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Vintage Satire: A Bad Cop in 1840s London (with commentary)

As much as we are routinely shocked by the latest stories of dogs shot in the the serving of search warrants, innocent people killed in drug raids on the wrong houses, and the ever-increasing number of TASER fatalities (odd, considering it's a "non-lethal" weapon), bad policemen are nothing new. Neither is the attitude of officiousness, self-importance, and general loathing for the public we encounter among the ranks of law enforcement, despite the fact that many of these men come from very humble backgrounds and are of modest ability.

In some ways, we have improved over the last century or so. Violent beatings are no longer widely tolerated; see old booking photos of gangsters from the 1920s and 1930s to see how common it was for suspects to be "roughed up" upon or after arrest. Black eyes were not uncommon. And, long before the TASER, police employed the baton, billy-club, nightstick, or truncheon to detain suspects. In actual practice, up until the 1970s in Britain, these blunt implements were used to "brain" suspects, clubbing them over the head in order to render them stunned or fully unconscious.

Edinburgh police truncheons (19thC).JPG
Police truncheons from Victorian Britain

But in many ways, things are worse. There is a bloat in law enforcement; more and more agencies are now empowered by the law to make arrests and carry guns. There is a rampant militarization of police forces. And, most importantly, the list of "offenses" has grown to include sorts of behaviors that would have never been considered criminal by our ancestors a century ago, let alone our grandparents.

I was struck by just how contemporary this little song seems, although it was printed in broadside by a London publisher long ago, sometime in the 1830s-50s. Although we really don't have an "Irish" problem, the underlying pattern is familiar, and I think we all recognize how the children of lower-status immigrants have flocked to become cops, perhaps to prove something when a career as a doctor or a lawyer is out of reach.

To use a word that perhaps is a little inappropriate, it is also striking how "proletarian" the words are here; the common man did not identify with the ruling elite or with institutions like law enforcement, and these were things that were printed for the urban working people. Not everyone could read, but these printings were relatively cheap and could be read, recited, or sung to those who could not read. This was popular entertainment, mixed with news and commentary---an ancestor of the grassroots media.

I would also point out that there are many broadsides that capture popular opposition to war as well, or satirize other issues of the day. Some scholars like Dave Harker (a specialist on early British printed materials) on the left have described the broadside song tradition as the authentic voice of an oppressed people, and have fought against attempts by Cecil Sharp and others to construct a "folk song" tradition, saying it is an attempt by the bourgeoisie to appropriate these voices. See Harker's book Fakesong: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fakesong-Manufacture-British-Present...

Setting aside that debate, let it suffice to say we have a nice piece of satire by someone who found in the police an object of mockery. I transcribe the song here, comparing digitized facsimiles of several printings available at the Bodleian Library Broadside Ballad archive: http://www.bodley.ox.ac.uk/ballads/

The Irish New Policeman

Your pardon gents and ladies all.---
Listen awhile to me and my blarney*. ---
Straight from Dublin town I came:
Faith! my name is Michael Carney.
Trade was scarce and luck was bad;
Humblings, grumblings, ne'er did cease, man
Till straight to town I came, egad,
And soon was made a new policeman.

Chorus.
Ranting, rolliking, Irish joys,
Always wrangling*; never at peace, man;
Kissing the girls, wolloping boys :
Whack! rioting new policeman.

I greased my brogues*---to Millford goes---
Told my case up, neat and handy---
Got me this new suit of clothes.
Faith! I'm quite an Irish dandy.
My whiskers, like a forest grown.
With the girls I am quite gaily
Then for to wollop the boys, och hone*!
Thunder alive! I've got a shelaghly*.

There isn't a yard nor a garden wall
About the town, but I can scale it;
And if I find anything at all,
Why, wouldn't I be a fool not to take it?
Next day there is a hue and cry*,
Something's stolen! but to be brief, man,
Oh, by hokey*---who but I,
Is running about to catch the thief, man?

Suppose in walking about at night,
In every whole and corner creeping,
Something I spy by the pale moonlight,
Ooh, by my soul there's a gentleman sleeping.
His pockets I grope, his money I take,
Then with stick in the ribs I'm jobbing* him,
And if perchance, the fool should wake,
I told him, I thought a thief was robbing him.

If there's no row in the whole street,
Don't myself know how to raise one,
I knock the first man down I meet,
And kicks up a shindy* fit to crazy one.
Then he resists, and I've a job,
Lock him up, and swear he's riotly,
Next day the scoundrel's fined ten bob*,
Because myself must not murder him quietly.

I'm known to all the prigs* in town,
To learned thieves well known my face is,
The frail ones to my favours own,
And charge me naught for sweet embraces,
And if they are going a house to rob,
Don't I watch as it is my duty,
But never splits about the job*,
For don't myself get half the booty.

I am known to all the servant maids,
For beef and mutton I've an itching,
And being caught I am ne'er afraid*,
Because don't I go to guard the kitchen,
Do not the blessed scriptures say,
"Multiply to all---increase men,"
And if they'll only come in my way,
I'll fill the town with New Policemen.

Notes and Glosses

Blarney is a colloquial term a talk or "spiel," so called because of the association with kissing the Blarney Stone in order to receive the gift of eloquence. "Blarney" has been used in this slang way since at least the 1760s, and in this case it also provides an Irish touch.

To wrangle is to quarrel or become involved in an altercation. This sense is older than the "Old West" sense of herding cattle.

Brogues, from the Gaelic, are a sort of rough shoe associated with the Scottish Highlanders and the Irish. Shoes used to be greased to prolong their longevity and to provide a luster (akin to polishing).

Och hone is an interjection associated with the Gaelic-speaking Scots as well as the Irish, from Sc.Gae "ochòin" or Ir.Gae "ochón." It usually expresses grief or sorrow, akin to "Alas!." The author may have used it here sloppily, on the model of English "Oh!"

Shillelagh is a Gaelic word referring to a blunt weapon, in this case, the Irish policeman is using it to refer to his truncheon.

Hue here is an outcry, derived from the French "Heu!" "Hue and cry" is a legal phrase, referring to the outcry calling for the pursuit of a felon, raised by the party aggrieved, by a constable, etc.

By hokey is a petty oath, a euphemistic substitution for some more serious oath, analogous to more familiar expressions like "oh fishsticks!" The exact origin of "hokey" is unknown, but "by hokey" and similar forms were used by Mark Twain and James Joyce, so it was in currency on both sides of the Atlantic into the early 20th century.

Jobbing a variant of jabbing.

Kick up a shindy, i.e., to cause a commotion. Colloquialism dating from the 1820s.

Ten bob, that is, ten shillings. The use of the singular form for plurals when preceded by a number is a common feature in Hiberno-English (particularly in the east of Ireland historically), although it is has spread from there.

Prigs were petty thieves. The term comes from English cant and originally referred to tinkers, but it came to be associated with petty thieves generally.

To split is to inform or reveal something, in 19th century slang. That is, he does not inform on the thieves.

These servant maids were unmarried girls sent to work as servants in the homes of the better-off. The verse gives the understanding that he uses the pretext of "guarding" the kitchen to dine with these girls and enjoy their female companionship, which he jokes may breed more of his kind. Fornication as such was no longer punishable after the Restoration of 1660, but notorious public lewdness, causing scandal, was indictable under common law. Besides, it is no way to behave on duty!



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It's always good to remember

Great song! I actually had to sing it aloud after the first read to get a real feel for it. I wish Smudge would make a recording of it.

It's always good to remember that the people who lived 50 years ago, and 100, and 200, and 500, were people just like us. They may not have had computers, or gramophones, or telegraphs, but they found suitable means for expressing the basically human things that don't change.

Superstition in those days and religious dogma, today we have political dogma and boastful mediocrities parroting the latest fads in popular science and the falsehoods of the era. There is no such thing as progress, as human nature is too immutable to have noticeable, sustained changes. It may change, but not in any direction that is deliberate or intended for a prolonged period, and so not progressively.

I agree with the post quoting Jim Morrison, there is no revolution except the internal self revolution, and when enough people undergo such a thing, they can tip scales in a way that makes a difference.

jrd3820's picture

Wow.

Great post here. Informative and fun. Thanks.

“I like nonsense, it wakes up the brain cells. Fantasy is a necessary ingredient in living.”
― Dr. Seuss

Thanks for the encouragement

There is a lot of fun satirical content out there I'd like to share with others, as well as very touching condemnations of the "king's wars," sons coming back from war maimed, stories about escaping impressment from the British Navy, etc. In some cases, we have recordings made by song collectors on cylinders, or reels of tape. I look forward to sharing more of what I have found.

Listen to Sophron because he will re-unite you with your past

so that you can have a future.

Be brave, be brave, the Myan pilot needs no aeroplane.

Interesting Post

A good look into the world that once was.