JPs, constables and watchmen
Eighteenth century Peckham could be a dangerous place. It was a stop for cattle traders on their way to the London markets and the roads between Peckham and London lay through wooded countryside and fields. Highwaymen and footpads abounded. From 1744 armed guards were available for protection on stagecoaches. To add to the local unruliness, Peckham Fair was held every August, attracting a dubious clientele from all over London.
At that date law enforcement and policing was the responsibility of JPs (magistrates) who appointed the parish constables and watchmen. Constables were unpaid but the job carried some local prestige. Often tradesmen in their own community, they had powers of arrest and interrogation but no training, uniform or weapons. Watchmen were paid, though not much, and patrolled towns at night as a deterrent. The system became progressively less effective in
a rapidly urbanising community.
The first organised, paid, and trained police force in London was the Bow Street Runners founded in 1749 by brothers Henry and John Fielding. The men were paid from a Government grant, but few areas adopted the idea as it meant an increase in local taxes.
In 1776 and 1787 two Acts of Parliament were enacted for ‘Lighting and Watching the villages of Camberwell and Peckham, and certain roads leading thereto ; and for establishing a Foot Patrole between Peckham and Blackman Street in the Borough of Southwark.’ The Rules for the watchmen of Peckham village were published:
1. All the watchmen are required to receive their coats and arms from the constable every night at the watch-house, and to return them to the same place in the morning; and to be on duty during the hours specified.
2. All the watchmen are directed to call the half-hours, and the road watch to strike every hour on their bells.
3. All the watchmen are required attentively to watch in their respective districts during their hours of duty, to take care that peace and order be everywhere kept, and to take into custody and deliver over to the constable of the night all disorderly persons.
4. All the watchmen are required particularly to obey the orders of the constable on duty.
The Peckham Trust met at The Red Bull in the High Street and the Camberwell Trust at the Golden Lyon. The cost was covered by a local rate. The watchmen patrolled at set times between the Bull in Peckham and the Green Man turnpike in the Old Kent Road to protect all passengers on the road.
The system was not perfect. In 1816 the inhabitants of Camberwell complained that the roads were still dangerous. If the watchmen were not doing their jobs properly or staying under shelter in inclement weather perhaps the roads should be placed under the watch of the Bow Street patrol?
The Peckham Cage
W H Blanch describes the next step taken by the local authorities: ‘That a committee be formed to consider the best and most efficacious means of establishing a system of police within this parish, and also to consider of a plan for an association for giving rewards upon the discovery, apprehension, and conviction of offenders.’
Following a meeting of Camberwell Vestry on 22 September 1819 the parish officers and workhouse committee agreed to erect ‘cages’ for the districts of Camberwell and Peckham. (The cage was the overnight lock-up for local drunkards and trouble makers. The watch house building often held the fire engine in one half and the lock-up in the other.) The orders were rapidly carried out and a cage and engine-house were built in front of the Havil Street workhouse in Camberwell and a second near the entrance to Hill Street from Peckham High street. The Peckham land was a charitable bequest from Peter Cock, Esq. who had died in 1737. In addition, in 1826 the Chief Magistrate at Bow Street Parish provided the Council with twelve officers to keep the peace at Peckham Fair at a cost of five shillings. The following year, to the relief of the Vestry but disappointment of many others, Peckham Fair was closed down.
The cage, however, did not remain in operation for long.
In the early 1800s London, with a population of nearly a million and a half people, was policed by 450 constables and 4,500 night watchmen of questionable efficiency. Robert Peel, who became Home Secretary in 1822, established the Metropolitan Police Force for London in 1829 with its headquarters at Scotland Yard. He developed the Peelian Principles, setting out the ethical requirements police officers must follow. The first of his nine principles held that ‘The basic mission for which police exist is to prevent crime and disorder as an alternative to the repression of crime and disorder by military force and severity of legal punishment.’ The final one held that the test of police efficiency is the absence of crime and disorder, not the visible evidence of police action in dealing with them. A good relationship with the public was very important. The District defined by the Metropolitan Police Act 1829 consisted of an area of about seven miles radius from Charing Cross, London. Peckham fell within this. A second Act in 1839 extended the District to a 15-mile radius. Eight Superintendents, 20 Inspectors, 88 Sergeants, 895 Constables covered the whole of London. It was a professional force: a constable was paid 21 shillings (£1.05p) a week. Seven local divisions were established between 1829 and 1830, each with its own police station, and assigned a letter, A to V. Peckham covered the whole of Camberwell and was designated ‘P’, Lambeth was ‘L’ and Southwark ‘M’. The Metropolitan Police took possession of the cages.
In 1844 the Parish of Camberwell contributed £3,831 19 to the police from the annual rates.
In 1847, a property known as the Clock House in Peckham High Street was leased from Mr Henry Thomas Perkins for police purposes. The long lease ran until 1903 at a rental of £103 per annum. The police-station occupied the site of an outbuilding of what was formerly a fine mansion. A year later the old Peckham Cage was returned to the Parochial Authorities and the income from the land reverted to charitable causes. (See PSN158, Autumn 2019) (The buildings were later demolished and the parish erected a drinking fountain on the site in 1863. A public urinal was later placed there, and part of the site occupied by a public refuge and cabstand.)
Police Orders of 11 January 1864 show that Peckham had two inspectors, seven sergeants, 69 constables and three horses. By now, ‘P’ division was called ‘Camberwell’. The Metropolitan area was divided into four districts in 1869, each with a number of divisions. No. 4 District consisted of Camberwell (P), Lambeth (L), Southwark (M), Greenwich (R) and Clapham (W).
In about 1875 W H Blanch stated that ‘The parish [of Camberwell] now contributes about £11,000 annually for police protection.’
Peckham High Street (Stanford map, 1862-71). The old Police Station
Demands upon the police meant that the old station was becoming inadequate so a new purpose-built station was opened on 22 November 1893 on the west corner of Peckham High Street and Meeting House Lane, opposite the old one.
No 4 district was re- organised again and the Division boundaries revised. On Monday 4 January 1932, Peckham was transferred from P Division to L (Lambeth Division) and the station code changed from ‘PD’ to ‘PK’.
A 1938 report in the Illustrated London News described the introduction of police dogs to the Metropolitan area. The first two dogs to be used officially for police work were appointed to Peckham. The specially trained Labradors had been taught to ‘discover persons in hiding and to corner suspects without attacking them’.
The Metropolitan Police was further reorganised in 1964 in order to align police boundaries with the new local authority boundaries created by the London Government Act 1963. On 1 April 1964. Peckham (MM) was designated as a sub-divisional station of Southwark Division (M) with East Dulwich (ME) and West Dulwich (MW) as sectional stations.
Major building work took place in the late 1980s. The station was closed in 1985; most staff were re-located to Camberwell Police Station, others worked from Portacabins in Staffordshire Street.
Peckham Police Station was re-opened by Princess Alexandra on 10 March 1988. The new extension was built on the derelict properties of 180-188, Meeting House Lane next door, purchased, with considerable foresight, on 1 September 1938 from a Miss Clayton for the sum of £17,000.
The final reorganisation in the twentieth century took place on 1 January 1990 when M District was reduced to three divisions. Southwark division acquired a small area north of the Old Kent Road from Peckham.
Merger and closure
As the twenty-first century progressed, police stations across the country began to be closed in the largest closure programme in policing history. Since 2010 more than 100 stations in London have shut.
In 2013 the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime (MOPAC) published a proposal to reorganise policing in London into larger teams, closing some stations and reducing the front desk service at others. At that point, Peckham Police Station was to retain a 24-hour front counter for public enquiries. The front counters of Camberwell, East Dulwich and Rotherhithe were closed on 24 June 2013. East Dulwich station closed fully later in the year and the following year the building was sold and Harris Primary Academy East Dulwich built on the site.
Following further budget cuts, in 2017 MOPAC proposed the closure of all police station front counters but one in every London borough. Only Walworth Police Station (in Southwark) and Brixton (in Lambeth) would remain open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The main justification was a change of use: in 2016, just eight per cent of crimes were reported at police front counters, down from 22 per cent in 2006. The front counter of Peckham was closed on 31 December 2017 and of Southwark on 1 January 2018. In Rotherhithe officers moved out of the old Lower Road station at the end of 2017, and a small team now operates from a purpose-built base behind Seven Islands leisure centre.
More changes were made in February 2018 when it was announced that for efficiency as well as cost-saving the existing 32 Borough Operational Command Units (BOCUs) would be re-organised into twelve Basic Command Units (BCU). Lambeth and Southwark were merged into Central South BCU (AS). This was a controversial change though it was later claimed that the only job lost in the merger was the role of Lambeth Borough commander. The change was phased in over twelve months. The surviving Southwark stations were Camberwell (MC), Peckham (MM), Rotherhithe (MR), Southwark (MD) and Walworth (MS).
On 31 March 2019 Central South BCU closed Camberwell and Kennington police stations; Camberwell officers transferred to Peckham and Kennington to Lambeth.
So today we still have a Police Station at 177 Peckham High Street, and judging by the traffic going in and out, it is busy enforcing local law. Our nearest 24-hour counter is at 12-28 Manor Place, Walworth. This is about 3.8 miles from the most southerly part of Peckham and over five miles to the furthest point in the borough. It is ironic, really, when one of Peel’s original reasons for creating the police force was to create a visible presence to ‘prevent crime and disorder’.
Reprinted from Peckham Society News, Issue 160 (Spring 2020)
Parochial Regulations of St. Giles, Camberwell, Surrey. William Greenaway Poole. (London, 1838)
Ye Parish of Camerwell. W. H. Blanch. (1875)
‘Peckham and Dulwich’, in Old and New London: Volume 6. Edward Walford. (London, 1878)
A history of Peckham Police Station. Anon.
Illustrated London News, 21 May 1938.