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Dickens, Our Mutual Friend and the Marine Police Force, Wapping – a detective story

There is a tall, slightly strange-shaped building with a crenellated top (as seen from the river) on the north bank of the Thames in the east of London.


On the land side, a fairly unremarkable early 20th century building faces onto Wapping High Street. There are always several police vehicles parked outside and it has a blue plaque announcing that police have patrolled the Thames from here for 200 years.


Marine Police, Wapping High Street

Its main claim to fame is as England’s oldest police station, with the Thames River Police founded in 1798 to police the dockyard and wharf workers on the Thames in an attempt to stem the theft of (in today’s money) millions of pounds worth of goods from ships. Funded by companies such as the East India company, the officers were fully paid professionals, well organised under inspectors, with record-keeping, patrolling, deterrent and arrest powers. So successful were their methods that they would be copied by the later, new Metropolitan Police Force, into which the Thames River Police eventually became absorbed. So what has this to do with Dickens? Dickens was fascinated by the work of the police and detectives, as can be seen by characters such as Inspector Buckett in Bleak House and the private investigator Neckett in Martin Chuzzlewit. He also got to know the famous Inspector Field, and wrote with admiration about the work of detectives in his journalistic pieces. He even wrote a piece about spending a night on the river with the Thames River Police, 'Down with the Tide' (1853), and the problems of rescuing bodies, alive and dead from the river, which became a major part of Our Mutual Friend.

However, it occurred to me while thinking about where the Hexams lived, somewhere near The Grapes (The Six Jolly Fellowship Porters) in Narrow Street, that perhaps Dickens also referred to this police station directly in Our Mutual Friend. The first body taken from the river (there are six bodies in the river in this novel!) is taken to a police station on the river where it is viewed, a short walk from the Hexam’s:

'A little winding through some muddy alleys that might have been deposited by the last ill-savoured tide, brought them to the wicket-gate and bright lamp of a Police Station; where they found the Night-Inspector, with a pen and ink, and ruler, posting up his books in a whitewashed office, as studiously as if he were in a monastery on top of a mountain, and no howling fury of a drunken woman were banging herself against a cell-door in the back-yard at his elbow. With the same air of a recluse much given to study, he desisted from his books to bestow a distrustful nod of recognition upon Gaffer, plainly importing, ‘Ah! we know all about you, and you’ll overdo it some day;’ and to inform Mr Mortimer Lightwood and friends, that he would attend them immediately. Then, he finished ruling the work he had in hand (it might have been illuminating a missal, he was so calm), in a very neat and methodical manner, showing not the slightest consciousness of the woman who was banging herself with increased violence, and shrieking most terrifically for some other woman’s liver.'

I’ve always loved this atmospheric description with the monastic Night-Inspector and the shrieking woman, and tried searching for other 19th century police stations along this stretch of the river in Wapping and Limehouse but found none. The book mentions a courtyard in the station, and there still appears to be a courtyard beyond the modern frontage. Yet I couldn’t find any reference to this police station in previous books on Dickens locations. Then, I came across a watercolour painting by James Lawson Stewart (watercolourworld.com) now in the Bishopsgate Institute, London, with the title Old Wapping Police Station, ‘Our Mutual Friend’ 1840-1870. This was the breakthrough I’d been waiting for – I felt like Sherlock Holmes (in a minor capacity). In researching the artist, whom I’d never heard of, I discovered a website dedicated to him (jameslawsonstewart.com) and that he had painted a remarkable collection of Dickens locations for cigarette cards! With rising excitement, I searched again and came across the London Cigarette Card Company Ltd (www.londoncigcard.co.uk), and there, hidden in miscellaneous, was the full set of 50 Historic Places from Dickens’ Classics painted in watercolours by Lawson Stewart, a set of which I am proud to say is now in my possession. Their fascination lies in the beautiful depiction of places, many of which are now gone or altered beyond recognition, from a date much nearer to Dickens’ own time; Lawson Stewart (1841-1929) overlapped with Dickens, and the cigarette cards were first issued in 1926. Each card location is annotated with its connection with the novels on the back. I feel confident now in saying that the police station standing on Wapping High Street is the location of the one in Our Mutual Friend, and that you will pass it on the East End leg of our ‘Walk with Charles Dickens along the Thames’.


[It is possible to visit the Thames River Police Museum, within Wapping Police Station, by prior appointment (www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk)]

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