By the early 1860s, many streets had been laid out in Cubitt Town, but very little had yet been built. Christ Church, Lord Nelson and Newcastle Arms had opened less than five years earlier, and there were a few houses in or off Manchester Road, but that was it.
The church and two pubs were built in anticipation of the large population that would shortly be moving to the newly-developed Cubitt Town – a population that would also need a police station.
It was proposed to build the police station on land in the hands of the Greenwich Hospital Estate, who had leased the area directly opposite the hospital in order to…
..prevent the total closure of its vista, and to shut out the annoyances of gloomy unsightly and offensive buildings, that are sure to be erected.
The police station was built in 1865 at 126 Manchester Road, and is shown on this 1872 map. The map also shows that much had been built in the few years since 1862. The area would hardly change at all in the following decades, until the outbreak of WWII.
The following is the earliest known photo of the police station, estimated to have been taken around 1910. There is a policeman standing guard outside the front door, but I suspect he was only there for the photo.
The following photo, also with a policeman on guard, shows a Manchester Road covered in horse dung. It appears that there are few people around, but the exposure times of old cameras were often so long that if you didn’t stand perfectly still, your image would be too vague to be perceptible.
I’m jumping around a bit in time, but this c1970 photo shows just how much remained unchanged. The shop immediately to the left of the police station has gone, however, destroyed during WWII.
Survey of London:
The station provided accommodation for a married sergeant (or inspector) and married constable, their families and six single constables, with up to three prisoners. It had several characteristic defects:
Inside, the men’s recreation or day room adjoined the noisy charge room, and was therefore generally abandoned in favour of the more peaceful mess. Other adverse criticisms … included the absence of a bath, brush lockers and a parade room in the yard for the men to line up for duty or receive pay.
Upstairs, the absence of a water supply and of gas lighting in the smaller bedrooms was noted, while bed space per man was felt to be over-generous. But it was the arrangement of the quarters that really gave cause for concern.
As in a number of stations and section-houses, single and married quarters shared a staircase and landing, the door to the married quarters opening opposite that to the men’s room: ‘grave improprieties have naturally arisen from this mingling of occupation; and … women often refuse to live in a police station on this very account.’ The common landing was later partitioned, the door to the men’s room blocked up and a new entrance provided.
In 2019, it is hard to imagine policemen and their families living in a police station, but this was the case in many police stations until as late as the 1960s. It’s not surprising that this led to ‘grave improprieties’ in Victorian times. In the 1860s, London’s police had only just started becoming the police force that we would recognize today, thanks to the 1856 Police Act which saw a system for government inspection, audit and regulation for the first time. Until then, the police force had a poor reputation, and even in the 1860s more than 200 policemen in London were charged with being drunk while on duty. That there was little respect for the police is demonstrated by this 1800s newspaper article:
In response to the criticism of the Isle of Dogs Police Station, plans were drawn up for a restructuring, which included the addition of bath, and a WC and kitchen on the first floor:
We are very fortunate that a number of historic Isle of Dogs Police Station ‘Refused Charge Registers’ and ‘Occurrence Books’ have survived and are available online on the Open University website. No, I didn’t know what these documents were either until I came across them. According to the website:
Refused Charge Registers* are used for specific charges made by the police or private persons and where the charge is subsequently dropped.
Occurrence Books*, contain reports of enquiries/observations made by the police whilst on patrol; incidents, in which a crime may, or may not, have been committed, attended by the police; attendance of person at a police station; or a person, who previously has been bailed, is notified not to attend a police station to answer his recognizance.
* The Refused Charge Registers cover the period from approximately 1900 to 1960, and the Occurence Books cover the late 1960s.
The documents provide a fascinating insight into police business on the Island during the 20th Century, and are very telling about the life of Islanders. Some reports are sad, others amusing, while in at least the later ones there are some familiar surnames to me. There are too many documents to show them all here – I recommend you visit the site via the link above – but here are few:
In this one, John Smith of Canning Town demonstrates the age-old Island profession of nicking stuff out of the docks. The PLA declined to press charges because the stolen corn mixture was practically valueless:
One of the sadly-frequent entries, a wife accusing her husband of having assaulted her. Other entries which also saddened me were the reports of children being killed by lorries – quite a few of them too.
The police station and its neighbours in Manchester Road (apart from No. 128) came through World War II with little damage.
Life returned to normal, and the police carried on registering familiar events (mind you, I noticed that there was far more vandalism reported in the 1960s):
I couldn’t help but smirk at the comment by PC Gibson in the following one, “The vehicle was alright when I left it there at 2 am”. Something I can imagine Bernard Breslaw uttering.
A couple of years after this I paid my one and only visit to the police station. We were messing around on the Thames foreshore (don’t tell my mum) when we found an unexploded anti-aircraft shell, probably something that had been fired from the mudchute during WWII. We did the sensible thing, picked it up, and took it to the police station. The police officer behind the front desk was not amused when we plonked it on his desk. I wonder if this ever made it into an Occurrence Book?
In the early 1970s, it was decided to build a new George Green’s School on the Island – precisely on the site of the former Greenwich Hospital Estate (I wonder if that was a coincidence or not?). This meant the demolition of buildings in Brig Street, Ship Street, Barque Street and along a long stretch of Manchester Road which included the police station.
The police station was one of the last buildings to go, in 1973, just over a century after its construction. George Green’s School and Community Centre began to rise on it site.
The site of the Isle of Dogs Police Station today.