The Murder of Police Constable Robert Culley

Coldbath Fields Riot, 1833 recreated in a 20th century newspaper.
Cold-Bath Fields Prison


The riot occurred on Sunday 13th May 1833 at Coldbath Fields, close to the prison with the same name.

This was the first major clash between political radicals and the police, this took place during the afternoon of Sunday the 13th May, 1833.

This clash resulted in the death of one officer and the wounding of two other police officers. Later, the comments and the verdicts of Juries, in particular, served to illustrate the number of acceptances   for the police in general. This really served a serious lack of awareness on the part of the very early Police about how best to handle such things as public demonstrations.

The National Union of the ‘Working Classes,’ were greatly dictated to by a new Act, The Reform Act of 1832. The members of this union believed that the Act had not gone far enough on extending the franchise. So, as a result of this a public meeting was called and held at 2pm on Sunday 13th may 1833. However, the new Home Secretary declared that this meeting was illegal and shouldn’t be held.

300 people had gathered

However, the meeting had been planned and would go ahead now. By around 3pm something like 300 people had gathered for the meeting anxious to hear what it was proposed they would say. As the minutes passed the crowd became very noisy and wanted the meeting to start. Just then a large detachment of police arrived. This group of police also included two officers from the First Regiment of the Life Guards. These two soldiers were in plain clothes. They were ready to summon a detachment of their soldiers, if it was necessary. Also present were two Police Commissioners. When the people saw this large group of policemen arrive, the tension heightened and then name calling started against the police. This name calling gradually got louder and louder. In fact the scene was getting uglier by the minute. However, this is where the evidence as to what happened next is conflicting as to the numbers of police officers present as well as the numbers of demonstrators who were at the site at Coldbath Fields. The evidence is also very unclear about how the fighting first started. Some evidence states that the police, on an order, waded into the crowd wielding their batons and striking the people. Other reports state that although the police use their batons, it was self-defence. It is very difficult to know which evidence is correct.

The Police furiously attacked the multitude

It is fair to say that most of the criticism was levelled at the police on this occasion by the media and by the general public who were there. One reporter who claims he was there and writing in the Times newspaper stated that, ‘The Police furiously attacked the multitude with their staves, felling every person indiscriminately before them, this included men, women and children who were at that time present. No one escaped the blows, the police rained down upon them. After being struck people were laying in every direction, weltering in their own blood and calling for help, women and children were crying pitifully, injured women were trying to comfort their children, although they had been badly hurt. It really was a ghastly scene to behold. The help they injured people were craving was slow in arriving.

Two police officers had been stabbed during this melee, they were Sergeant John Brooks and Constable John Redwood. When they were stabbed they were both trying to wrestle a flag from one of the demonstrators. Constable Robert Culley who just happened to be nearby, suddenly left the scene and staggered into a nearby public House, with blood pouring from a massive chest would, he had been viciously stabbed with a large knife. He collapsed and died shortly after entering the public house.

Justifiable homicide.

The Coroner’s Jury who examined the death of P C Robert Culley, returned a verdict of ‘Justifiable homicide.’ The Jury justified this verdict on the grounds that, the crowd had not been ordered to disperse under the terms of ‘The Riot Act of 1715.’ The other reason was the conduct of the Police, who it was alleged were ferocious brutal in dealing with the public. It was also alleged that the police were unprovoked at that time too. It was said the public were by and large just there to attend a meeting. A few days later after the Jury’s verdict a package arrived at the home of the Jury’s foreman, a Mr. Samuel Stockton. The package was from someone anonymous who had struck a number of pewter type one and three quarter inch medallions for Stockton, there was one each for all the Jury members, who had just delivered their verdict. There was a message in this package which read, ‘We shall be recompensed, the resurrection of The Just,’  The inscription on the reverse of the medallion read, ‘In honour of the men who nobly withstood the dictation of the Coroner, independent and conscientious discharge of their duty. It promoted a continued reliance upon the laws, as under the protection of a British Jury.’