London: City of London Police Museum

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First let me make things perfectly clear: the City of London Police Museum is NOT the infamous Black Museum.  If it were, I would probably be peeing my pants with delight right now at having been allowed in (sorry if that image grossed you out).  Instead, it is a rather nice little museum inside the City Police Headquarters on Wood Street, just around the corner from the Guildhall.  The museum is open on Tuesdays and Wednesdays only, from 11-4, and is free of charge.

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Police Call Box. It was just as small as it looked on the inside, although apparently the butchers at Smithfield Market used to leave meat inside for the officers to collect after their shifts.

I was kind of apprehensive about stepping into a police station after my experiences with police museums in America, where the officers rudely barked orders at me as soon as I stepped in the door; fortunately, their British counterparts were lovely (no airport style screening system in sight!), and showed me into a hallway where a tour was just starting.  I hadn’t realised that the museum would feature a tour; I’m normally averse to them, but in this case, I think it was a good thing, as it turned out there wasn’t too much information in the museum cases.  In addition, the volunteer giving the tour was a retired officer who had been on the scene during the Moorgate Tube Disaster in 1975, so he had some very interesting stories to tell.  We began in the hallway, which held a display of photographs, and he explained each one a little bit.  I liked the promotional ones from the ’20s and ’30s showing self-defence training, which included actual fencing, and boxing, amongst other techniques (it would admittedly be kind of hilarious if a criminal just whipped out an epee and mask and started thrusting and parrying).  Bob, the tour guide, told us a story about the bodies that get washed up on the shore of the Thames; apparently, one day they were looking for parts of a murder victim who’d been hacked into pieces, but all the restaurants along the river would throw their meat detritus and things onto the beach, so they had to pick through all kinds of animal bones to try to find human remains.  Bob was quite full of grisly but entertaining anecdotes like this, which were the highlight of the tour.

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Helmet of an officer caught in the blast of an IRA bomb in front of the Old Bailey. He was seriously injured, but the helmet saved his life.

Once we finally made it into the actual museum (at which point our little group had swelled to five people – the museum was proving surprisingly popular), we were allowed to try on a helmet and pose for pictures (I was making a really stupid face, as usual, so I won’t post it here). The City Police and the Metropolitan Police are two separate entities, and one of the ways you can tell which is which (other than identifying badges and the like) is by their helmet shape.  City Police have a raised hump down the centre of their helmets; the Met’s have a rounded top and a rose on them.  We also learned about the evolution of the uniforms; officers were initially issued with a top hat, which had a bamboo lining, so that they could stand on it to see over walls and the like.  It was changed to the modern style of helmet at some point in the 1870s.

Noisemaker used by night watchmen (known as Charlies) and early policemen to alert other officers of a crime scene.

Noisemaker used by night watchmen (known as Charlies) and early policemen to alert other officers of a crime scene.

The cases were crammed pretty full of stuff, including an array of uniforms, medals, and photographs, but as I said before, there wasn’t tonnes of signage, so it was lucky we had Bob to explain things to us.  Another one of his stories was about incendiary devices dropped by Germans on London early on in the Blitz – an officer climbed on the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and was catching the bombs and throwing them off so that they didn’t set the dome on fire, for which he later received a medal (the bombs were skinny tubes, only about two feet long (there’s one in the museum), and they came down on parachutes and didn’t detonate until they hit the ground, which is how he was able to accomplish this feat without having his arms incinerated).

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I was very keen to hear what he had to say about Moorgate, since he mentioned being there that day.  In 1975, a Northern Line train crashed through the barriers at Moorgate Station, and went through a wall, which swallowed up the first two cars entirely (see diagram above).  43 people died as a result, and 74 more were injured, including a policewoman who was trapped in the second carriage, and had to have her foot amputated so they could pull her out.  The driver failed to stop, which is what caused the crash (rather than a mechanical failure), but they didn’t find drugs or alcohol in his system, so they’ve no idea why he didn’t brake.  They had quite a few photographs from the day on display here, and some diagrams depicting the aftermath.

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Wall of Ripper memorabilia

Of course, most people come to the museum to hear about Jack the Ripper, so Bob spent a fair amount of time in this corner explaining the case.  As I just attended a lecture by Donald Rumbelow a few months ago, I didn’t really learn anything new, but that’s largely because I think he used to work at the City Police Museum, and may have had a hand in curating the display.  At any rate, it would have been informative for people who didn’t know much about Jack, and they did have some gruesome photos of the victims up, for those who are into that sort of thing (not judging, I’m fascinated by that kind of stuff myself!

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Pictures of known criminals. Because the station did not have a photographic department at that time, suspects were sent to a local photography studio to be photographed for the records, hence the formal poses of the subjects.

The other main crime story of note was one about an attempted jewelery heist in the Jewish section of East London, known as the Houndsditch Murders.  Three officers were shot trying to prevent it, which is the largest number of City officers killed at one time.  The robbers were Russian/Latvian anarchists, who were trying to steal jewels to finance the Russian Revolution (which hadn’t happened yet, obviously), and they holed themselves up in a building until Winston Churchill (Home Secretary at the time) agreed to bring in the Army to assist. This led to a shoot out until the building caught on fire; the robbers died in the inferno rather than give themselves up.  The only one who escaped was the mastermind, known as Peter the Painter.  His exact identity remains a mystery, but it is rumoured that he was a man called Yakov Peters who subsequently returned to Russia, and was given a position as head of security for Lenin (post-Revolution).  He was later executed by the Soviets.

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There were many other objects on display (though it was a small space), such as the Olympic Medals won by the City Police Tug of War team (back when Tug of War was an Olympic sport, those must have been the days!), counterfeit bills, and materials relating to Police Horses.  I think there could have been a lot more done with murders and the like, as there was certainly nothing approaching the goriness of the Danish Police Museum, but I appreciate that not being everyone’s cup of tea (plus I suspect the really good stuff is hidden away at the Black Museum).  Still, even just more tales of crime in the City would have spiced things up.  Nevertheless, I was very grateful for Bob’s anecdotes, as he really helped to flesh out the museum’s contents, and definitely made them more interesting than just staring into the cases would have been.

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I will say that you should set aside quite a bit of time to tour this museum; it certainly took much longer than I expected, as I wasn’t aware I would be given a tour, but it is worth staying to listen.  The only caveat is that you might have to wait awhile if a tour is in session when you arrive, as Bob was the only volunteer on duty when I visited, and several latecomers were told to wait whilst I was there, so arriving near the 11 am opening time might be a good bet.  It doesn’t have the shock value of other police museums I’ve visited, but it does have a certain quiet dignity, and you will learn lots about the history of the City Police force, and notable crimes in the City (I hope I haven’t spoiled it for you by sharing Bob’s stories, but they were too good to not tell those of you who might not be able to visit the museum, and there were quite a few other facts that I haven’t mentioned!).  It’s well worth checking out (and thanks to Bob for an ace tour!).

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8 comments

  1. I feel ancient – I remember Moorgate. I always thought the driver had a heart attack or something, but maybe that was me just surmising to make sense of it.

    In Glasgow, we still have a few blue police boxes about the place. The one near npmy house sells coffee!

    1. I thought a heart attack seemed likely too when he was explaining it, but Bob said there was no evidence of one, and wikipedia (which is obviously an extremely credible source) confirmed it, so I’m not sure what could have happened. Tragic yet fascinating stuff.
      And I am most intrigued by this coffee vending police box! I must check it out if I’m ever in Glasgow!

  2. I might need to visit this, for no other reason than I worked for nearly 5 years in a police department and memories! (PS, I too would pee my pants at the opportunity to visit the Black)

    1. I really have no idea how I could ever get into the Black Museum, short of joining up with the police! I’ve seen some pretty horrible things in police museums elsewhere in the world (more on that in my next post), so I genuinely don’t understand what they have in there that could be so bad. I need to know!

  3. Wow – I work in the City and I though I’ve visited both the Guildhall and Bank of England museums, I never knew there was a Police museum! Imust viist it now.
    Just one correction to your story about the Moorgate tube train disaster – it didn’t happen on the Circle Line, it was on a branch of the Northern Line that terminated at Moorgate. The tube tunnel ends at the end of the platform, so the train went right into the blank wall. The line is still in use today, but is now part of the First Capital Connect overground service to Stevenage, Hertford and Welwyn Garden City (I travel on it every day). The irony is that the accident that it happened just a few weeks before the line was to be shut so as to upgrade it to run the Hertford and Welwyn services with brand new rolling stock and proper safety mechanisms to prevent the trains overshooting the platform.

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