material culture

Police truncheon ‘to crack the skull of a Chartist’

Eighteen inches in length, and decorated with a royal crest and lion, the police truncheon shown here is connected to Chartism by the date, written in black on a gold background: April 10, 1848.

Decorated truncheon . Click for larger image.

The date places it as one of the countless staves issued in the weeks before the Chartist monster meeting on Kennington Common to the 4,000 London police officers on duty that day and to the 85,000 special constables sworn in to help secure the capital. Clearly someone had been proud of their service and their role in the events of that day. But what would that role have involved?

As the historian David Goodway explains in London Chartism 1838-1848, probably not very much. While the numbers are impressive, all but 3,000 of those sworn in were empowered to act only within their own parish or workplace – and few would even have seen a Chartist that day. Many were recruited specifically so that the regular local police might be redeployed.

And who were these special constables? Some accounts have suggested that working men made up the bulk of the specials, with respectable Londoners flocking to help maintain law and order against the forces of revolution. There were without doubt many working men in their ranks, including the coal whippers from London’s docks who volunteered their services en masse.  But as Dr Goodway writes: the great majority of working class special constables were required to enrol by their employers – or lose their jobs.

He quotes one tin-plate worker who was sacked for refusing to be sworn in as observing: ‘Although I am not a Chartist by enrolment, I am one from conviction; and there are very few working men who are not Chartists in that sense of the word.’

That date: 10 April 1848. Click for larger image.

However, it is significant that so many from the middle class volunteered for service – including shopkeepers, civil servants, small employers, university students and professional men. They included among their ranks, the former prime minister Sir Robert Peel and future prime minister William Gladstone, along with Prince Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, the future Emperor Napoleon III of France.

“There was scarcely a merchant, a banker or shopkeeper, or clerk in London, except the very old, who did not take the oath and carry a truncheon, to crack the skull of a Chartist if it became necessary,” recalled Charles Mackay, political editor of the Illustrated London News (cited by Professor Malcolm Chase in Chartism: A New History). 

Special constables were, however, the object of much ridicule. Punch lampooned weedy middle-class volunteers stuttering and cowering in the face of hulking working-class Chartists. At least one popular broadside ballad, however, focused on the special’s truncheon. The Gutta Percha Staff, or, The Adventures of a Special Constable is a bawdy ale-house song about a special’s meeting with ‘a pretty servant girl’ who takes him home and asks to see his gutta percha staff (gutta percha being the wood from which the truncheons were made).

The Gutta Percha Staff. Click for larger image.

‘When she had satisfied herself,
That it was not made of wood,
If I was poked about with it,
I’m sure it would do me good.
He poked her here, he poked her there,
Untill he made her laugh.
I am ready for another poke
With your gutta percha staff.’
(Broadside Ballads Online, from the Bodleian Libraries)

The truncheon pictured here is most likely one of those issued to a special constable in 1848 but never used in anger. It would have been decorated later and kept as a memento. It was one of four with Chartist connections to come up for sale in October 2018 at Canterbury Auction Galleries, part of a collection put together by Gavin Littaur over the past 15 years. Where it may have been since 1848, however, will probably never be known.

John Leach’s cartoon for Punch shows the ‘distribution of the staves’.