The Met police’s abuse of its powers in past times: Control of women

Women have invariably been an attraction for policing. In terms of that I refer to how police misuse their powers in order to take advantage of, oppress, even blackmail, the opposite sex.

Both of the reports cited here are from 1887. One looks at the apparent hypocrisy police have when it comes to dealing with prostitutes. This is very important because the second report highlights what was really going on behind the scenes and it can be surmised that any officers’ ‘concerns’ were at best, quite shallow.

The first report is from Aldgate High Street in London’s East End:

“The high handed fashion in which custodians of law and order treat the outcasts of the pavement and bully all those who venture to say a word in favour of fair play is exemplified in the following anecdote…”

This took place on the night of Tuesday 5 July and involves an unnamed man who had been to church in the East End. He was on his way home when a woman stopped him in Aldgate to asked the way to Jamaica Street. The man began to give directions when a Met Police officer suddenly turned up and thrust himself between the two. The conversation between the three went like this:

Police officer: Come now, dont you be a-standing here; get along with you’

Gentleman: ‘What do you mean? I have a perfect right to speak to her.’

Police officer: ‘No you haven’t, not to the likes of her. She is a damned, loose wench.’

Gentleman: ‘It doesn’t matter what she is, she was simply asking me her road, and you have no right whatsoever to interfere with her.’

Police officer: ‘If you say a word, I will run you in… You are a harbourer of prostitutes.’

The police officer tried to struggle with the gentleman however another officer arrived and intervened. This second officer requested the gentleman give his name.

Gentleman: ‘I shall give my name to the Inspector, to whom I shall report your abominable conduct.’

The gentleman left and went to the police station in the Met’s 6th division to report the matter. Its Inspector agreed the young officer had exceeded his duty and would be severely reprimanded and it would be the end of that matter.

This is clearly a quite mild story regarding the abuse of women by London’s police. Its just one side of the coin, and we could say a hypocritical one at that. What is worse is the Met were clearly vying for control of the capital’s women under the pretext of treating prostitution as a crime.

The second report is very revealing, indeed crucial, because it shows police officers  found women an easy source of additional and indeed illegally procured income and shows the Met were determined to quash any newspapers who dared report illegal police activities…

Upon every woman found to be a prostitute, a regular levy of sixpence was enforced so as to ‘allow’ these sex workers, or prostitutes, to continue their jobs. Nowadays we speak of pimps who live off the earnings of sex workers, yet many pimps enforcing this sixpence levy in Queen Victoria’s day were themselves law enforcers. The police’s illegal sixpence levy upon each prostitute was indeed discussed in the Houses of Parliament on 5 July 1887.

Clapham Common and Drury Lane were some of the many very popular places in London where officers could practice as pimps without fear of reproach – no doubt living off the proceeds of crime (as defined under the Vagrancy Act of 1824). 

In the **Secret Commission on Criminal Vice in London (1885), the authors had quite a bit to say about the Metropolitan Police. Barely any of it was published in the main body of their work, famously known as ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ – and published in the Pall Mall Gazette.

The reasons for not publishing the revelations was it had been made clear to the report’s authors they had been suspected of ‘hounding the police after the poor girls of the London streets.’ Evidently publishing lots of damning stuff about the police & immoral earnings would have done the newspaper no good.

One report that was published in The Maiden Tribute (10 July 1885) was indeed different because it revolved around rape/child abuse. It was an attempt by a high-profile officer in Scotland Yard to pervert justice for an abused child, which happened to be his very own daughter. He sent other officers to silence her and threatened her with violence. Despite the intimidation the victim persisted in taking the case almost as far as court. It was finally halted, no doubt sated by a judge’s corruption. And the officer in question no doubt had his integrity kept intact.

That one report nevertheless still showed one aspect of the police’s contempt for women, and the Secret Commission concluded from it:

“…what security can there be for individual liberty and the protection of female honour if the police in authority on any beat or in any division should be capable of such a crime. But it does not need so startling a piece of evidence as this to show that men, even when helmets are placed on their heads, are not fit to be trusted with what is practically absolute power over women who are even weaker and less protected than the rest of their sex.”

The commission’s findings on the Metropolitan Police’s criminal activities was actually published whole two years after ‘The Maiden Tribute,’ and in almost silence – without any of the publicity or controversy that had beset the earlier report. It says:

“…the majority of policemen, being only mortal, are no more to be trusted with arbitrary power than any other human beings, especially over the other sex. Its possession leads to corruption, and the more that power is increased the more mischief is done.”

London’s prostitutes clearly knew “…the universal testimony is that you must pay the constable, or you get into trouble.” 

Tipping for services was common, for example people tip railway porters and restaurant waiters, however the Metropolitan Police were the only ones where women had been regularly expected to pay BOTH with money as well as their bodies. If victims dared make a stand against these cops it was clear “if you quarrel with a policeman you are done for.”

Evidence could be fabricated easily to stack against sex workers and there was no way the unfortunate victims could argue their innocence against such a prestigious body of law enforcers. The police officer’s job (unofficial as it may be) was to make any sex worker’s task a very uncomfortable one and falling out of line meant:

“If a girl were once to tip and tell she might just as well leave London at once. She would be harried out of division after division, and never allowed to rest until she was outside the radius of the metropolitan district.”

There was a great fear among the public, indeed the media, apart from a few brave attempts by those who were no doubt seen as calumniators, when it came to naming the police as anything other than ‘policemen’ and revealing their illicit earnings:

“If we say that the policeman is constantly tempted to transmute his power into cash, we only say that he is human and that he is poor. But it is too bad to convert the truncheoned custodians of public order into a set of ‘ponces’ in uniform, levying a disgraceful tribute on the fallen maidens of modern Babylon.”

The Metropolitan police clearly had almost total control over brothels. Legally they had no control of any sort however if a police officer should choose “…he can make it almost impossible for any of them to do good business.” To have a viable business clearly meant payment of a fee to police officers. This was the so-called ‘police allowance.’

It was reputed Metropolitan Police officers earned from one house in London’s East End £500 each year alone – the very ‘police allowance’ that had to be paid to allow brothels to continue without harassment..

Despite the changes to the law in 1885, the Met were still reluctant to monitor prostitutes or brothels. One is indeed curious why there was such great reluctance. After all these cops were supposed to be enforcing the law! At the time the Met Police alleged watching these houses of ‘ill repute’ was a waste of police’s time. Yet we know they were watching these people and places – for totally different reasons – and possibly didn’t want to catch their own men!

One might think that police pimps were a classic feature of Victorian times. Indeed not. Even as I write police officers are still closely associated with the control and abuse of sex workers – very recent examples include this Birmingham cop, these from LiverpoolHastingsManchesterHertfordWimbledonEast London…..

Evidently in today’s modern world police in all manner of continents and countries are raping, abusing, manipulating girls and women on an industrial scale. Currently Daniel Holtzclaw is making headlines in the news – a sentence of 263 years for raping 13 Black women. Holtzclaw used his police powers to subvert the victims and silence them – the classic time honoured techniques used by police to practise illegal activities.

Sources: Internet & British Library – including a separate report not tied to ‘The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon’ and which examined the illegal activities of Metropolitan Police officers.

**NOTE: The ‘Secret Commission’ of 1885 consisted of journalist William Thomas Stead (for Pall Mall Gazette); William Bramwell Booth (Salvation Army); Josephine Butler(Feminist); the Reverend Andrew Mearns; also Jermimah Minahan (a former Met inspector who supplied detail on illegal police practices).

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