The Early Days of Policing in Kent
by Roy Ingleton
Harsh times and harsher punishments
At the beginning of the 19th century death by hanging was the punishment
for over 200 felonies, including petty theft. Although it was not
unusual for the death sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment
or transportation, many a wretched criminal met his death on Penenden
Heath just outside Maidstone. A total of 37 prisoners were condemned
to death at the Spring Assizes in Maidstone in 1801, having been
convicted of crimes ranging from sheep stealing and burglary to
highway robbery and murder. 18 of these were reprieved, 4 were hung
at Shooters Hill while the remaining 15 were executed before a roisterous
crowd at Penenden Heath.
The last execution on Penenden Heath took place in December 1830
when three young men were hanged for arson. By the next summer a
scaffold had been erected at the new Maidstone prison.
During the 17th and 18th centuries there was a plague of footpads
and highwaymen on the main roads, especially to and from London.
Although not suffering quite as much as some counties, Kent had
its share of these. A favourite place for these "gentlemen
of the road" was where a road went uphill, such as Gads Hill,
near Rochester which was an especially dangerous and notorious spot.
Although the heyday of the highwayman was fast coming to an end,
hold-ups continued into the early 19th century. In 1802, the famous
Drury Lane actress and mistress of the future King William IV, Mrs
Dora Jordan, as held up by two highwaymen near Sittingbourne. Fortunately
they were seen off by Mrs Jordan's manservant and departed empty-handed.
Parish constables and watchmen could not cope with mobile criminals
like these and they were also unable to deal with any form of serious
disorder. The Justices of the Peace could call upon the military
in extreme cases and this is precisely what the Maidstone magistrates
did in October 1830 when they went out with a troop of soldiers
to meet a mob of some 400 people just outside the town.
Although much maligned, the old Parish Constables were on occasions
very effective. In March 1831, 13 year old Richard Taylor walked
from Rochester to Aylesford to pick up his father's Parish Relief
grant of nine shillings which he collected but never returned home.
The Parish Constable questioned two boys Richard had been seen speaking
to - 14 year-old John Any Bird Bell and his 10 year-old brother,
Despite an extensive search no trace of Richard was found until
some eight weeks later when a man stumbled across his body in some
woods near where Rochester Airport now stands. Although badly decomposed
it was clear that the boy's throat had been cut. The Bell brothers
were again interrogated and the younger boy tearfully admitted that
his brother had cut Richard's throat with Richard's own knife and
stolen the money. James was released and John confessed to the crime,
adding that he had put the knife in the dead boy's jacket pocket
in which he had by now been buried.
The Constable got permission for the grave to be opened and, when
the coffin lid was removed, he ordered John Bell to clamber into
the grave and retrieve the knife from the coat worn by the putrefying
corpse. Incredibly he did so without a murmur and was returned to
Maidstone prison. There, an equally sadistic warder gave John his
bread and cheese meal and told him he could use the bloodstained
murder weapon to cut it. This finally proved too much for the boy
who refused to eat.
There was little sympathy for this young boy who was sentenced to
death and, at his public execution outside Maidstone Prison, a crowd
of at least 4,000, mostly women, surrounded the gallows to witness