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Marine Support Unit


MSU team patrolling the river Thames

The Marine Support Unit has a long and rich history dating back to 1798 when a Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and a Master Mariner John Harriott formed the Marine Police Establishment to combat theft, looting and corruption in the Port of London, all of which were rife at that time. It is claimed that the Marine Police Establishment was the first ever police force in the England. The initial annual cost of running the Establishment was £5000 with funds provided by both the Exchequer (£980) and the West India Merchants and Planters Company (£4020).

The Force took a lease of premises on the current site of Wapping Police Station and appointed a Superintendent of Ship Constables with 5 Surveyors to patrol the River day and night. Police Watermen rowed the Surveyors around in open galleys.

They also had 4 Surveyors for visiting ships being loaded and unloaded and Ship Constables (who were appointed and controlled by the Marine Police Force but paid for by ship owners rather than police funds) supervising gangs of Dockers. A Surveyor of Quays with 2 assistants and 30 Police Quay Guards watched over cargos on shore. 31 years later in 1829, Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police Force by which time the Marine Police had 3 police stations (Wapping, Waterloo and Blackwall) and 15 boats. In 1839 the two Police Forces amalgamated and the Marine Police Force were renamed 'Thames Division', a name it kept until 2001.

Receovery on the Thames

In these early days, the police carried out their duties in rowing boats that were still in use up until 1905. On the 3 September 1878 a terrible marine disaster occurred on the River Thames claiming the highest ever single loss of civilian lives in UK Territorial Waters. The iron ship ' Bywell Castle' ran into the pleasure steamer 'Princess Alice' in Galleons Reach (East London), downstream of Barking Creek. The paddle steamer had been returning from the coast via Sheerness and Gravesend with nearly 800 day-trippers on board. She broke in two and sank immediately with the loss of over 600 lives.

At the subsequent inquest and inquiry, officials recommended that Thames Division should have steam launches as rowing galleys were inadequate for Police duty and the first two were commissioned in the mid 1880's. By 1898 Thames Division had a further 8 steam launches to supplement its 28 rowing galleys until 1910 when the first motor vessels were introduced.

Just over a hundred years after the Princess Alice tragedy Thames Division found themselves being called upon to deal with another disaster. At about 1.50am on the 20th August 1989 the aggregate dredger 'Bowbelle' collided with the passenger vessel 'Marchioness' near Cannon Street Railway Bridge. Four police patrol boats were on the scene within six minutes and with the assistance of the passenger vessel 'Hurlingham' rescued 87 people from the river that night. In the days that followed river police officers recovered a total of 51 bodies, 24 from the wreck and 27 from the River.

After subsequent inquiries, the Government asked the Maritime and Coastguard Agency ( MCA ), the Port of London Authority ( PLA ) and the Royal National Lifeboat Institution ( RNLI ) to work together to set up a dedicated Search and Rescue service for the tidal River Thames. Consequently, on the 2nd January 2002, the RNLI set up four lifeboat stations at Gravesend, Tower Pier, Chiswick Pier and Teddington .

Prior to this date the Marine Support Unit had undertaken a search and rescue role for over two hundred years undoubtedly saving thousands of lives.

Today the MSU works in close partnership with other agencies to make London a safer place on the River Thames and throughout its many other waterways.

This content was made with a contribution from Mr Ian Hart.
Please visit their external web page for more info: www.the-river-thames.co.uk