Most residents in Worcestershire are unlikely to meet a member of the local constabulary in their normal daily lives. Yet, nearly all appreciate the security such an organisation provides. It wasn’t always like that, as Bob Pooler discovers.
Caption: Police patrol cars at the rear of Castle Street Police Station in 1946. Image courtesy of Bob Pooler.
For many hundreds of years, communities were responsible for their own policing, appointing parish constables locally. The quality of law enforcement in a particular area was only as good as the man delegated to uphold it. His duties were wide and varied. He was expected to pursue wanted criminals, keep an eye on the state of roads and bridges, and escort prisoners to the county gaol among a list of other requirements. It is no surprise to find that this largely unpaid community role could become a nuisance to businessmen with other interests to follow. Often the work was passed to an unsuitable stand-in with a consequential reduction in efficiency. The one thing that could be said for this antiquated system was that it was cheap.
At the beginning of the nineteenth century, times were changing. The introduction of machinery to industry and agriculture meant that there was unrest among the working population as jobs disappeared. When disturbances erupted, parish constables were unsuited to a role of peace keeping. Sometimes the Army was called in and the soldiers’ methods in quelling riots could be very bloody.
The stage was therefore set for a new approach. Sir Robert Peel started the ball rolling in England and Wales by introducing the Metropolitan Police in 1829. Some 10 years later, Worcestershire formed its own police force under the chief constableship of Richard Reader Harris, a former Metropolitan Police inspector.
There were already a number of smaller police forces in existence in the county. For the previous three or four years, the boroughs of Kidderminster, Evesham, Droitwich and Bewdley had had their own police officers. Worcester City also had a police force. Worcestershire was one of the first four county forces to be created, but it was not without resistance. Ratepayers felt the additional burden of supporting a police force to be unnecessary, while a section of the public viewed the new organisation with suspicion, expecting it to produce local state spies. It was for this reason that the force adopted a similar uniform to the Metropolitan Police. It included a stovepipe hat, a blue tailcoat and dark blue or black trousers. This made the officers clearly identifiable while emphasising their role as civilians rather than members of the military.
Harris had a difficult task setting up a new police force from scratch. He was able to recruit 10 superintendents with varying degrees of policing experience, but found it harder to obtain sufficient constables with suitable qualities. The pay of 19/– a week (95p) did little to encourage constable applicants as this was on a par with agricultural wages of the time.
The first county police headquarters was a recently built three storey, end-of-terrace house at 15 Britannia Square, Worcester, which was known as the Central Depot for Police. A superintendent and several constables and their families resided there, but the house had a purely administrative role; no prisoners were ever kept there. An agreement was reached with the City Police to use the cells at its police station in St Nicholas Street nearby. The Chief Constable, meanwhile, found alternative accommodation across the Square from the headquarters.
On Monday 27 January 1840, across the county, 30 constables and their superintendents commenced their duties. It was a much larger county then and included Stourbridge, Kings Heath, Kings Norton, Sparkhill, Hay Mills, Acocks Green and Yardley. Although Halesowen and Oldbury were strictly part of the County of Salop, Worcestershire policemen were stationed there too.
The accommodation first obtained for the police officers varied. At Bromsgrove, the thatched workhouse in The Strand served as a base. Elsewhere, some officers were provided with premises while others were obliged to take lodgings in the areas they were to cover.
It soon became apparent that the accommodation for constables and their families, and provision for prisoners, was quite unacceptable. In 1841, the force commenced a building programme. Bromsgrove was to have a new police station in Station Street, while Worcester was to have a new headquarters backing onto the County Gaol in Love’s Grove. Kings Heath was shown to be in need of a new police station when two prisoners escaped by tunnelling out of the cell block. In other areas of the county, premises of varying suitability began to be leased.
Throughout his term as Chief Constable, Harris was keen to bring the smaller police forces in the county under his control. Several times he approached Worcester and Kidderminster Watch Committees, who were responsible for their respective police forces, and each time he was turned down.
Meanwhile, Harris’ overtures to the Borough of Evesham’s authorities produced better results. In 1850, the county took over the policing of the town by posting one sergeant and a constable to operate from the town hall.
In the early days of the force, a policeman was expected to visit every village on his beat at least once every three or four days, depending on the area. The calculations for this requirement were made on the basis of the officer patrolling, on foot, a distance of 22 miles a day. For example, the policeman stationed at Ombersley had to patrol the villages of Ombersley, Holt, Grimley, Doverdale Martin Hussingtree and Westwood at least once every three days.
When out on patrol, the officer was alone and had to fend for himself. For most of his working life he would be seen in uniform and would not have a day off. After a long day, his evenings and nights could well be spent out on his beat, ensuring that public houses complied with the laws as well as keeping observations for poachers and other offenders. These were areas where the policeman regularly came into conflict with the public. Assaults upon policemen were frequent, in some cases resulting in such serious injuries that the officer would have to leave the force.
From 1885 onwards, the gradual introduction of telephones into the force placed the constabulary at the forefront of communications. With the launch of motor cars and registration marks in the early part of the twentieth century, the first vehicle to be registered in Worcestershire was AB1, which was allocated to a 5 hp Wolsley on 19 May 1903 and registered to Lieutenant Colonel Herbert Sutherland Walker, Worcs Police, The Cross House, Powick, who was the Chief Constable at the time. He used the vehicle on official and private business and, in fact, AB1 continues to be used on the official car of the Chief Constable of West Mercia Police today.
In 1909, the Home Office urged the Chief Constable to establish a mounted branch to be used at times of ‘special emergency’. Although horses were used on an ad hoc basis, when the mounted officers were asked to join the Military Mounted Police in 1915, the mounted branch is not mentioned again. However, the constabulary did make use of other means of transport, including carts, bicycles, motorcycles and cars.
In March 1919, the Home Office wrote to the Chief Constable to encourage him to employ policewomen. Seeking the views of others, John William Willis Bund, an extremely powerful character who held the chairmanship of Worcestershire County Council, was quoted as saying in the 1920s: ‘It would be a great mistake having a lot of women, with very little to do, going about gossiping and saying they are policemen’. Nevertheless, with the outbreak of World War II, opinions changed and the first auxiliary policewomen were employed. With no police powers, their roles included shorthand and typing. In 1944, however, 16 women were chosen from the auxiliary staff to serve as patrol policewomen. They had the same powers as policemen but generally concentrated on sexual offences, children and care matters.
In February 1941, the installation of a regional wireless transmitter at Romsley near Halesowen was the first move towards radio communications in the county. Patrol cars and main police stations were fitted with wireless receivers only. By 1948, a central Information Room at the new headquarters at Hindlip Hall was established. This centre was continually manned to coordinate the growing levels of radio traffic.
The county council had purchased Hindlip Hall in 1946. The hall and its immediate grounds were to be used as the new police headquarters and the move from Castle Street to Hindlip Hall was completed on Sunday 14 September 1947.
In 1952, dog handlers were introduced into the force. Two officers and their dogs – a Doberman Pinscher and a German Shepherd – worked from Redditch and their handlers were required to patrol the beat for four hours and then spend four hours exercising, grooming and feeding their animals.
In November 1960, the first motorway in the county – the M50 – was officially opened and officers from Worcestershire, Herefordshire and Gloucestershire took equal turns to patrol it. The eight-hour day for Worcestershire officers began at Hindlip Hall and they patrolled in specially adapted police cars, which were equipped with extra-large fuel tanks. The rear seats were also removed to accommodate extra equipment. Crews could not leave the 21-mile section of road, known as the strip, until relieved by colleagues. There were no emergency telephones so, in the case of breakdown or accident, motorists usually had to wait until a police patrol car passed by.
On 18 May 1966, the Home Secretary announced that the number of police forces in England and Wales would be reduced from 117 to 49 and this would be achieved by a series of amalgamations. The police authorities of Worcestershire, Herefordshire, Shropshire and Worcester City chose to amalgamate voluntarily, and became West Mercia Constabulary on 1 October 1967. John Willison was appointed the first Chief Constable. The headquarters continued at Hindlip Hall.
Bob Pooler is a former police officer and the author of From Fruit Trees to Furnaces, a book about the Worcestershire Constabulary. He has been researching the history of policing in Worcestershire for many years and is always eager to hear from anyone who can contribute photographs or stories about the county’s police forces. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or through the police history website www.worcestershirepolicehistory.co.uk, where his book can also be ordered.
This article was published in WR magazine‘s Winter 2015 issue, the full contents of which can be read here.