COLLECTING: What have we got here, then?

Policemen are natural collectors and, as Sarah Wise finds, their memorabilia gives much more away than their faces
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
ALMOST 50 years since it was established, the Metropolitan Police Museum remains out of sight to the general public. Its 30,000 or so artefacts, chronicling more than two centuries of London policing, are held in protective custody in a warehouse on a industrial estate in Charlton, south-east London, since being turfed out of their Bow Street home 16 years ago. "My dream," says the Met's deputy curator Ray Seal, gesturing towards his display cabinets, "would be to get this lot back into Bow Street and on show to the public by 29 September 1999." That would be 170 years to the day since the first of Sir Robert Peel's uniformed force were sworn in for duty (though Officer No 1 was sacked after four hours for drunkenness).

The warehouse is presided over by a mannequin dressed in the original Met uniform. Around him is a fascinating collection that would pull in the crowds should it ever be properly displayed. Charlton, however, is a long walk from any public transport links and so cramped that it cannot be adapted to allow more than three visitors at a time. Bow Street police station which is lying empty, is round the corner from the London Transport Museum, which charges a pounds 4.95 entrance fee and attracts nearly 200,000 visitors a year.

As well as boots, tunics, badges, helmets and truncheons the collection at includes objects one would not normally associate with police work. There are, for instance, the gold and diamond Faberge watches presented by Czar Nicholas II to Superintendent Melville in thanks for Special Branch protection during a visit to London and Prince Napoleon's tip-staff (a mini-truncheon with a brass crown at one end), carried by Bonaparte's cousin when he worked as a London Special. Many items even pre-date the advent of Peel in 1829.

The museum also has an impressive library of history books. Then there's the portable kettle-cum-teapot, complete with spirit burner, which dangled from a copper's belt on cold nights on the beat in the 1920s; and rows and rows of uniforms. More than any other attire, the police officer's uniform can be "read" as a collection of signs, with rank, locality, years of service, merit awards, on/off duty status and even rate of pay indicated by plates, buckles, badges, armbands and shoulder and sleeve stitching detail.

Many forces have a museum of sorts, ranging from small displays in station foyers to professionally curated collections. Nottingham's Galleries of Justice museum is soon to open a policing history section; while the Kent Constabulary has a display area at the Chatham Historic Dockyard. Largely, though, regional collections are cared for by volunteers, usually retired officers.

The police, as both a body and as individuals, are avid collectors of memorabilia, with many a retired copper trawling auctions and car-boot sales. Forces' curators often give each other tip-offs on upcoming sales but there is also some rivalry. John Endicott at the Kent Constabulary museum has Sir Robert Peel's family Bible in his collection, and says "the Met would just love to get their hands on that."

Ray Seal is particularly grateful to the Met widows who have donated generously over the years, and adds: "If any of your readers is having a clear out and find police-related material, please can they throw it our way." (Ray is especially keen to get hold of any cine-film or informal, unposed photos of Met officers. He also wants to hear from anyone with back issues of The Christian Police Association magazine On and Off Duty, which began publishing in 1883.)

But private collectors can be the bane of the curators' lives, as lots often go to international buyers, who pay large amounts for police ephemera. If a "Tardis" phonebox ever makes it to auction, bidding is unlikely to start at less than pounds 1,000. At the Greater Manchester Police Museum, in the city's disused Newton Street station, curators Duncan Broady and Chris Marks get a comparatively generous pounds 6,000 a year from Greater Manchester Police, but often find themselves unable to compete with private buyers.

"Over the years, officers have had to fill the roles of social workers, fire-fighters, ambulance drivers and traffic controllers, in addition to investigating crimes and dealing with social unrest, and as a result they are an invaluable source of social history," says historian Professor Clive Emsley of the Open University. Not only have they had a front-row seat in the theatre of British street life, they have also committed everything they have experienced to paper, right down to such minutiae as the names of station cats. The thousands of notebooks, job application forms, and station log-books amassed by British forces form an immensely rich historical archive. "Since the beginning of the last century, the police have witnessed at first hand everything that has taken place in the public arena," says Emsley who regrets the lack of a comprehensive collection in Britain. "The French and Italian police have superb museums with proper facilities for researchers, but in Britain, police historians really have to hunt around to find their source material."

Civilian sieges and the mass slaying of policemen were extraordinary events in Edwardian England, and the City of London Police Museum (a separate force from the Met), curated by Roger Appleby, brings this difference in social climate home. It is this educational role of police memorabilia that lies behind retired Chief Superintendent Alan Moss's attempts to attract funding. This month, the Home Office is to consider a proposal to allow Bow Street to house the museum and later this year Moss will make his third application for Lottery funding. "I can understand why the Lottery people are reluctant to fund yet another museum," he says, "but you need to get a community on your side in order to police it well, and a museum could be extremely helpful in doing this. If we don't record and analyse how policing has changed over the years, there is a danger that policing will change its nature imperceptibly, perhaps in ways we would prefer it not to. A museum would help the police and the public think about what sort of policing we want to see in the next century." !


l The Metropolitan Police Historical Museum, 0181 305 1676. Visits by appointment; entrance free.

l Greater Manchester Police Museum, 0161 856 3287. Entrance free.

l City of London Police Museum, 0171 601 2455. By appointment; entrance free.

l The Police Galleries at the Galleries of Justice, Nottingham, 0115 952 0555; entrance pounds 3.95.

l Chatham Historic Dockyard, 01634 823 800; entrance pounds 6.20, but entrance to the Kent Police Museum only is free.