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Memoirs of a Victorian Black Country bobby

By Black Country Bugle User  |  Posted: June 28, 2007

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From time to time we publish some small extracts from the dark annals of crime and these have proved very popular with Bugle readers over the years. A new book, only recently published, combines police history with the history of the Black Country and it is sure to interest Bugle readers. The book is a reprint of a Victorian memoir written by an officer of the Staffordshire Police who served for many years, keeping law and order and pursuing justice, in the heart of the Black Country.

Thomas Woollaston was born in 1815 and he became one of the very first policemen in the County of Stafford. Following his retirement from the force Thomas published a book, Police Experiences and Reminiscences of Official Life, in which he told, in graphic detail, the story of his life in the county and his attempts to keep law and order. He was involved in a number of notable cases, including that of William Palmer, the Rugeley Poisoner, and was present when a cast was made of Palmer's face following his execution.

Members of the Woollaston family have continued to serve in the Staffordshire Police right up to the present day. When the government suggested that Staffordshire Police Force was to be amalgamated with other forces in the West Midlands, Thomas's great-great-nephew Martin Woollaston, who has been in the Staffordshire Police Force for most of his working life and is now the Coroner's Officer, suggested to Berkswich History Society that it would be an appropriate time to republish 'Police Experiences', marking the final chapter in the life of a force that had lasted for around 170 years.

Although the government changed its mind about the proposed merger, Berkswich History Society still published the book. For anyone interested in the history of crime or the history of Victorian Staffordshire in general this book is a must-read. Written in Thomas Woollaston's own plain and simple language it gives a fascinating insight into the period when the professional police were in their infancy and it paints a vivid picture of life in the 19th century Black Country and surrounding region.

The Metropolitan Police was founded in London in 1829 by the then Home Secretary Robert Peel. In the following decades the example was followed by towns and boroughs across the country. In 1839-40 Stafford was hit by a crime wave with a spate of organised burglaries. Apprehending the gang was beyond the wit of the parish constabulary - noted for spending most of their time on duty smoking pipes and supping ale in the inns and taverns - and so an appeal was made to the Manchester Police. They sent a Detective Inspector Irwin to Stafford and he was able to infiltrate the gang and arrest the ringleader, named Turpin, red-handed when he tried to burgle the Sun Inn at Forebridge. The success of the Manchester Police convinced the authorities in Stafford that the municipal borough needed a police force of its own. The town council set up a force made up of one superintendent, one sergeant and two constables. Thomas Woollaston was one of those first constables and he took up his duties on Christmas Day, 1840.

At first the new police force was quite unpopular, not least among the old parish constables, who had just lost a very comfortable and easy-going job. The new "Peelers" were much more vigorous in the pursuit of their duties than the old parish constables, who had all too often been inclined to turn blind eye to any misdemeanours.

Thomas Woollaston had a difficult time on his first day on duty. At the Christmas Market, on 26th December, 1840, he tried to break up a fight and he was in turn assaulted. Thomas turned on his attacker and was able to arrest him despite a mob of angry people trying to set him free. The crowd threatened revenge while the prisoner alleged that he had merely been joking with his friend when Thomas had attacked him without provocation. The mob then marched through Stafford claiming that they would do away with the new police force and bring back the old parish constables - a number of the former constables were among the mob. Eventually the clamour died down and the attempts of the prisoner to charge Thomas Woollaston with assault came to nothing. Two months later Thomas was promoted to sergeant.

At that time there was no county-wide police force and only a few towns had any police force at all. In the summer and autumn of 1842 Chartist agitators, calling for an extension of the vote, stirred up unrest leading to riots in the Potteries. A great mob marched on Burslem while Newcastle-under-Lyme became a fortified stronghold for the authorities. What few police there were, joined by volunteer special constables and a few soldiers, were just about able to keep law and order. When the trouble had died down it was decided to set up a County Police Force and in January 1843 Stafford Borough Police was amalgamated into the new Staffordshire County Police. Thomas continued to serve and in 1846 he was made a sub-inspector.

Thomas's career in the Staffordshire Police saw him move several times and in 1849 he was transferred to Stone. In 1853 Thomas was promoted to superintendent and he was sent to Leek to take over the division there. However, he was only at Leek for six weeks before he was ordered to move again and this time he was sent to take over the division at Forebridge. In 1856 Thomas returned to Leek, before moving to West Bromwich in 1867 to take over the division there. He remained stationed in the Black Country until he retired from the Staffordshire Police in October 1879.

Thomas Woollaston's retirement had been precipitated by a violent incident earlier in the year. It was in February 1879 that he had assisted two of his constables in arresting a violent drunkard in West Bromwich High Street. A large crowd, sympathetic to the prisoner, had surrounded the police so that they were unable to make their way along the High Street. The police took refuge in a butcher's shop but the mob began to pelt it with stones. Thomas persuaded the prisoner to come quietly and then tried to pacify the crowd. The police then attempted to make their way back to the police station, all the time surrounded by the angry crowd.

The prisoner began to resist once more, throwing himself to the ground so that he had to be dragged along. The mob began to throw stones again and Thomas was hit on the back of the head by a 3lb lump of stone. He fell, insensible, into the gutter and when he regained consciousness found his arms and legs numb and paralysed. He was taken into a nearby shop for safety, his head bleeding freely, and when reinforcements arrived the police were able to make their way with the prisoner back to the safety of the station.

Thomas Woollaston recovered from his injuries but it was a sign that he should consider retirement. Later that year, aged 64, he wrote to the Chief Constable, advising that he wished to retire, and he stepped down on October 31st, 1879, after 38 years and 10 months in the service. In the following spring, at a dinner with the Chief Constable and officers of the force at Stafford, Thomas Woollaston was presented with a testimonial and various items of plate. He received an annual pension of £110 12 shillings. Thomas published his memoirs in January 1884 and he passed away on 18th April, 1904.

The anecdotes in Thomas's memoir are both serious and amusing. In his career he dealt with a wide variety of crimes and he records tales of bigamy, robbery, civil unrest, poisoning, rape, housebreaking, receiving stolen goods, the theft of horsetails, illegal stills, murder, forgery, assault and fraud. It is a fascinating account of Victorian police work.

Earlier this year Thomas' great-great-nephew was able to buy back for the Woollaston family the ceremonial sword that Thomas used when he was Superintendent of Police. It is engraved with his name and the Stafford Knot. Our photograph shows Martin Woollaston with Thomas' sword alongside Peter Alden, who is dressed as an 1890s policeman, for the launch of the new edition of 'Police Experiences'. They stand outside Eastgate House, Stafford, which was from about 1900 until the 1950s the Headquarters of Staffordshire Police.

'Police Experiences' is published by Berkswich History Society at a cost of £14.95 plus £2.50 for postage and package. Copies may be obtained by sending a cheque, made payable to Berkswich History Society, to Mr R. Morton, Treasurer, Berkswich History Society, Eastfield, Kitlings Lane, Walton on the Hill, Stafford.

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