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The History and Re-Organization of London's Thames Police

It is my honour and privilege to present here a history of the Met's Special Constabulary Thames Division, written by David van Vlymen who served with them over 50 years ago. Sadly, David died in 2007 but I have reproduced his introduction to this fascinating history:

The years I spent in the 1950's as a member of the Metropolitan Special Constabulary, Thames Division, are a treasured memory of accomplishment and comradeship. I was very fortunate to be a part of a wonderful group who willingly volunteered their time to patrol London's mighty river and witness the day to day operation of not only a busy port, but also the regular police officers whose great experience was so helpful to us all.

Those days are now well past and great changes have taken place, so with the kind assistance of PoliceSpecials.com, it is my pleasure to record on this web-site a little of the history and changes that have taken place along with my own experiences. My thanks also go to David Lane of the Marine Division and David Brann of the RNLI who provided valuable information and checked my article.

To the present and future members of "Marine Support Unit" I sincerely hope you will enjoy your time on the river as much as I have, and I wish you all good luck.

David van Vlymen. Ex Sgt.5.MSC Thames Division

Glenn had hoped to join the regular police and had served as a special for only a few months. Glenn was a happy, likeable, enthusiastic 37 year-old. On the evening of 6th June 1992, he went out on one of his first patrols with a regular officer.

He put in extra hours that night and it was almost 4 o'clock in the morning of 7th June when the two officers made a routine check on a car on the A64 near Tadcaster. The car turned out to contain two IRA terrorists. They shot at the officers and both men were badly wounded. Glenn died later on that Sunday evening. The regular officer, PC Sandy Kelly, spent many weeks in hospital and has since retired from the force.

Fortunately, SC Goodman's tragic death is an extreme case, but every day, especially on weekend evenings, thousands of Special constables are on duty alongside their regular colleagues, dealing with exactly the same sort of incidents and facing the same challenges and dangers.

Disaster on the Thames

At 1:50am on 20th August 1989, a dredger named Bowbelle collided with a passenger vessel, the Marchioness. The accident took place on the Thames near Cannon Street Railway Bridge in the heart of London. 87 people were rescued from the river but 51 lost their lives.

It was the worst river disaster since 1878 when a ship carrying iron hit a paddle steamer with 800 day-trippers aboard and immediately sank it with the loss of over 600 lives. 110 years later this tragedy brought about huge changes in the way the river was patrolled and who was to patrol it.

But first, anyone who has been to London will know Trafalgar Square with its pigeons. It is famous for a 200-foot column with a stone sailor at the top representing British Admiral Horatio Nelson, most famous for winning the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 by defeating the French.

In 1798, only seven years earlier, another battle took place, this time for Law and Order on the river Thames, which flows just a stone's throw from Trafalgar Square. A Marine Police Force was formed to combat looting and corruption which was rife at that time in the Port of London. It is the oldest Police Force in the Country and comprised only one Superintendent and 5 Constables to patrol a very busy part of the river night and day. But it was a start! They were rowed in open boats called Galleys by Watermen and their wages were paid by ship owners. Also appointed was a Surveyor of Quays who, with 2 supervisors and 30 men, had the responsibility to guard ships' cargos on the wharfs and in the warehouses

The old Waterloo Police Pier sign facing Victoria Embankment

In 1829, Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police, by which time the Marine Police, formed 31 years earlier, had established three stations on the river and had 15 Galleys. In 1839, the two Police Forces were merged and the Marine Police became a Division of the Metropolitan Police. For the next 162 years it was known as Thames Division, but in 2001 that changed.

In 1910 the first motor boats were introduced. Before bringing you up to date and explaining the major changes that took place in 2001 resulting from that terrible 1989 disaster, I first want to tell you about my involvement with Thames Division in the 1950's when it was quite a different organization from what it is today.