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Police Archives for Gloucestershire

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April 2022

Sue Webb is not obviously a police person – she does not have size ten boots, a helmet or even carry a whistle and truncheon, but she is nevertheless a serving member of Gloucestershire Constabulary, working on the Police Archives for Gloucestershire. A self-confessed anorak, she is fascinated by the minutiae of the records and what they show of the life and times of the police.

Sue gave the Thornbury History Society a fascinating insight into the early days of policing and, in particular, the role of women in the police and how it changed over time. The archive holds a plethora of documents relating to Gloucester policing of which she gave many examples. These cover the historic county of Gloucester, less those transferred in 1974 to the newly formed Avon and Somerset force.

Gloucestershire Police was founded in 1839 and is the longest established County police force in England (previously thought to be Wiltshire, but recent research now gives the title to Gloucester). It began as a rural constabulary, joined by Tewkesbury in 1854 and Gloucester in 1859. The choice of its first Chief Constable is illuminating. He was transferred from Ireland where there was already an established and apparently effective police force. Why choose someone from well outside the area? Well, the new Force was created from a large number of existing small local constabularies, some with influential connections and some with known disciplinary problems, and using an outsider avoided favouritism. In fact, there were many sackings in the early days as the constables had to be as hard as the people they dealt with, the Forest of Dean miners being particularly hard cases, but had not learned to limit their responses (to put it politely). An early record shows that an early Deputy Chief Constable absconded with £495, a sizeable sum. Whether he was apprehended is not known, but lawbreaking was obviously not limited to the lower ranks.

So what was it like to be a policeman in those days? First, there was no concept of annual leave until 1919, when ten days was allotted. One leave application said that the applicant had not had any leave for the past ten years. The police were suspected of shirking so a ticket check was introduced – beat constables had to complete and leave a ticket at a defined point of their beat (often a pub or shop), which was later collected by the superintendent to prove he had actually been there.

The police influence on life was draconian. If a family lived in a police house, up until 1920 the wife was not allowed to go out if her husband was absent; despite not being paid separately she was expected to (wo)man the desk and take messages. Until around 1980, a serving policemen had to gain permission to get married, only given if he had a minimum service; WPCs who married had to resign. Until the 1940s, a policeman had to surrender his birth certificate when he joined and it was not returned until he left. Records do not show why this was. And if he wanted to apply for transfer to another force he had to resign his current post before applying – so if he did not get accepted he was out in the cold.

What of women in the police? Most forces didn’t take them on until WW2, after all the fit young men had joined up, but Gloucester was well ahead of the game as the first woman, WPC Marion Sandover, joined in 1918. Two divisions were formed, for men and for women; women were classed as Special Constables wearing their own clothes with an armband, though later a more military style of uniform was adopted. The separation of men and women continued right into the 1970s; for example the identifying collar numbers were duplicated so there existed both PC01 and WPC01, a small but indicative discrimination. Post WW2, women PCs were largely educated and had war service so could now hold their own with the men, but it took until 1963 to appoint the first female inspector, 1967 for the first female detective and 1990 for the first female dog handler.

A few milestones: in 1861 Samuel Beard was murdered by poachers, the first recorded death in service. The first use of a car was in 1912 in Northleach (this was probably used just for transport, definitely with no blues and twos). The first Silver Braid award for bravery to an officer was in 1918 (only 53 people have been awarded this). Horses were used in the General Strike of 1920 but were probably borrowed from farmers. The first Traffic Division was founded in 1948, preceded by a motorcycle division. The first Chief Constable not to have previous military officer was John Gaskin in 1959. The first black officer joined from the Jamaican police in 1962. In 1966 the first underwater squad was formed.

Prior to the creation of the Avon and Somerset force as mentioned earlier, the expansion of Bristol in 1897 caused eight police stations to be taken over by them, losing ten sergeants and 4 constables who transferred to the Bristol force. In 1904 another five stations were transferred. It is notable that the names of transferees often coincide neatly with names in the Default book – so the bad eggs were being quietly shifted out.

In most rural villages, the local policeman lived in a police house with his family. It is quite difficult to locate these houses now as most were rented, not owned, and everyone knew where it was so they were not recorded as such. In larger areas there were police stations, but many of these were simply larger houses with a public office in which several police families might live. There are records of repairs and updates needed to the police station in Thornbury in 1857, but it is not clear which building this refers to. (Thornbury Roots has some information on this which was passed on to Sue). In 1859 the Town Hall was built to include a (non-residential) police station with cells as well as the court room – a common arrangement to centralise the law functions.

Sue concluded by briefly describing the functions of the Archive. Apart from maintaining records and giving talks such as this, they support events and exhibitions, help with family history and other enquiries. Sue was thanked for a very interesting talk – everything she said was taken down though is unlikely to be used in evidence against her.

If you want to know more, look at gloucestershirepolicearchives.org.uk


The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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