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  • Writer's pictureWendy Percival

Assaulted in the Line of Duty

This week saw the anniversary of London’s Metropolitan Police appearing on the streets of England’s capital for the first time, in 1839. If you read my blog post about the Whitechapel Murders and a family connection, you’ll know that one of my ancestors, Ernest Ellisdon, served in the Met around the time of Jack the Ripper and played a minor part in the investigation to find the killer.

My husband also has a Met ancestor – Constable William Percival (pictured left) – whose career was sadly cut short when lost the sight in his right eye after an attack while on duty.

William joined the force in 1883 when he was 19. He's described at 5 feet 11 inches tall, with brown hair and grey eyes and a fresh complexion.

Although born in Chappell, in rural Essex, I found him on the 1881 census in Bermondsey, as a visitor to Martha and James Shuter.

Perhaps it was this visit which inspired him to join the police, as the census records him as an out-of-work agricultural labourer.

Serious assault

But 3 years after joining the Met, William suffered a serious assault, leaving him with an eye injury resulting in blindness. An article in the Spectator, in August 1872 raises concern about the increase in assaults on the police.

“It speaks ill for the London rough, however, that the assaults on the Police increased from 2,858 in 1869, to 3,058 in 1870, and 3,325 in 1871. Here we have indications of a serious evil, an index to the growth of the turbulent classes which it is not pleasant to contemplate. No fewer than 776 constables were injured, not wholly, we presume, in personal combat, but a very large proportion of wounds and fractures were undoubtedly sustained in the execution of duty.”

I got in touch with the archivist at the Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and although the Heritage Centre remains closed to the public, he was able to access certain documents pertaining to William’s case. He reported:

Police Orders for 30 April 1887 show him under the heading ‘Pension – Temporary’. He was on F (Paddington) Division at the time and was granted a temporary annual pension of £28/1/8 “In consequence of injuries received on duty.”

The pension was granted for 12 months with a recommendation for him to be been seen again by the police surgeon, when his case would be sent for consideration to extend the grant at the discretion of the Home Secretary.

He also found a reference to William’s eye having a cataract and it seems that this was directly caused by the attack. To quote the American Academy of Ophthalmology, Traumatic cataract is a clouding of the lens that may occur after either blunt or penetrating ocular trauma”.


Interestingly, after William initially left the force, there are records showing that he re-joined a few months later. This was a little baffling. Why would the force take back someone who was clearly not fully fit for duty? But it transpires that the rules changed on pensions and by being reinstated and then re-resigning, William was entitled to a pension for life.

Sadly, that life didn’t last very much longer and William died in 1892, aged 29, of “phthisis", a term often used to describe consumption. By this time William was married, had returned to live in Essex and had fathered two children, a boy and a girl.

I’ve not been able to find out whether the assailant was identified, caught or convicted, though I’m advised by the archivist that more information about the incident may exist in further files held in the National Archives. I will keep searching!


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