Home West London The torch-wielding volunteers fighting crime on London’s canals where cyclists are pushed...

The torch-wielding volunteers fighting crime on London’s canals where cyclists are pushed into the water

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Armed with only a single small flashlight the Canal Watch volunteers walked into another dark tunnel.

Sandwiched between water and wall, the only escape routes were forward or back. The path barely takes two people, so even manoeuvring for a friendly passer-by was an uncomfortable experience.

Daytime at least has the promise of light at the end, but walking at that time in the evening only a shadowy twilight lurks in the distance.

READ MORE: The remote corner of West London where double murder suspect was found seriously injured on a barge

Squinting ahead it would have been impossible to establish whether a silhouetted figure planned to walk past or corner you before it’s too late.

Like many stretches of London’s Victorian canalways, the group’s route from Limehouse to Bromley-by-Bow is not easily accessible to pedestrians or cars and can be hard to locate on a mobile phone map app.

But that’s why Canal Watch is there. The isolated stretches of waterway have been a magnet for crime and a recent spate of burglaries in the area prompted the patrol.

One of the victims was Johnny Mitchell who had £600-700 worth of power tools stolen from a friend’s wide-beam barge he was renovating.

‘This is quite a dodgy patch along here’

“The back-hatch was open and I thought ‘oh shoot, what’s gone on here?” He told My London.

“I looked up and saw all his suitcases had been pulled out from the front of the boat and his clothes were scattered around and had been gone through.”

In their haste, or perhaps because they lacked the means to carry more, the thieves took off without a number of high-value items including guitars and a motorcycle helmet.

The wide-beam barge further down the same stretch of canal was not so lucky.

A gang brought their own van to clear out the boat, which was also undergoing renovation, removing the washing machine amongst other expensive products.

“This is quite a dodgy patch along here,” Johnny added.

“Especially where it’s quiet. When you moor in groups you are quite a lot safer.”

Exploiting the changing neighbours

Helen Brice takes part in regular night walks to help protect canal boats (Credit Steve Bainbridge)

Canal boat residents are often friendly and community-minded, but the two week maximum stays that the Canal and Riverboat Trust impose on large sections of the capital’s waterways means relationships can be fleeting.

“It’s very transient,” Johnny said. “Your neighbours come and go.”

This can leave boats vulnerable to crime.

In Limehouse, where Johnny’s friend’s boat was moored, the two wide-beam vessels targeted by thieves were unoccupied.

“For those with criminal minds [they can see] they’re often left alone whilst people are working on them,” Johnny explained.

“They can be left for days on end without any problem. But I guess they’ve been watching the wide beams being built.”

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It’s not just robberies which canal boaters in London have to watch out for.

Residents of canal boats are frequently targeted by muggers with knives, cyclists are pushed into canals as a form of gang initiation and women are attacked on the towpath.

This is in addition to bikes being regularly stolen and drunks boarding boats in the night to eat a kebab or run across the roofs.

To make matters worse, some boaters have stopped reporting crimes to the police because when they have done so in the past, the officers have been unhelpful.

Formed in the absence of the police

One spot that had become particularly treacherous was the area around Stonebridge Lock in Tottenham where boaters were being targeted in the narrow unlit alleys that led to the towpath

One spot that had become particularly treacherous was the area around Stonebridge Lock in Tottenham where boaters were being targeted in the narrow unlit alleys that led to the towpath (credit Steve Bainbridge)

“We’d try to report [crime] and sometimes the police would say; ‘well, we can’t really do anything because you haven’t got a postcode’, which is incorrect,” said Helen Brice, one of the founders of Canal Watch, “they just weren’t informed properly.”

“[Other times] they would say; ‘just move somewhere else then’.

“I think it’s because we’re itinerant, they think they’ll go away and it won’t matter.”

Canal Watch patrols were established back in 2017 in part due to this frustration with the authorities and as a way for boaters to defend their community from criminals.

Exasperated residents had seen post after post shared on community Facebook group ‘London Boaters’ about muggings taking place in East London.

“People kept saying; ‘what can we do about it?’ and ‘how can we support each other?’ Helen continued.

“There were six of us that [decided to] form some sort of patrol.”

One spot that had become particularly treacherous was the area around Stonebridge Lock in Tottenham where boaters were being targeted in the narrow unlit alleys that led to the towpath.

“It was mainly the muggings that were the cause of concern and people with knives, threatening,” she said.

“[They] were dragging people to cash points and things like that.”

Despite the violent nature of these crimes, the perceived lack of response from police meant some people felt it was pointless to report them.

“Lots of people were just getting very apathetic saying; ‘it’s just not worth it because no-one cares about us. Anyway, what are they going to do?’” Helen added.

Chasing knifemen

Police at the Grand Union Canal

Police at the Grand Union Canal

Feeling unprotected by those responsible and, facing night after night of being targeted by criminals, the boaters took a stand.

“We decided that we did not want to be frightened off the towpath and we realised that we were an asset being moored there,” said Helen.

“Mooring is difficult enough and so we decided, not in a vigilante way, to take matters into our own hands and try to patrol.”

Although the patrols were designed as a deterrent, the Canal Watch volunteers soon found themselves in the thick of the action fighting crime.

“At least once the patrol witnessed either a knife attack or an attempted one,” Helen continued.

“It would never be advised by the police, but a couple of people did chase someone down and waited for him to get arrested.”

Ultimately, Helen said, making towpaths safer is in everyone’s interest, not just boaters.

Helen argued that having people living along the banks of London’s many waterways changes these environments from isolated and intimidating to accessible.

Dog walkers, joggers and cyclists can use these routes and feel safe, as well as other users of the canal towpaths.

‘Scammers’

It is possible but you have to be patient to navigate the waterways

It is possible but you have to be patient to navigate the waterways

Boaters who move from one borough to another don’t pay council tax and make contributions to the upkeep of their facilities through a license fee taken by the Canal and River Trust.

Despite permanent moorings having fees which often exceed local council tax payments the perception that canal boat dwellers are somehow evading their responsibilities persists.

Some members of the public will go out of their way to accuse canal boat residents of being ‘scammers’ who aren’t paying their way, Helen said.

She feared this lack of understanding of boat dwellers sometimes filtered to the authorities evidenced by suggestions like boaters should move elsewhere to avoid being victims of crime.

“It just makes me really angry,” she continued.

“It doesn’t get rid of the problem, just by saying ‘well just move away,’ some other new boater, or someone who’s a bit naive, will end up mooring in that space and the same thing might happen to them.”

Despite this, Helen said Canal Watch is keen to work with the police and local authorities to make canals safer.

In some districts they have been able to engage with these groups, as well as local residents, it’s been possible to drive down crime.

“We’re very willing to work with them,” she added.

“And it has worked when they haven’t joined us every now and then.”

Metropolitan Police response

Responding to the issues raised by Canal Watch a spokesperson for the Metropolitan Police said: “The Met is committed to tackling all crime across London, including on the capital’s canals and waterways.

“Neighbourhood officers regularly engage with the boating community to offer crime prevention advice and reassurance. They also carry out regular patrols with support from the Marine Policing Unit.

“We work with The Canal & River Trust and local authorities to tackle issues such as anti-social behaviour to help make London’s waterway safer places for everyone to enjoy.

Have you been the victim of crime around the canals? Contact [email protected]

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https://www.mylondon.news/news/torch-wielding-volunteers-fighting-crime-21961817