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Cabbie’s Curios: The Policemen’s Wall

Pictured below is Myddelton Passage, a quiet road which pops out behind Sadler’s Wells Theatre.

Myddelton Passage

Myddelton Passage, EC1

Initially a narrow footpath, the street was widened in the early 19th century as an estate of homes developed around nearby Myddelton Square, Claremont Square and Amwell Street.

Historic image looking across Inglebert Street towards Myddelton Square. Myddelton Passage leads off to the right, just before the church (image: British History.ac)

Historic image looking across Inglebert Street towards Myddelton Square. Myddelton Passage leads off to the right, just before the church (image: British History.ac)

Despite the expansion Myddelton Passage was considered to be a dark and dangerous alley throughout the Victorian era; a reputation making it notorious enough to feature in George Gissing’s 1889 novel, The Nether World as the setting for a violent assault on a character named Pennyloaf Candy:

Pennyloaf…turned into Myddelton Passage. It is a narrow paved walk between brick walls seven feet high…the branches of a few trees hang over; there are doors seemingly never opened, belonging one to each garden; a couple of gas-lamps shed feeble light

Myddelton Passage today...

Myddelton Passage today…

There came running from the other end of the Passage a girl whom Pennyloaf at once recognised. It was Clem Peckover…who was now springing out of ambush. She rushed upon Pennyloaf who for very alarm could not flee, and attacked her with clenched fists.

Pennyloaf could not even ward off the blows that descended upon her head; she was pinned against the wall, her hat was torn away, her hair began to fly in disorder…Pennyloaf’s hysterical cries and the frantic invectives of her assailant made the Passage ring.

A scrap between two 19th century women

A 19th century scrap

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Today, Myddelton Passage has cleaned up its act; you can certainly walk along it of an evening without fear of attack.

However, look closely at the wall running along its southern perimeter and you’ll discover a secretive hint of its shadier Victorian past

This large collection of seemingly random numbers were mostly carved around the mid to late 19th century by an array of police officers– with each set of digits representing the respective bobby’s collar number.

A Victorian Police Officer

A Victorian Police Officer

Most of the numbers feature a ‘G’ linking them to ‘Finsbury Division’; the team who operated out of the former King’s Cross police station.

359 G... denoting an Officer of the Finsbury Division...

359 G… denoting an Officer of the Finsbury Division…

Quite why so many Victorian coppers chose to create this swathe of graffiti in this particular location remains something of a mystery

The policemen's numbers can be seen carved over much of the Myddelton Passage wall...

The policemen’s numbers can be seen carved across much of the Myddelton Passage wall…

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17 responses

  1. Great stuff indeed. All those collar numbers carved on the walls are really evocative. Perhaps they did it to prove that they had made the required patrol? Maybe they were made to stand there because of the danger to the public, and carved out of boredom. Whatever the reason, it should be preserved. I wonder if Police historians know about this? I have sent a link to this society. http://www.metpolicehistory.co.uk/
    I hope that they can shed more light on it.
    Best wishes, Pete.

    1. The Met history people have put out an appeal for more information on their site. But their webmaster tells me that the copper in the photo is a City of London officer! I will let you know if they discover anything.
      Cheers, Pete.

      1. Would love to hear what they find out.

  2. I have walked along Myddelton Passage a number of times and even taken photos there but, to my shame, had not spotted the inscriptions. So, today, despite the rain, I went for a look. What I saw intrigued me.

    The wall consists of several separately built sections and some of the brickwork has been renewed at various times, facts which complicate the derivation of a history of the wall and the inscriptions. However, the following two points seem clear to me:

    1. The inscriptions are confined to one area of the wall, approximately one third of its length, near the middle.
    2. The inscriptions are densely packed in the middle but thin out towards the edges.

    This raises the question “Why are the inscriptions confined to only a part of the wall?” or, more pointedly “What is special about the place at the centre of the inscriptions?”

    More research might elicit an answer but in the meantime I can only make tentative suggestions.

    If the passage was considered dangerous, was a semi-permanent police presence maintained there at certain times, perhaps at night?

    Was this the place where the sergeant checked on his constables at certain times?

    Was this the point where constables met to hand over when the shift changed?

    In any of these scenarios, a constable might while away the time spent waiting by cutting an inscription. The densely packed part would indicate the actual meeting point and officers would stray from this only because they needed clear space. The fact that each inscription consists of a collar number, perhaps supplemented with the latter ‘G’, suggests that cutting one’s number here was something of a tradition.

    I think it would be worth submitting the matter to an historian as something interesting might emerge.

    1. Very interesting thoughts, SilverTiger… many thanks for sharing.

  3. Fantastic A really interesting article and these relics must be preserved

  4. Fantastic. A really interesting article, these relics from our past must be preserved. Thank you.

  5. The Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection http://www.metpolicehistory.co.uk are looking into this.

    1. Many thanks, Barry. Will be very interested to hear what turns up.

  6. […] Existing proof that Victorian bobbies were graffiti artists. […]

  7. I am an ex policeman. I was told that it was a regular posting due to the high rate of crime. They carved their numbers out of boredom.

    1. Perhaps Richard would like to leave his former collar-number with the Friends of Met Police Collection so they can identify him without any grafitti. He might then like to be recorded alongside the etchings, it would make for a great story in their newsletter.

    2. Thanks, Richard that would make sense.

  8. Stewart Macdonakld | Reply

    Really strange and wonderful. Why would the policemen have the urge to leave their mark ? Why so many ? Are they known to do this behaviour elsewhere ? Where do graffiti (tattoos) come from? I don’t get it.??
    Well done very intriguing

    1. Thanks, Stewart. I would love to know why so many policemen from the same district did this but I think the explanation is sadly lost in time. Must’ve been something that sparked it but we can only guess…

      I’ve found graffiti interesting since visiting Pompeii and seeing examples there- and realising it’s been in human nature since ancient times!

      Going back to Policemen’s ones, they’re all pretty well crafted- must’ve taken each officer quite a while to make his mark.

      Thanks again.

  9. […] From Cabbie’s Curios: The Policemen’s Wall […]

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