Pictured below is Myddelton Passage, a quiet road which pops out behind Sadler’s Wells Theatre.
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.
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…
“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.”
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.
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.
Quite why so many Victorian coppers chose to create this swathe of graffiti in this particular location remains something of a mystery…
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.
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.
Would love to hear what they find out.
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.
Very interesting thoughts, SilverTiger… many thanks for sharing.
Fantastic A really interesting article and these relics must be preserved
Fantastic. A really interesting article, these relics from our past must be preserved. Thank you.
Thank you, John
The Friends of the Metropolitan Police Historical Collection http://www.metpolicehistory.co.uk are looking into this.
Many thanks, Barry. Will be very interested to hear what turns up.
[…] Existing proof that Victorian bobbies were graffiti artists. […]
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.
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.
Thanks, Richard that would make sense.
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
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.
[…] From Cabbie’s Curios: The Policemen’s Wall […]
We lived in Myddelton Passage from 1976-86 and I only became aware of the walls curiosity from my window seeing people walking along the wall moving up and down like jack in the boxes which intrigued me.
I then went to look for myself and read the numbers as either dates or numbers (as in prisoners) and had always assumed the wall may have been built from the bricks from an old local prison(newgate foundations etc),so am pleased to have had the riddle resolved.
It certainly added character to where we lived with an interesting connection to London’s chequered history.
Thanks John. It was a resident of Myddleton Passage who told me about it 🙂
An ITV london news program suggested a darker reason.
Was that the theory that prisoners from the Napoleonic War etched their numbers on the wall?
Hi all, my number’s on the wall – 119N.
On 27 October 1977 a resident of Myddleton Passage Stuart Brickell was being evicted by bailiffs assisted by police. He attacked them with a machete, stiletto and razor fracturing a superintendent’s skull and stabbing a sergeant. There was one stage when they hought he may have constructed a gas bomb. It led a to nine day armed siege while Brickell was barricaded inside the flat. Myddleton Passage was filled with foot police for 24 hours a day throughout a freezing cold week containing the media who were kept refuelled in the Shakespeare’s Head at the Sadler’s Wells end. It was big national news at the time. It ended peacefully and Brickell was convicted of the assaults and probably served his time.
Us young coppers on duty became aware of our old comrades numbers on the wall. I think that we were told about it by local residents. Various theories abounded about the origins of the numbers including WW1 wartime Specials protecting the Thames Water Head (it’s the boundary wall) – there are numbers from that era. Also that police were drafted from other divisions following a vicious Victorian era murder (I think there may be some W Division numbers ad others). Both could be true including those already put forward.
I think us hairy kids of the 70’s were careful not to desecrate the history, but a few of us added our numbers slightly away from the older ones. My number appears very quickly towards the end of the London Walking Tours video. I also left it nearby at the far end of the street but some multi-millionaire homeowner has had the audacity to render over it in the last few years!
It’s funny because old shoulder or collar numbers mean a lot to old coppers as they often conjure up names and memories from the past.
It’s a lovely piece of quirky London history. I’m glad your London-championing members enjoy it and I hope I’ve added a little bit extra to the story.
Best wishes to all.
Thank you so much for sharing this Joe, much appreciated. Wonderful memories.