19th Century

Henry Hetherington Exposes Police Brutality in 1831

By Stephen Basdeo

I’m starting a new series on this site: ‘Henry Hetherington Reports’.

I recently got hold, very cheaply, four volumes of Hetherington’s Poor Man’s Guardian and I was struck at how many instances of police misconduct were reported in this now-little known paper. It will be part of a larger project (hopefully an eventual peer-reviewed academic paper) which will argue that Hetherington was one of the main voices highlighting what we would now call ‘police brutality’ in the early years of the Metropolitan Police.


Early “bobbies” or “Peelers” — notice the plain uniform, undecorated. They were supposed to be “the public in uniform”.

In 1829 the Home Secretary Robert Peel established the Metropolitan Police force in London. This professional and uniformed police force would replace the somewhat haphazard system of thief takers, Bow Street Runners, part-time constables, and watchmen (thief takers and Bow Street Runners lasted until 1839 when they were amalgamated into the police). The “new police” as they were sometimes called would not investigate crime, there was no detective service; instead they would attempt to prevent crime by having constables constantly on patrol on a regular ‘beat’. The force’s purpose was, in the words of Charles Reith:

The security of the person and property and the preservation of public order.[1]

Being unarmed and in a plain navy uniform, Peel hoped that the new police would soon earn the respect of the general public, many of whom, in 1829, viewed the prospect of a professional police force as an encroachment upon civil liberties—a police force was something Napoleon and other continental despots had.[2]


Sir Robert Peel, the founder of the Metropolitan Police

Eventually the middle classes came round to the idea of having professional policemen patrol the city but the working classes did not. As I have pointed out in some of my other work:[3] the police were seen as a force which was there for the protection only of the middle classes, and a force which, in the words of Robert Storch, ‘guarded St. James by watching St. Giles’.[4]

poor mans guardian

Hetherington’s periodical

While many of the newspapers began to praise the new police, some of the newspapers targeted to a more working-class readership eagerly pointed out cases of misconduct. One such paper was The Poor Man’s Guardian, which ran between 1831 and 1835. It was the brainchild of Henry Hetherington. Born in 1792, he was apprenticed to Luke Hansard’s printing firm when he was about twelve. But he was soon laid off and, for a time, wandered about Europe in search of work. He returned to England at some point before 1817 and married Elizabeth Thomas of Wales.

In the aftermath of the Napoleonic Wars there was great political, social, and economic upheaval. Unemployment was on the rise while radical orators like Henry Hunt toured the country in an attempt to galvanize the masses to support parliamentary reform. It was at this time Hetherington was ‘radicalised’, after having read Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man (1791).

Hetherington set up his own press and determined upon publishing a penny paper, cheap enough to reach the masses, and the result was The Poor Man’s Guardian.[5] The paper would instruct the masses in radical politics, highlight the wrongs of those in high life, as well as sponsoring subscriptions for workmen left destitute through unemployment. It was quite melodramatic; evil aristocrats and greedy ‘shopocrats’ were responsible for all of the nation’s ills, according to the paper. And it seemed to work: the authorities many times attempted to stop Hetherington from publishing and he even spent time in prison himself because of his efforts.


Coronation of William IV

While the Guardian endeavoured to report on the wrongful arrests of political reformers, it also highlighted police misconduct concerning more ‘everyday’ type of offences, and it is these kind of instances which will be my focus going forward.

In one of its earliest issues considerable column space was devoted to the following article:


It seems that, on the day of William IV’s coronation, which was held on 8 September 1831, a working man named Charles Sweet, a brewer’s assistant, stood in line to watch a procession of the horse guards. To make more room for the procession the police constables begin pushing people back. Sweet was at the front of the line and received a blow on the head from a policeman’s cutlass. Although the new police would not be armed with such weapons on their everyday beat, they were routinely issued with cutlasses when maintaining public order, not only at radical reformers’ meetings but also at events like coronations.[7] The blow on the head was so brutal that, according to a witness, the cutlass cut through Sweets hat and into his skull where the blood ‘gushed out’.

Sweet did not die immediately and the policeman was dismissed for misconduct the next day and ordered to pay £2 in compensation (equivalent to £135 today). However, over the course of the next few days Sweet had to be admitted to Middlesex Hospital (his symptoms were not specified in the paper). He later died on 22 September. Being an ‘unnatural’ death, a coroner was called who observed the partially healed wound on Sweet’s head. But the coroner concluded that there was no way that the blow from the policeman could have caused Sweet’s death.

Taking a high moral tone, Hetherington thundered that this was yet another instance of class oppression. The coroner dismissed the case because Sweet was a poor working man. Had Sweet been a lord, reasoned Hetherington, then the policeman William Kinsman would have been hauled in front of a magistrate on a charge of murder.


Early 19th-century depiction of a coroners’ inquest

The police were unusually zealous in the pursuit of their duties on the day of the coronation. One month later Hetherington’s paper also reported that a policeman arrested a poor newspaper vendor simply for selling newspapers. The vendors name was James Johnson and he does not even appear to have been selling radical papers, simply the normal ‘establishment’ ones.[8] Seemingly without good reason—and Hetherington’s paper was the only one to report this event—Johnson was committed to two months’ hard labour in the New Prison, Clerkenwell.

Hetherington vowed that would continue to report on all cases of police misconduct so the people could exact their revenge when they gained political power.

[1] Barry J. Ryan, Statebuilding, Security-Sector Reform and the Liberal Peace: The Freedom of Security (Abingdon: Routledge, 2011), p. 42.

[2] Drew Gray, Crime, Policing and Punishment in England, 1660-1914 (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), p. 232.

[3] Stephen Basdeo, ‘Dying Speeches, Daring Robbers, and Demon Barbers: The Forms and Functions of Nineteenth-Century Crime Literature, c.1800 – c.1860’ (Unpublished MA diss. Leeds Beckett University, 2014), p. 47.

[4] See also: Robert Storch, ‘The Plague of Blue Locusts: Police Reform and Popular Resistance in Northern England, 1840–57’, International Review of Social History 20:1 (1975), p. 61; Robert Storch, ‘The Policeman as Domestic Missionary: Urban Discipline and Popular Culture in Northern England, 1850-1880’, Journal of Social History 9:4 (1976), p. 481.

[5] See Patricia Hollis, ‘Introduction’, in The Poor Man’s Guardian, ed. by Patricia Hollis, 4 vols (London: Merlin, 1969), I, pp. vii–xlv.

[6] ‘Alleged Murder by One of the New Police’, Poor Man’s Guardian, 8 October 1831, 118–19.

[7] D.J.V. jones, ‘The New Police, Crime and People in England and Wales, 1829-1888’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 33 (1983), 151–68 (p. 165).

[8] ‘Magisterial Delinquency’, The Poor Man’s Guardian, 12 November 1831, 163.

2 replies »

  1. Great post. I wrote a biography of Henry Mayhew a couple of years back and Hetherington and The Poor Man’s Guardian featured, as Henry Mayhew’s elder brother, Thomas, edited the PMG for a while. Mayhew, who idolised his brother, may have been drawn into the underground distribution of the paper when the Home Office cracked down on it – they put out a price out on his brother’s head. http://londonlabourlondonpoor.com/

    • Thank you for the kind words. I’m still learning about Hetherington, but I shall be buying your Mayhew book!