a warehouse fire.

Insp George Henry Ponsford
Died 21 February 1924, aged 50
Fatally injured on patrol at Tilbury Docks by a fall into a dry dock.

Insp James Frederick Berry
Died 4 September 1929, aged 53
Found drowned on duty in a dock with no evidence as to the cause.

Sgt Henry Frederick Wren
Died 15 January 1930, aged 49
Whilst on patrol he was knocked down and run over by a train.

PC Robert Charles Winney
Died 18 September 1940, aged 45
Sgt Charles Edward Showell
Died 19 September 1940, aged 40
Fatally injured by an unexploded bomb while investigating bomb damage.
Posthumous King’s Commendation for Brave Conduct in Civil Defence to both.

PC Reginald Ernest Smith
Died 1 December 1949, aged 53
Fatally wounded when accidentally shot by an armed security officer.

PC Frederick Stanley Giddings
Died 16 October 1951, aged
Drowned while on bicycle patrol when he rode into the dock in a fog.

When the docks closed the PLA Police were downsized and limited to the Port of Tilbury and renamed the Port of Tilbury Police.


11 Comments

  1. Simon Cock says:

    Great article. I’ve got the training exercise photo (the jumping in one) on my wall and never really appreciated the lost of life of officers through drowning until I read this. Thank you.

  2. Andy Fairbairn says:

    RIP to those that lost there lives. But it does make you wonder if some of those were not accidents. Or a grudge held by a docker or seaman?
    My family worked in & around the docks and I did my apprenticeship with the Graving Dock.

  3. Stephanie Chapman Nee Giddings says:

    My uncle Frederick Stanley Giddings ,was sadly one of the officers that lost their lives at the docks. I am very touched to see that he has been rembered. May they all rest in peace

  4. Charles Collins says:

    I was a PLA Police Officer between 1959 until 1966. I was stationed at Surrey Commercial Docks and would be happy to share memories and information with anyone interested in that era. CHARLES COLLINS.

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