London Canal Museum Appeals For Police Information

By David Prudames | 22 September 2003
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  • Archived article
Shows the bow of a narrow boat.

Photo: the culture that built up around life on the UK's canal network is a unique part of British heritage. Image courtesy of London Canal Museum.

In the days before airports and motorways, Britain’s canals were its arteries, transporting millions of tonnes of goods around the country and feeding the Industrial Revolution.

Back then there was so much traffic on our inland waterways, special police forces were established to keep order and stand guard over thousands of pounds worth of freight.

Unfortunately there is little recorded evidence of the canal constabularies, but London Canal Museum is looking to change that with a special exhibition about the forgotten arm of the law.

Working with the British Transport Police archivist, the museum’s Vice Chair, Martin Sach, is calling for anyone with information about the canal police forces to come forward.

"It is an obscure subject and we would like to hear from anyone who has heard stories of the canal policemen being employed in the past," he said.

Shows the rear entrance of the London Canal Museum.

Photo: London Canal Museum is housed in a former ice warehouse, built during the 19th century for an Italian ice-cream maker. Image courtesy of London Canal Museum.

"In particular we would very much like to interview anyone who actually worked as a canal policeman."

Canals became hugely popular in the 1790s and by 1850 there were over 4000 miles of navigable waterways in Britain with the network transporting over 30 million tonnes of freight each year.

Much like the original railways, canals were run by private companies, which employed groups of men to protect their interests, operating as their own police forces.

Constabularies were formed all over the country, at places such as the Manchester Ship Canal and Regent's Canal in London, and were mainly put to work preventing the theft of valuable freight.

Following the Second World War, the canals were nationalised along with the railways and their private police forces became part of the British Transport Commission Police. However, by the 1960s, the completion of the motorways gradually spelled the end of the large scale industrial use of canals.

Shows a photograph of the view of the exit from a tunnel as seen from a coal-carrying canal boat.

Photo: at the height of their popularity Britain's network of inland waterways covered 4000 miles and carried 30 million tonnes of freight a year.. Image courtesy of British Waterways. Click here to visit their website.

While the wider heritage of our waterways has been preserved, Martin Sach explained how little attention has been paid to collecting evidence of the police forces that protected them.

"It’s something that no-one else has done," he said, "and it is a forgotten bit of history that is in danger of being completely lost."

As well as trying to compile oral histories and reminiscences of the canal police force, the museum is looking to purchase or loan a variety of artefacts for the exhibition, which is scheduled to take place late next year.

It is hoped that a whole range of items from private collections as well as other museums can be unearthed, be they cap badges, truncheons or even notebooks.

Anyone with any information that might help track down Britain’s canal police should contact Martin Sach at London Canal Museum on 0870 1366638 or click here to send him an email.

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