The Early Days of Policing in Kent
by Roy Ingleton
The beginnings of the 'modern' police
In 1829, Sir Robert Peel introduced the Metropolitan
Police but it was not until the Municipal Corporations Act was passed
in 1835 that things really got moving outside London and heralded
the dawn of a whole new era of policing. Up until this time, the
towns had merely employed a few watchmen to patrol the streets and
call out the time and weather. However, under this new Act, every
borough had to form a watch committee and set up a real police force.
The response to the Act was patchy, not least because of the cost
but within 2 years police forces had been formed in Canterbury,
Deal, Dover, Faversham, Folkestone, Gravesend, Hythe, Maidstone,
Ramsgate, Rochester, Sandwich, Tenterden and Tunbridge Wells.
Let's look at some of these early Kent police forces:
Canterbury at this time was a substantial market and garrison town,
overshadowed of course by the great cathedral, with a population
in 1831 of nearly 14,000. In February 1836, the Watch Committee
appointed a superintendent, two inspectors and 15 constables to
police the city in uniform. Most of the new men, including one of
the inspectors, were labourers, whilst others were shoemakers, lime
burners, grooms, tailors, butchers and gardeners. Of the 18 proud
young men who paraded the first time on 7 March 1836, half would
be gone within the next four years (three resigned, six dismissed
In Maidstone, prior to 1835, the peace officers for the county town
consisted of a High Constable and four borsholders who were appointed
by the justices of the peace. The borsholders were mostly local
tradesmen and wore no uniform but carried a baton bearing the borough
coat of arms as a symbol of their authority. There was also a watchman
to patrol the streets at night and call the hours. By the 1830s
crime had become a major source of anxiety; according to the mayor,
there was 'no one thing Maidstone wanted more than an efficient
police' and so a borough police force was created for this town
of 17,000 inhabitants and came into operation in 1837. It consisted
of a Superintendent, a former drum-major as inspector, two sergeants
and a body of 12 men. This resulted in claims that there had been
a great change for the better.
Since the force only operated within ¾ of a mile of the Town
Hall, the occupants of premises outside the town centre but still
within the Borough were in something of a limbo. In October 1851
Charles Neve of Shepway Court wrote to the Town Clerk complaining
that, although he contributed to the borough rates, the town's police
only patrolled as far as the top of Upper Stone Street. He had approached
Mr Dunne, in charge of the Parish Constables in the adjacent county
district, who had told him that the Constables under his command
were not authorized to patrol within the borough. Poor Mr Neve was
therefore excluded from both the borough police and the county parish
Rochester City Council formed a police force consisting of a superintendent,
2 inspectors and 22 Constables. Thomas Cork was appointed superintendent
of police and the force commenced its duties in October 1837.
Only 5 years later, Superintendent Cork found himself in trouble.
One of his jobs was to collect the tolls at the cattle market and
pay them over to the City Treasurer but, having collected the money,
he failed to hand it over. When the Treasurer chased him for the
£40 owed, he was unable to pay and was suspended from duty.
About the same time pressure was being exerted on the Watch Committee
to cut its costs and it proposed that one of the inspectors be dispensed
with and the constables reduced from 22 to 14, with a cut in pay.
Superintendent Cork's disgrace helped it make these changes and,
when he was dismissed in December 1842, Inspector John Tuff was
appointed superintendent in his stead while the other inspector
remained as the solitary inspector. The 'surplus' constables were
summarily dismissed. (There was little employment protection in
The financial relief this provided was short lived and a couple
of years later Rochester City was again in difficulties. The remaining
inspector was dismissed, together with four constables. Not surprisingly,
this skeleton force had difficulty in curbing crime and it was soon
claimed that the City was infested with thieves. To combat this,
six more constables were employed for just three months but, with
only the Superintendent to exercise supervision, discipline became
very lax and a number of men were punished for being found asleep
on duty or other offences.
Tunbridge Wells did not achieve borough status until 1889 and so
was not obliged to form a police force. However, it was concerned
that, although there was not a lot of crime, other 'depredations'
were common, such as breaking windows, defacing and destroying fences,
noise and disturbance created by persons leaving public houses.
As a result, a Tunbridge Wells Improvement Act was passed and, in
1835, the Tunbridge Wells Police Force was formed, consisting of
a Superintendent and five constables.
In October 1847, Sergeant William Morten of the Metropolitan Police
was appointed as the Superintendent in charge of the Borough Police.
He gained an excellent reputation as a thief-taker but, in April
1853, he was reported as absent from duty at the same time as a
number of complaints were received that he had defrauded the men
under him of money due to them. He was accordingly removed from
The Police Committee asked the Metropolitan Police for assistance
and an inspector was sent to investigate the state of the force.
In May 1853, Inspector Bray reported that he found every department
in a very disorganized state, with no one properly understanding
his position. Clothing and equipment were dirty and in a poor state
of repair, the Police Station was filthy and having more the appearance
of a lumber room than a Police Station. He attributed all this to
the negligent and very slack manner in which the Superintendent
had conducted the force.
Until these Borough Police Forces were formed, the Parish Constables
usually performed their duty in their every-day clothes but they
now started to be issued with a uniform similar to that worn in
the towns. This, in turn, was generally based on that worn in the
Metropolitan Police. In the earliest days, the 'Peeler' wore a navy-blue
swallow-tailed coat with a raised leather collar or stock (as a
protection against garrotting), together with navy trousers in the
winter and white ones in the summer. The white trousers proved impractical
and were later dispensed with while the swallowtail coat was replaced
by a tunic that came almost to the knees. This ensemble was topped
off with a high stovepipe hat until 1865 when the London police
adopted the helmet and most other forces quickly followed suit.
There were mixed feelings about the loss of the beaver hat since
they were so sturdy they could be used as a seat to snatch a short
nap and they formed a useful step to look over high fences or into
The Rural Constabulary Act, 1839
The success of the Metropolitan Police and, to a lesser extent,
the newly-formed borough forces, led to Parliament passing The Rural
Constabulary Act of 1839. This left the boroughs in control of their
own forces but allowed the county magistrates to create a police
force for the rural areas. However, the whole cost of the force
to be met out of the county rate.
In Kent a proposal to form a rural constabulary was defeated and
the magistrates set about improving the old system of parish constables.
They sponsored the 1842 Parish Constables Act which enabled the
magistrates to have a police force under their control for which
they had no financial responsibility as the parishes still had to
provide the constables, many of whom were still unpaid. However,
the justices could appoint professional 'Superintending Constables'
to take charge of them, payable out of the county rates.
In 1850 the Kent justices appointed a Superintending Constable for
each of the 12 rural petty sessional divisions:
Ashford Bearsted. Cranbrook Dartford Elham Faversham Home (Canterbury)
Malling Rochester Sevenoaks Tunbridge Wingham.
These supervisory posts were much sought after by experienced policemen
and, when the posts for Faversham and Cranbrook fell vacant, there
were 60 applicants, mostly from serving police officers.
John Dunne, who was in charge of the Bearsted Division, left in
1851 and finally ended up as Sir John Dunne, DL, JP, the Chief Constable
of Cumberland and Westmorland. Not all were so efficient and two
Superintending Constables were soon dismissed for inefficiency.
County and Borough Police Act of 1856.
Unlike the 'permissive' Rural Constabulary Act, the County and Borough
Police Act of 1856 was a 'mandatory' Act under which every county
in the country had to form a police force.
There were three important aspects to this Act:
1. The Government undertook to pay one quarter of the cost of all
2. The existing Borough forces were left untouched.
3. Inspectors of Constabulary were introduced to check the grant-aided
forces were being efficiently run
The 13 borough police forces in Kent were unaffected by this Act,
except they had to submit to inspection if they wanted the Government
grant. In addition, Margate Borough Corporation received its charter
that year and promptly formed its own police force. Proud as the
various towns might be of their police force, there were many that
failed the first inspection, usually because of inadequate spending.
In Kent, only Gravesend, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells were given
a clean bill of health at their first inspection.
This Act meant that Kent had no option but to form a county constabulary
which it decided should consist of a chief constable, 12 superintendents,
18 sergeants and 191 constables, making a total of 222. There were
66 applicants for the post of Chief Constable, nearly all military
men. In the end Captain John Hay Ruxton, of Broad Oak, Brenchley
was appointed and took up his duties on 1 April 1857. As a military
man from a certain social strata, he was typical of the new county
It was decided that the force should be divided into the same 12
divisions as the previous Parish Constable system, with a superintendent
in charge of each. To simplify matters it was agreed that the existing
Superintending Constables would be placed in charge of the divisions
of the new force and, on 10 May 1857, the whole force was sworn
in as a body.
The Kent County Constabulary was issued with a uniform similar to
that worn in the boroughs but with one exception: the headgear was
a shako, similar to that worn by troops in the American Civil War.
The more common helmet was not worn by the county force until towards
the end of the 19th century.
Even superintendents were not above reproach and in the summer of
1858, Superintendent George Colman (Elham Division) arrested a man
for nude bathing at Sandgate. The offender was handcuffed and marched
through the streets of Hythe on a busy market day, presumably still
in a state of undress. Not surprisingly he complained about his
treatment and the Superintendent was transferred to Sevenoaks where
one assumes nude bathing was a comparative rarity.
However, the greatest scandal occurred in 1870. On the 1 January
that year, Superintendent English took charge of the Ashford Division
and, on 12 September he was dismissed the force. Behind this brief
record lies a much greater tale.
Early that year a Mary James was arrested for theft from a clothes
line and, when her house was searched, some £350 and a bank
book were discovered and handed over to the Superintendent. When
Mrs. James was released from prison later the same year she went
to Ashford to reclaim her property only to find that they and the
Superintendent had gone. She reported the matter and it was found
that Superintendent English had sailed for Australia with a lady
friend. Constable Robert Breeze of the Kent County Constabulary
was sent after him but, because he used the Suez route, he arrived
in Brisbane before the Superintendent who was sailing via the Cape.
On his arrival, English was arrested and brought back to England
Enquiries revealed that this was not the Superintendent's first
departure from the straight and narrow. Some eight years previously
he had converted to his own use some jewellery that had been stolen
and recovered from the thief. He had also taken two gold watches
on approval from a watchmaker in Folkestone and failed to pay for
them or return them. On another occasion he sold a boat that had
been stolen and then recovered. He was sentenced to imprisonment
with hard labour.
It is not often appreciated that even into the 20th century, it
was an offence to leave one's employment without leave to do so.
When Constable Judd of the Cranbrook Division absconded in November
1910 he was instantly dismissed. When he was later discovered in
Woolwich he was arrested and brought back to Cranbrook where the
magistrates fined him £3 'for having withdrawn from his duty
without giving the requisite notice'.
Up until 1869, the county constables had comparative freedom as
to facial hair but an order that year stated that
with a view to reduce the Medical Bills of the Force, [the
Chief Constable] orders that the whole of the Constables allow the
Moustache and Beard to grow'.
It is not entirely clear what medical condition this order was intended
to alleviate and it was rescinded four years later.
Much of the early work of the police involved the enforcement of
the liquor licensing laws. This was followed over the years by other
duties such as acting as Inspectors of Petroleum and Explosives,
issuing Pedlars' Certificates and licences to chimney sweeps as
well as looking after stray dogs. The Food and Drugs Regulations
and Weights and Measures were also added as time went on and there
is the happy tale of a superintendent who instructed his new driver
to go into a certain public house and get a sample of their whisky.
The driver returned shortly afterwards, licking his lips and pronouncing
the whisky as very good!
The problems of public order still existed, however, and elections
had a nasty habit of resulting in disorder. In Tonbridge in 1880
there was a full-scale riot during which eggs, stones and brickbats
were thrown at the police. Twelve constables, including the Chief
Constable of Kent, were severely injured and it was 24 hours before
order was restored.
The annual Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes celebrations in the 19th
century also had a nasty habit of developing into riots in some
places. Dartford particularly suffered from this and so, in 1863,
the Chief Constable of Kent attended in person with a body of 100
men. Perhaps overawed by this show of strength there was no trouble
but the next night, when the reinforcements had withdrawn, a serious
disturbance broke out and the local police were violently assaulted.
These Bonfire Night disorders affected many other Kent towns. In
1865 the Folkestone Corporation learned of a plan to burn down the
wooden church of St. Michael and All Angels during a riot. Reinforcements
were sent from the County Constabulary and the Army was asked to
keep a squadron of cavalry, ready booted and spurred, to ride into
town if required. The fire brigade and the Borough Surveyor were
to stand by. In the end, the only result was the arrest of six small
Fortunately, few policemen in Kent have been deliberately killed.
In 1844 Constable Couchman of the Dover force was beaten to death
by a drunken chimney sweep who was never caught and in 1873, Constable
Israel May on the Snodland beat was viciously assaulted and killed
with his own truncheon. This time the offender was apprehended six
days later. He was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to 20
The Constable's widow, left with three young children, was awarded
a gratuity of £64 which was less than one year's pay. These
were indeed harsh times and there was little room for sentiment.