The Mersey River Police
"In winter it's terrible hard, but in summer there is no doubt it's a splendid life" Such was the moral, in brief, of a conversation with Inspector LANIGAN, the breezy and cheery head of the stalwart body of the Liverpool River Police. The circumstances gave ample credibility to the statement. The sun at the moment was shining bright and warm. The Mersey was dappled with its light, and from off the shimmering surface of the not distant sea there came a fresh ozone-laden fragrance that tingled the pulse and made existence joy. But it was only early March, and the recollection of the severe frosts of winter was yet vivid. It required no effort of the imagination, then, to understand that the lot of the river policeman in the winter months, as he rows or sails over his watery beat for four mortal hours on end in all weathers that may befall, is eminently one demanding the highest qualities of endurance and stamina. The men however, it appears, stand it well. Their health is remarkable good. Few of them ever suffer, and in appearance, at least, they are brawny and broad-shouldered enough to defy the rigours of the Pole itself. Inspector LANIGAN has his theory upon this head, which is certainly brief and probably true. "They are wonderful eaters," he says, and his observation derives appositeness from the remarkably savoury odours which, it being about dinner time when our visit was paid, at that moment float bodily from the men's messroom into the inspector's private room.
Of the many features of interest which the waterside life of Liverpool offers, not the least noteworthy is the river police force. The physique of the men help their popularity. Their appearance afloat in their wonderfully smart and powerful cutters, is one of the recognised "sights" of the river. Finally, their gallantry in life-saving, is a matter of more than local fame. One of their number PEGLER, enjoys a positively titanic record in this respect, his array of Humane Society's and other medals being such that even his ample chest is too narrow to sustain them. Some account of their personnel and their work may well be given, as gathered from their excellent officer who has been named. It was in 1865 that the force was first established, and what led to its creation was the degree to which the Mersey at that date was infested with crimps. Those were days of more sailing ships, and, voyages, being longer in duration, Jack had more money to draw upon arrival, and was sadly prone to foolish squandering thereof. A score of boarding-house keepers had boats ready afloat, manned by "runners" whose duty lay in meeting incoming vessels, in boarding them, in touting for custom for their masters, and usually in distributing amongst the crew, by way of invincible persuasive, spirits of a potency only to be excelled by their impurity. The consequences were scandalous. By the time the vessels reached their anchorage in the river or their moorings in the docks the men were too often intoxicated, and ready to fall completely into the toils of the land sharks when paid off and quit of their ships. The first duty of the river police, then, was to suppress crimping. They had a busy time of it. The boarding-house keepers resisted the innovation fiercely. Theirs was a "vested interest" too profitable to be lightly yielded. But the authority, not only of the law but of public opinion was too strong. The contest was hot but brief, in eighteen months it was over. The boarding-house keepers were beaten off the river, and had perforce to confine their delicate attentions to Jack ashore.
The uniform of the river police at that day was ludicrously un-nautical. It was, in fact, exactly the same as that of the police ashore, consisting of a tall, black, glazed hat of the most uncompromising "chimney-pot" type, a huge "stock", and a swallow-tail coat! Happily its incongruity was speedily detected and it was replace by a costume of the sensible kind which prevails today, and consists of a peaked cap, a stout navy-blue monkey jacket and pants, and a blue woollen jersey, a suit of oil-skin overalls being supplied for use discretionally. But if the uniforms have changed, the boats have not. The three cutters with which the river police commenced their duties 26 years ago are still in commission, and to all appearance, so admirably were they constructed originally, and so well have they been kept up, are as good as ever. They certainly are splendid craft, in length 28ft, in beam 6ft, with a fine big bilge and deep keel, they are either for sailing or pulling, perhaps the finest boats on the Mersey. It must be a heavy storm indeed that will prevent them from going out, and to see them in a stiff breeze heeling well over to leeward, with sails stretched taut, "like a board" ploughing through the seething water and tossing liquid furrows from their bows, is to enjoy a sight than which to the yachting or nautical mind nothing could be more inspiriting. Experience is the best test of merit. In the 26yrs of buffeting which these police cutters have had but one serious accident has occurred. In a sudden squall in Tranmere bight some years ago one of them overset and one man died from the effects of the immersion. That this should be a solitary instance speaks volumes alike for the seaworthiness of the craft and the seamanlike skill of their navigation. It must not be assumed, however, that emergencies do not occasionally happen. "Overboard?" said Inspector LANIGAN, lightly enough upon this head. "I suppose we've each of us been overboard half a dozen times in our day, but we mostly can swim like a dolphin and dive like a crab, in which case a bit of wetting don't hurt much" In the early days the police cutters were on duty continuously, night and day, the 24 hrs being divided into three watches of 8 hrs each. It was subsequently found possible, however, to give up the night duty afloat, and watches are now reduced to two in number, the first from 5am to 1pm, and the second from the latter hour until 9pm. A boat crew consists of 7 men, 6 oarsmen and a coxswain, and those of the police on duty but not detailed to the cutters are despatched along the dock line for service in case of emergencies arising in the docking of vessels. The duties of the river police are sufficiently various. Crimping in its old and worst form is stamped out. The law has conferred upon the magistrates drastic powers to this end, powers which the Bench has not hesitated to enforce in an exemplary manner. Any person boarding a ship within 24 hrs of her arrival without the permission of the master became liable to heavy penalties. This was the deathblow of crimping as it was practised, and messieurs the crimps had to turn to other and, it is to be hoped honester methods of life. Still, any lack of precaution in the matter might lead to a revival of old practices and the presence of the police is found to be desirable. While on the one hand crimping has declined, the trade in gunpowder and explosives has largely increased. The famous explosion of the Lottie Sleigh in January 1864, awakened Liverpool to a sense of the dangers attending the new branch of commerce. By-laws were adopted prohibiting vessels to receive on more than 800lbs of gunpowder without the attendance on board of a police officer to see to the due observance of regulations made and provided, and when it is considered that in 1890, 3,600 tons of gunpowder and 812 tons of dynamite were transported in the river, it will be understood that a considerable demand was made upon the services of the river police. Other duties were to receive prisoners sent home by consuls as foreign places, and to visit vessels in the river when the hoisting of the police flag betokens that an emeute has broken out on board. To the credit of the sailor, these occasions are said to be rare, and when they happen the arrival of the police boat and the appearance on the deck of its stalwart and eminently business-like crew has a singularly calming effect. Troubles of this sort are mostly the result of drink, and sooner than be handed over to the myrmidous of the law Jack usually finds it expedient to abandon strife, and revert, albeit perhaps sullenly, to the softer paths of peace.
Although the integral portion of the constabulary of the city and under the direction of the Head Constable, the river police establishment is maintained at the cost of the Dock Board. This is part of an arrangement of long standing, by which that Board pays for the policing of the large estate, comprising of the whole dock and quay system of Liverpool, of which it possesses proprietorial rights, and whence it derives its income. The Dock Board proves an excellent master to serve. The men's quarters on the landing stage, though necessarily a little cramped, are comfortably and snugly fitted. The boats and all the necessary gear are admirably kept up. The consequence that the river police is the most popular branch of the whole constabulary. Its members rarely leave until after the prescribed term of service, they become entitled to the superannuation allowance of two-thirds of the 20s-3d, which is the weekly net pay of men of the first class, and when a vacancy does occur the candidates to fill are to be numbered by the score, and include not only, seamen and boatmen of the port, but also policemen of the city constabulary. If there be any feeling of dissatisfaction, it exists, oddly enough, not on the part of the rank and file, but on that of the chiefs, and it arises from the non-existence of a police steamer to take place, wholly or in part, of the cutters. It certainly does seem a little odd that whereas the policing of rivers of considerably less importance should be secured through the medium of steam launches, that of the Mersey is dependant upon sails and oars. Somehow, although the matter has long been mooted, it comes to no practical issue. The regrets upon the subject, however, do not seem to be shared by the rank and file. It is said they prefer the cutters, notwithstanding the hard pulling and the exposure necessarily involved. As to the reason, perhaps it is that something of the old sea-dog spirit survives amongst the men. Certainly they love the unstable element in association with which their lives are so largely passed. An actor when he has a holiday celebrates it by going to theatre. So these sturdy river police of the Mersey, when in the summertime it falls upon them to claim a day off, love nothing so much as to procure one small craft always to be found lying at the landing stage and go a-boating with their friends. Away down the stream they go past Egremont, past the noble home for aged mariners, past New Brighton, with its ample beach given up to hoards of "trippers" from East Lancashire, exchanging the dust-laden and lung destroying atmosphere of the cotton mill for the pure breeze that blows in from the sea. They "fetch up" it may be, at the Great Burbo Bank, which, uncovered at low water, stretches for miles away towards the lonely spot where "the harbour bar is moaning" The receding waters have left many inviting pools of depth and extent enough to afford a delightful bathe, and there is fish to be caught in them, and cockles to be gathered along the bank itself, and many strange and instructive specimens of marine life to be picked up by those curious in such matters. The hours pass quickly when pleasantly employed, and it is probably all too soon for most of the party that the incoming tide warns them to get aboard again and shape a course for their point of departure in the morning.
Liverpool Mercury, June 23rd 1899
The Argus, which is to be used by the Liverpool River Police in the carrying out of their duties, is a handsome steam launch, some 42ft in length, built of teak and elm, and has a nicely furnished cabin. The launch has undergone her trial trip in the Crosby Channel, and she is able to go at a rate of 10 or 11 knots. Although, not new, she is only 3 or 4yrs old, and was formerly used as a tender.
Brave River Policeman William PEGLER
© 2011 all rights reserved