The Murder of Constable Price of Union Hall, Southwark (1795)
Updated: Oct 1, 2021
In our latest book Behind the Blue Lamp (2021) it illustrates the deaths of some 43 officers whilst on duty. Also in Policing from Bow Street: Principal Officers, Runners and the Patrole we showed how precarious and dangerous the role of a London police constable was whilst attached to a Police Court from 1792 - many years before the Metropolitan Police were formed.
Using the Bow Street model as a blueprint, seven separate magistrates’ courts in London, administered from the Treasury, were formed. In addition to Bow Street, these new offices were Queen’s Square (Westminster), Great Marlborough Street (Westminster), Worship Street (Shoreditch), Lambeth Street (Whitechapel), Shadwell, Union Hall (Southwark) and Hatton Garden. A river police (Thames Police Office) was created later at Wapping in 1798. When Shadwell closed a new office was opened in Marylebone High Street.
Union Hall in Southwark was not only a Courthouse but was also a police station, with seven constables stationed there at various times after 1792. Originally these included John Butts, Barnard Windsor, Thomas Jones, William Collingbourne, David Price, Joseph Wood and William Walley.
In what reflects the violence at the time, one of those constables was gratuitously murdered whilst on duty and is remembered by the Police Roll of Honour Trust. Also recorded are Bow Street’s fallen officers such as Duncan Grant, who was assisting other members of the Patrole to execute a privy warrant on 26th December 1799 at a disorderly house in Maynard Street, St. Giles when he was violently attacked by a mob of Irishmen and women armed with cutlasses and bludgeons. Grant was very badly cut and injured but survived for almost a month, lingering on until 22nd January 1800 when he died. Others from Bow Street who also died in the line of duty these included Hind (1755), Atwood (1771), Wilkinson (1798) and Smithers (1820), all illustrated in Policing from Bow Street.
David Price (1770-1795), a Union Hall constable, joined the Courts’ Police constables in 1792 and was one of the early investigators. His duties showed him to be a brave if somewhat reckless young man, unphased by the dangerousness of life in his native Southwark. Price was murdered doing his duty trying to arrest a very dangerous individual.
David Price was born on 25th March 1770 in St. Olave Southwark, the son of Joseph Price and Margaret Allen who lived in Southwark. Price spent all his life in the borough, and knew many of the individuals that frequented the area. On 13th March 1792, aged 22, he married Mary Brookson, from St. Giles Cripplegate in the City of London, at St. Mary’s Church Newington, Southwark, and the couple lived locally not far from his place of work at Union Hall.
On 13th January 1795 John Price, aged just 24 years old, went together with another officer named Barnard Windsor from Union Hall on the instructions of the magistrates to the Three Brewers Public House in Maid Lane, Southwark, a notorious centre for brothels and entertainment. His mission was to execute a warrant for the arrest of the notorious highway robber Jerimiah Aversham alias Abershaw.
Abershaw was a dangerous and flamboyant man, who had no job other than stealing and robbery. He had committed many serious offences in the past, and had a reputation of violence especially against peace officers. Price knew Abershaw well and could recognise him as they were both grown up in the local area, and the suspect was rumoured to frequent the public house.
Experience had taught Price that it was essential to acquire information about the criminal underworld, and consorting with rogues and thieves was part of his job. Abershaw had been concerned in a number of felonies, and as both the officers entered the pub they found a man who they thought was the suspect and immediately apprehended him; however it was mistaken identity and they had to release him. They waited in the bar for a further ten minutes, when Abershaw came in together with another person. It was possible he was aware who was waiting for him.
On seeing and recognising Price, who was sitting with Windsor in the taproom, Abershaw drew both his loaded pistols from his pocket and shouted to both men to desist from arresting him. Not heeding the warning, they rushed Abershaw who fired at Price, hitting him in the side, and then shot at Windsor, missing him but damaging his hat. Abershaw was taken into custody with the help of two constables who were next door and had heard the shooting.
A surgeon was sent for to attend to the injured officer, who died ten minutes later. On 19th January 1795 David Price’s funeral took place and he was laid to rest in the churchyard of St. Saviour’s, Southwark. In those days there was no death in service pension for the surviving family, and no mention made of an award from the Secretary of State in compensation for the family’s loss.
The poor constable’s son Robert Price had been born in 1793 in St. Olave, Southwark, and was just two years old when his father died. Equally, there is no evidence that any public subscription was held for the widowed Mrs Price and her son.
Abershaw was taken before the magistrates and detained to appear at the Surrey Assizes held at Croydon. In August 1795 she appeared at the Surrey Assizes and was convicted of the murder David Price, an officer belonging to Union Hall, in the Borough.
As he received his sentence of death, he threw his great-coat carefully over his arm, put on his hat, and then told the Judge and jury that they were going accompany him to Hell!
About ten o'clock in the morning of 3rd August Jeremiah Abershaw and two others were brought from the New Gaol, in the Borough, attended by the Sheriffs and a numerous body of police officers, and were conveyed to Kennington Common. Abershaw appeared entirely unconcerned. He had a flower his mouth and exposed his torso, and kept up conversation with the persons who rode beside the cart on his way to the Common, frequently laughing and nodding his head to others he saw in the crowd. The execution took place about 11.30am before a vast crowd. Afterwards Abershaw was removed and taken to Wimbledon Common, where he was gibbeted in chains for all to see.
Mary Price never re-married, but brought up her young son on her own. She died in 1837 at St. George’s workhouse, and her son was deceased a year later.
The trouble at the time was that the lower classes generally viewed highway robbers and villains as courageous and often heroic characters, elevating them to celebrity status. Folklore developed around these individuals like Abershaw, Rann (Sixteen String Jack) and Jack Shepherd, who were all venerated. These celebrities were mobbed when they were acquitted or released from court as juries were reluctant to condemn them to death. The constables and court officers who died on duty were often forgotten.