Tales of the Riverbank – The killing of Gabriel Franks

The year is 1798. The Thames Marine Police Office has been set up at 256 Wapping High Street in July of that year….We now move forward a few months to October 1798 to explore the circumstances surrounding the death of the first Thames Police officer, Master Lumper Gabriel Franks…. The new Marine Police Office under the leadership of magistrates Patrick Colquhoun and John Harriott has made an effective start to dealing with the crime that beset London’s main commercial artery. There are however mutterings of discontent from those who were once able to make a living from the “Perks of the Job” that they could help themselves to whilst unloading the ships that formed a “Forest of Masts” from Greenwich up to and beyond Westminster….The ‘Lumpers’ had now lost most of the casual work they used to rely on and with the casual work went the opportunity to line their notoriously deep pockets….. Those Lumpers now frequented the pubs and taverns in and around Sailor Town wishing for a return to the old status quo and a rapid end to the hated new body of Marine Police.

Before we move on to the main story we must look at the role of Lumpers (800 men) and Master Lumpers (supervisor of lumpers) (80) within the Thames Police office…. For the first time on the river, the lumpers employed by the W.I. Merchants to work in the Marine Police Office received a proper wage…. But only when there was work for them to do….Therefore a Master Lumper needed another job to work at when he was not supervising his gang of lumpers….In most cases this ‘other’ job was that of publican and we know that master lumper Gabriel Franks also ran a public house in Wapping very close to the police office.

This story of violence and rioting revolves around coal….Coal was a vital commodity in London…. How you got your coal depended on your status in society….If you were poor then you could scavenge for coal on the foreshore at low tide….Coal was brought to London by collier ships from Newcastle in a never ending cycle….There were never less than 90 collier ships unloading at the ninety coal wharves that fed London’s insatiable appetite for coal….These collier ships were unloaded by a class of worker known as ‘Coal Heavers’…These men were described by Harriott as “Almost entirely Irish or of Irish descent and almost beast like in their behaviour”. To be fair, the coal heavers probably didn’t think much of Harriott either!

The coal heavers always worked as a team and were notorious for heavy drinking as a gang at the end of their day’s work…..This ‘socialising’ had to be paid for of course and (like just about every other river worker at that time) it was paid for by their ‘Perks of the Job’….Coal!….After unloading a collier the coal heavers would each help themselves to as much coal as they could carry, which they would sell cheaply to anyone with the cash in ad hoc coal markets….Wapping high Street and Execution Dock were well known venues for such markets….Unfortunately right under the noses of our two new magistrates, Colquhoun and Harriott who took a dim view of such activity.

Coal Heavers arrested by the Marine Police for theft of coal were initially dealt with quite leniently by the magistrates….They hoped that by issuing the modern equivalent of a verbal warning the coal heavers might be deterred…..Sadly that was not the case, the illicit trade in stolen coal continued and the magistrates began to issue substantial fines of 40 shillings (about £150 in today’s money)….It is perhaps an indication of how lucrative this trade in stolen coal was to the coal heavers was when we know that these fines were nearly always paid on the nail from their own pockets.

On October 16th 1798 a coal heaver by the name of Charles Eyres was arrested with two others for theft of coal….He appeared before the magistrates at the Thames Police Court and each was fined 40 shillings….And each of them paid the fine…..Charles Eyres had a hot headed brother, James Eyers and, on the day of the charge James was frequenting the local drinking houses and bitterly complaining to all and sundry of the terrible inequities of modern life in Sailor Town….Too many working men had been deprived of their livelihoods by this terrible new body of police and it was about time that we put an end to their nonsense….Eyers proposed that they should march as a group to the court and demand that his brother’s money should be refunded….After all, this was not really theft….this was just a worker taking his rightful and legitimate “Perks of the Job”!…. Fire by the force of Eyre’s forceful oration….and by alcohol, they marched on Wapping Police Office with the intention of getting justice for Charles Eyers and his associates or razing the police office to the ground!

With what was now a baying mob filling the tiny alley leading to the main entrance to the building the magistrates ordered that the building should be locked, the shutters secured and anyone with no further business in the office should leave immediately….At this point the crowd in the alley began levering up paving stones and heaving them through the windows. Harriott (who had been both a seaman and soldier) took command and led the small number of officers up stairs, breaking out the firearms on the way….They opened then opened fire on the rioting mob below them who were trapped in the alley, killing one of the crowd….The crowd fled in panic taking the body with them….The crowd would shortly return bigger and angrier than ever and Colquhoun would quite literally have to ‘Read the Riot Act’, unfurling a large banner instructing the crowd to break up within the hour or troops would be summoned.

Whilst this is going on Master Lumper Gabriel Franks is quietly enjoying a drink in his pub close by to the police office. He and his associates can hear the disruption, they also hear the gunfire and see the crowd rapidly dispersing….Gabriel Franks then attends the police office and offers his assistance but is informed that the doors are locked and barred and nobody comes in or out…. Gabriel should without doubt gone back to his pub….But he didn’t….Instead he remained nearby to observe what would happen next….The angry crowd are now rushing back to exact revenge….Colquhoun reads the riot act and Gabriel suddenly realises that he and his associates are in danger….he decides to leave and try to find a cutlass to protect themselves with if needs be…..As he moves away another musket shot rings out and Franks receives a fatal wound to his chest….Before he died he was questioned but he could give no clue as to who had fired the shot…..Indeed, the person who pulled the trigger was never identified.

The Government now had a problem….This officially sanctioned body of police now had an officer murdered and such actions could not go unpunished….In the absence of a murder suspect who should be put on trial?….James Eyers, the hot headed brother of the original thief was arrested, charged and sent for trial at the Old Bailey on Jan 9th 1799.

When the judge donned his black cap to read the death sentence he uttered the words “And may the Lord have mercy on your soul” to which Eyers replied “Amen Sir, I hope he will”.

We know from the court records (Old Bailey online) that Eyers was sentenced to hang but we don’t know if the sentence was carried out…. In those days a person charged with a capital offence but did not actually do the killing yourself then SOMETIMES you might have the sentence commuted to either life imprisonment or perhaps transportation….We just don’t know.

In order to record the fact that Gabriel Franks was the first marine police officer to be killed in the line of duty, one of the current fleet of police launches used by the modern day Marine Policing Unit (MPU) of the Metropolitan Police is named GABRIEL FRANKS.

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