THE FIRST PROFESSIONAL POLICE OFFICER TO LOSE THEIR LIFE ON THE THIN BLUE LINE?
“Come quickly, for God’s sake! One of your men is knocked down by a lad!” screamed the child at PC Bennett as he tugged the constable’s blue uniform. It wasn’t a good start for the new police.
It was quarter past seven on a Monday night, in the closing days of June 1830.
Skinner Street in Somers Town, close to where St Pancras Station now stands, was still bustling. After dark, the secondary thoroughfares in this area could be dangerous. Only the major streets of London were lit, and even then the feeble gas lamps often gave out very little illumination.
Historically, constables and justices of the peace worked voluntarily and were not typically paid for their services. That all changed with the formation of the Metropolitan Police - serving officers were now trained professionals and paid. Formed in 1829 by Home Secretary, Robert Peel, the ‘bobbies’ and ‘peelers’ (as they were known in tribute to their founder) carried their lives in their hands. Pairing of patrols was a required precaution in many of London’s treacherous, darkened streets.
The city was already one of the largest in the world, now occupied by more than a million and a half souls and growing at an incredible rate. London’s population would hit 6.7 million by the end of the 1800s. Migrants from provincial Britain, Ireland, Europe and increasingly from across the globe, made up more than a quarter of its inhabitants.
Before completion of the northern railways into the new stations at Euston, King’s Cross and St Pancras, Somers Town was traditionally associated with those engaged in the trade of skins and fur. Ermine, sable and marten were the preserve of royalty and aristocracy, the middle classes made do with squirrel and fox. The commoners had to use lambskin, rabbit or even cat. This local industry gave rise to the name of Skinner Street.
The area housed a large transient population of labourers in overcrowded, cheaply built blocks. As the population swelled, inhabitants would have to put up with rising crime rates as well as do battle with outbreaks of cholera, influenza, typhus, dysentery and typhoid.
In those days, there was distrust of the military and the public were widely opposed to their use on London’s streets. It was decided that the uniform of the new police would be a neutral blue. Red was perceived as threatening because the public associated it with soldiers’ uniforms. Historically, it had been the military who had been called upon to quell public riots. Unlike the military, these new police officers were not armed as such. All they’d been equipped with was a wooden truncheon, handcuffs, and a rattle to signal their need for assistance.
But PC Bennett, officer number 87, of the newly created S division, had heard no rattle to alert him to his colleague in trouble. Instead, he hurriedly followed the boy who’d told him of a scuffle down Skinner Street and was led to a tenement block at Thornley’s Place.
There he found his colleague, PC Grantham, struggling with a very angry and inebriated prisoner; a struggle that had apparently been ongoing for some time. Officers Bennett and Grantham advised the prisoner to submit. In response, the prisoner was said to have ‘used a very coarse expression’ and replied that he ‘would not be taken by any policeman’. Eventually the prisoner was thrown to the ground, and onto his back.
PC Bennett attempted to handcuff the prisoner as PC Grantham tried to secure the prisoner’s feet.
Back in February 1830, with the Metropolitan Police just five months old, Joseph Grantham, aged thirty, had signed up to be among London's first constables. It was a job he had taken to earn enough money to support his elderly widowed mother. He would become police constable number 169, assigned to S. division.
On 28th June 1830, he would also be the very first Metropolitan Police officer to be killed on duty, just four months into his new career .
The Morning Post carried the following story of what had led up to his death:
”CRUEL MURDER OF A POLICE CONSTABLE IN THE EXECUTION OF HIS DUTY.”
“Last evening between seven and eight o’clock, Joseph Grantham, a police constable, was savagely murdered while in the execution of his duty in endeavouring to quell a disturbance in Thornley’s-place, Skinner-street, Sommers-town, occasioned by a fight between two Irish bricklayers.
The fight continued for some minutes, when some of the neighbours called for the assistance of the Police, and Grantham, on whose beat it was, came up and endeavoured to part the combatants; but he had no sooner attempted to interfere, than Michael Gavin, [also known as Michael Duggin or Duggan] the most furious of the combatants, turned his vengeance upon him and knocked him down with a tremendous blow with his fist. His head coming in contact with a large paving stone, he was stunned, and while in that state, Michael Gavin, who was perfectly outrageous, kicked him in the groin and the left side several times with great violence. The poor fellow uttered a groan or two, and then was to all appearance dead.
Further assistance was called, and Bennett, another policeman of the same division, No. 87, came up, and seeing what had occurred, rushed at once upon the prisoner and after a desperate struggle, succeeded in securing him with handcuffs. The man who was fighting with him ran away. Grantham was taken up on some men’s shoulders, and conveyed to Mr. Wakefield’s, a Surgeon, at the corner of Skinner-street and New-road, but that Gentleman immediately pronounced him to be quite dead. The body of the unfortunate man was then conveyed to the Boot public-house, in Cromer-street and Michael Gavin was taken to the police station in Albany-street, New-road, until a Coroner’s Inquest can be summoned.” (Tuesday 29 June, 1830)
On the Wednesday following Grantham’s death, the Morning Chronicle carried additional information about the incident and PC Grantham:
“POLICE - MARY-LA-BONNE - Yesterday MICHAEL DUGGIN [also known as Michael Gavin] was remanded on the charge of having killed Joseph Grantham, a police constable, No. 169, Division S... The deceased entered the Police on the 10th of February last, and was of a very good character. He maintained an aged mother out of his salary. The prisoner is a bricklayer, and his apprenticeship expired on the day of the melancholy catastrophe. In celebrating it he got intoxicated, and afterwards committed the act which killed the deceased. - He appears extremely afflicted.”
There are records that support this claim that PC Joseph Grantham had joined the Met to support his elderly widowed mother. Joseph was born in Fulham in February 1799. He was christened in Fulham on 4th March 1799. At this time, Fulham was just a small village on the banks of the Thames, surrounded by farms and nurseries. Joseph's parents appear to have been farmers. Land Tax records show that in both 1797 and 1801, Thomas Grantham, Joseph's father, rented land from Sir Philip Stephens, the 1st Baronet.
Sadly, in 1802, Thomas died, leaving his wife and children to continue alone, shortly after Joseph’s third birthday. Thomas Grantham was buried in Fulham in March 1802.
JUSTICE FOR PC GRANTHAM?
Justice In eighteenth and nineteenth century London was a hit and miss affair – certainly until the rise of police courts. Before this, and at the time of PC Grantham’s death, inns and pubs were the only readily-available, large indoor space where public events could be held - and all sorts of events were held in them, including local court petty-sessions and inquests into deaths. It caused Charles Dickens, who’d been to inquests himself and was no stranger to crime in London, to write in Bleak House: ‘The Coroner frequents more public-houses than any man alive.’
Inquests were not trials, though their proceedings resembled them. Inquests were presided over by a coroner - men who were mostly lawyers or had experienced some form of legal training. The coroner was required to establish the circumstances of a sudden or suspicious death, and inquests were held quickly. The Coroner would select twelve local men to form a jury. The coroner and jurors would then ‘view’ the body before they began to hear evidence. Jurors had the right to question witnesses directly. If the jury decided on a verdict of murder or manslaughter, then the case would then be brought before one of the criminal courts.
Medical journalist Samuel Squire Sprigge said of the oddity of these inquests: ‘The taint of the tavern-parlour vitiated the evidence, ruined the discretion of the jurors, and detracted from the dignity of the coroner. The solemnity of the occasion was too generally lightened by alcohol… where the majesty of death evaporated with the fumes from the gin of the jury.’
So an inebriated, locally sourced jury, would be called to preside over PC Grantham’s killing. And this was made worse in PC Grantham’s case by the inquest’s location. The Boot public house was especially well known for being anti-establishment and none too keen on law and order. In fact, fifty years earlier it had been the headquarters of the anti-Catholic Gordon rioters of 1780.
The Gordon Riots were some of the worst in the country’s history, and severely damaged Britain's reputation across Europe at a time when (much like today) the country's style of government and constitutional monarchy were being questioned by both our enemies and allies alike.
The army was eventually called in to quell the riots, as the local yeomanry and volunteer forces were unable to cope. The troops were given orders to fire upon groups of four or more who refused to disperse. Some 285 people were shot dead, 200 wounded, and around 450 were arrested. Twenty or thirty people were later tried and executed for their involvement in the riots, some of whom hailed from the area around The Boot pub.
While the primary cause of the riots was said to be anti-Catholic feeling, there were other reasons driving the turmoil. Wars on distant shores had meant a loss of trade, falling wages, rising food prices, and unemployment. Britain was in a perilous economic state. The riots eventually caused the collapse of peace talks with Spain, which in turn blamed Britain for not deploying a professional police force to quell the riots in the first place. The riots were said to be a major catalyst in the formation of the Met police and now, ironically, the home of the rioters was to be the setting for PC Grantham’s inquest.
But this was how it was to be, and on the Wednesday evening, two days after his untimely death, the inquest into PC Grantham’s death was convened at The Boot public-house. The London Courier and Evening Gazette later reported what happened there:
“An inquest was held upon the body on Wednesday night at the Boot public house in Cromer-street, Somers-town and a verdict returned, “That the death of the policeman was caused by an extravasation of blood upon the brain, produced by over exertion in the discharge of his duty.”
Perhaps it wasn't surprising, given the pub’s history, that the jury decided on such a perverse cause of death or that they claimed Grantham’s killing was a ‘justifiable homicide’ on the part of the prisoner?
Joseph Grantham was buried on the Saturday morning following his inquest, on 3rd July 1830 at St Pancras Parish Church on Euston road, a fairly new premises at the time, built in 1822.
The ‘new church’ as it is called on Grantham’s records, had been built with a crypt for coffin burials, but records show that PC Grantham’s burial wasn’t paid for. Was his a pauper’s burial?
Just days later, a criminal trial was held, though it wasn’t for Grantham’s murder. The London Evening Standard explained on Monday, 12 July 1830 that the prisoner was given a meagre six months in prison for the death of PC Grantham, plus an additional six weeks for the attack on PC Bennett:
“MIDDLESEX SESSIONS, JULY 10
Michael Gavin [also known as Michael Duggan or Duggin] was charged with assaulting Grantham and Bennett, two of the new police. The unfortunate man Grantham died on the spot, and as it was supposed his death was the result of the injuries he received from the prisoner, the latter was fully committed by Mr. Griffiths, of the Mary-la-bonne Police-office, for wilful murder; but the superintendent surgeon of the police being decidedly of the opinion, after a post mortem examination, that the deceased died of apoplexy, [unconsciousness or incapacity resulting from a cerebral haemorrhage or stroke] brought on by the exertion and excitement of the moment, all idea of proceeding for murder was abandoned, and the present prosecution substituted instead.
It appeared that the prisoner was seen by Grantham, in Skinner-street, Somers-town, in a quarrelsome state of drunkenness, and was advised to go home. The policeman then left him, and the prisoner went to the house of a person named Mitchell, in Smith’s-place, in that street, and knocked, and asked Mitchell if his two sons were at home, saying he wanted to fight them. Mitchell advised him to go home to bed, and in return was knocked down. Mitchell’s wife then interposed, and was also knocked down. By this time a person who had ran off for a policeman at the commencement of the affray had returned with Grantham, who seeing the woman knocked down, went up to the prisoner, and said, “I must take you into custody now,” and was about seizing him by the collar, when the prisoner closed with him, and after a scuffle got him down, and kicked him both on the head and abdomen while down.
Bennett, who by this time and come up to the assistance of his companion, was also struck down, and it was not till after a desperate struggle that the prisoner was secured. Grantham expired almost immediately on the spot where he had been struck down; his death, however, as has been already observed, was found to have arisen from apoplexy, and not from the violence used towards him; at least there was no internal appearances which would warrant the surgeon in declaring otherwise.
The jury found the prisoner Guilty upon both indictments. The chairman, after an impressive address, in the course of which he told the prisoner he had a very near chance of taking his trial to murder, sentenced him to six months imprisonment for the assault on Grantham, and six weeks additional imprisonment for that on Bennett.”
There were rumours that PC Grantham was married, and that on the very day of his death, his wife had given birth to twins - though there appear to be no official records to confirm this and any such reporting seems fanciful.
Intered in the crypt at St Pancras, PC Grantham’s awful story and the lack of justice for his death might have lived on, at least among mourners and the parish flock. But, in 1854, due to one of the city’s worst ever cholera outbreaks, all of London’s crypts were sealed off to the public, locking PC Grantham’s story away.
The Boot pub still serves beer, as it has always done, from the same location since 1724; none of its drinkers know of Grantham’s inquest there.
St Pancras Parish Church rents out part of its crypt as a gallery space; none of the gallery goers know of Grantham’s body nearby.
Skinner Street is now called Midland Road, and runs north from Euston Road between St Pancras Station and The British Library. Sadly there is no indication to the thousands of people who travel down the road or sit in its smoggy traffic jams, as to what unfolded that evening in 1830.
And the Met’s first professional police officer ever to be killed on duty, who received little justice at the time, sadly now lays in complete anonymity in a sealed and often flooded crypt.