Policing Afloat

COLIN BISHOP visits the Thames River Police HQ at Wapping.

Service launches and vessels are always a popular subject with Model Boats readers and it isn’t hard to see why. They offer a huge variety of modelling subjects, can be built to a relatively large scale and embody the essence of ‘boatiness’ and maritime character. As an extra bonus, many of them feature exciting performance which makes them even more attractive to the boat modeller.

Police patrol boats fall fairly and squarely into this category and no more so than on the River Thames where the distinctive launches of the Metropolitan Police Marine Policing Unit can frequently be seen in operation throughout the Central London area.

A long history

People might be surprised to know that the Thames River Police were the first policing body in the world to be established, for the purpose of prevention and detection of crime on the Thames and date from 1798. As such the force predates the Metropolitan Police themselves with whom they merged in 1839 to become the Thames Division. Correspondingly their original Wapping HQ is still the focus of the service and the present buildings are London’s oldest operational police station.

For most of the 19th century, the River Police depended upon a fleet of rowing galleys and some sailing craft and a number of officers were shore based. The 1880’s saw the introduction of powered craft and by 1910 oar power had been effectively phased out except in the upper reaches of the force’s jurisdiction. Further details of the history and activities of the River Police can be found on the informative website: www.thamespolicemuseum.org.uk which is well worth a visit.

Model boating interest in police craft tends to be concentrated on the post-WW2 period when the ‘classic’ police launches were in service. The first three of these were in fact ex-RAF seaplane tenders similar to ST206 which has been extensively covered in previous issues of Model Boats by John Parker and myself. Further developments resulted in the well known design exemplified by the Veron police launch kit marketed in the 1950’s and 1960’s. The last of this general type, Thames Trainer, was still operational at the time of my visit (see photo) but was due to be retired shortly afterwards.

The Marine Policing Unit today

The role of the Marine Policing Unit (MPU) is twofold:

To provide a visible 24 hour presence on the Thames in support of the broader river community.

To provide 24 hour specialist marine support for the police on the Thames, its tributaries and any waterway within the Metropolitan Police area of responsibility.

The Unit Commander is a Chief Inspector with four subordinate Inspectors while specialist functions include an Underwater and Confined Space Search Team, Marine Intelligence Unit and a Terrorism and Crime Team. The MPU works closely with other crime related agencies plus the RNLI, Port of London Authority and the Marine and Coastguard Agency.

These days the MPU possesses a modern and diverse fleet which reflects their current role and responsibilities and my request to report on this on behalf of Model Boats as well as their unique museum, also housed at Wapping, received a favourable response.

The visit!

I was met at Wapping by Phil Marsh, Fleet Supervisor and Rob Jeffries who is curator of the Wapping museum. Both are serving police officers.

Phil conducted me down to the pontoon and explained that I was particularly lucky that day as there was an unusually wide variety of boats tied up. One of these was the Targa 31 Thames Reserve which is one of five boats of this type now used for general patrol duties. These boats, with their walkaround decks, have proved very successful as maids of all work with a maximum speed of over 30 knots depending on the engines fitted. Built in Finland and imported by Wessex Marine of Poole, they have been adapted for use by the MPU, particularly as regards beefed up the fendering to take the knocks that inevitably come with river police service. Although normal shift work means that the crews sleep ashore, the Targas are capable of being lived aboard for a day or so should it become necessary such as when the boats are a long way downriver for operational reasons. Normal crew for patrolling purposes consists of a sergeant and two constables. These attractive boats would make a challenging modelling subject, probably requiring the construction of GRP moulds in a similar manner to their full size counterparts. David Adams of Wessex Marine has told me he would be happy to assist anyone who is seriously considering making a model of the Targa 31. The MPU also have a Targa 37, Patrick Colquhoun, fitted out as a logistical support vessel.

Moored immediately behind Thames Reserve was the already mentioned Thames Trainer, last of the traditional police launches and in her final days of service. Although not having the speed of the Targas, the design remains a practical one as the open area aft and low gunwales do make it easier to recover items from the water including the sad duty of body recovery.

The last launch type vessel on the pontoon was an Aqua Bell 33 simply known as ‘MM’. This older but very powerful boat is a one off and not in regular use these days, not being as handy as the Targas, although the very large aft sole area makes an excellent base for diving operations. She is beautifully fitted out with much teak and a traditional ship’s wheel.

Rigid Inflatable Boats (RIB’s)

Tied up beyond Thames Trainer was the menacing shape of one of four large RIB’s which can carry two crew and ten armed police on rapid response duties. Twin Volvo Penta outdrives with contra rotating propellers can push these craft along at speeds of over 50 knots which probably makes them the quickest means of deploying armed response teams in Central London. These RIB’s have heavy reinforcement and equipment to allow them to come alongside and board larger vessels should the situation require it. Needless to say, these formidable craft will play a key role in counter terrorism precautions during the 2012 Olympic Games.

A number of other RIB’s and inflatables are used for a range of duties, the smaller ones being capable of being deployed by road transport to canals and other inland water to support diving operations and assist shore-based colleagues. The older Zodiac craft are due to be replaced with new Smartwave polyethylene boats of a similar size which are well suited to the arduous life on the river.

In the Wapping old building is a space devoted to the Underwater and Confined Space Search Team where their diving equipment is stored together with another Zodiac.

Repair and Maintenance Facility

A few hundred yards from the Wapping HQ is a modern purpose built and well equipped repair and maintenance facility. Phil explained that just about all servicing and maintenance can be done here. Specialist facilities include a machine shop and a GRP repair and painting room. During my visit the Targa 31 Sir Robert Peel II was in the latter, undergoing replacement of fendering and hull repairs. Craft are moved into the facility via a vertical boat lift which is capable of being used at almost any state of the tide. Other boats being worked on or stored were the Targa 37 LSV Patrick Colquhoun, the Targa 31 John Harriott IV, two rapid response RIBs, a number of Zodiac inflatables on road trailers and the prototype Smartwave Zodiac replacement. Quite an impressive little fleet, especially when taken together with the craft moored on the pontoon and those deployed on patrol.

The River Police Museum

Next port of call was this unique museum chronicling the 200 year history of the Thames River Police where Phil handed me over to Rob Jeffries who acts as curator. Housed in the old carpenter’s workshop in the police station, the museum is only open to the public by appointment which may be made by application to the address on the website given earlier in this article.

The limited space is crammed full of all sorts of exhibits, models and memorabilia, much of it of great historic interest such as the flag flown by the excursion paddle steamer Princess Alice when she was struck and sunk by the collier Bywell Castle in 1878 with the loss of some 550 lives. The collection includes a number of models presented to the museum including one of the ex-seaplane tender Sir Robert Peel. The photos show the extraordinary variety of items in the museum collection.


My sincere thanks go to Patrick Connolly for facilitating my visit and to Phil Marsh and Rob Jeffries for showing me around and giving me a better understanding of the history of the River Police and its current work and operational fleet which is something that deserves a wider appreciation than it perhaps gets. I hope this article will go some little way in remedying that situation.