The high levels of poverty in the East End have, throughout history, corresponded with a high incidence of crime. From earliest times, crime depended, as did labour, on the importing of goods to London, and their interception in transit. Theft occurred in the river, on the quayside and in transit to the City warehouses. This was why, in the 17th century, the East India Company built high-walled, guarded docks at Blackwall to minimise the vulnerability of their cargoes. Armed convoys would then take the goods to the company’s secure compound in the City. The practice led to the creation of ever larger docks throughout the area, and for large roads to be driven through the crowded 19th century slums to carry goods from the docks.
No police force operated in London before the 1750s. Crime and disorder were dealt with by a system of magistrates and volunteer parish constables, with strictly limited jurisdiction. Salaried constables were introduced by 1792, although they were few in number and their power and jurisdiction continued to derive from local magistrates, who in extremis could be backed by militias. In 1798, England’s first Marine Police Force was formed by magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and a Master Mariner, John Harriott to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Pool of London and the lower reaches of the river. Its base was (and remains) in Wapping High Street. It is now known as the Marine Support Unit.
In 1829, the Metropolitan Police Force were formed, with a remit to patrol within 7 miles (11 km) of Charing Cross, with a force of 1,000 men in 17 divisions, including ‘H’ division, based in Stepney. Each division was controlled by a superintendent, under whom were four inspectors and sixteen sergeants. The regulations demanded that recruits should be under thirty-five years of age, well built, at least 5-foot-7-inch (1.70 m) in height, literate and of good character. Unlike the former constables, the police were recruited widely and so were initially disliked.
The force took until the mid-19th century to be established in the East End. Unusually, Joseph Sadler Thomas, a Metropolitan Police superintendent of ‘F’ (Covent Garden) Division appears to have mounted the first local investigation (in Bethnal Green), in November 1830 of the London Burkers. In 1841, a specific Dockyard division of the Metropolitan force was formed to assume responsibility for shore patrols within the docks, a detective department was formed in 1842, and in 1865, ‘J’ division was established in Bethnal Green.