History of the Brighton Police 1838-1967

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Beadle St Martins in the Fields

Inspector Gerald W Baines of the Brighton Police compiled this history

The origins of the force

In the early years of the nineteenth century Brighton was a small but fast growing community governed by a body of Commissioners who were responsible for the administration of the town. The first Commissioners were appointed by an Act of Parliament in 1773 and their main functions were to make provision for paving and cleansing the streets in a town whose area extended little beyond the boundaries of the present West Street,  North Street and Old Steine. The population increased rapidly from 7,339 in 1801 to 12,012 in 1811, and by a new Act passed in 1810 the number of Commissioners was increased and their powers of government were extended to cope with the town’s expansion.

One of their duties under the new Act was to appoint watchmen, beadles and constables to police the town and by 1822 there were eight watchmen on duty each night with two head constables, James Feldwicke and Samuel Simes, taking command at the Town Hall on alternate nights. At this time the Town Hall was part of an old workhouse in Bartholomews and prisoners were accommodated there in a ‘lock-up’ referred to by the head constable as ‘The Black Hole’. The uniform of the watchmen consisted of a cut-away black tailcoat, white trousers and a black top hat, and they were equipped with lanterns and batons, and with rattles for raising the alarm.

The town was divided into eight districts, each with a watch box, and the watchmen were allocated to these districts by the head constables, a system very similar to the ‘beat box’ method of policing which was to be introduced in the town over 100 years later. The watchmen’s hours of duty were from 9.30 pm to 6 am during the summer and from 9 pm to 7 am in the winter, and for this they were paid 15/- a week throughout the year. During the day the policing of the town was entrusted to beadles who, in 1824, were required to ‘attend on duty till I0 o’clock at night during the summer’.

The beat

To deal with this aspect of their duties the Commissioners appointed a ‘Committee relative to the Night Watch’ and in 1823 this Committee carried out a major augmentation of their watch-keeping force by appointing  a further eight watchmen. In the resulting re-organization, the town was divided into 16 districts or beats, nine new watch boxes were made and it was resolved that ‘the Night Constable be furnished with a staff similar to the Headboroughs’. The population of the town at this time was in the region of 25,000, having doubled in the preceding decade.

The following notes from the minutes of the Committee give some indication of the manner in which the ‘Watch’ was administered:


‘Resolved that each Watchman on leaving the Town Hall be furnished by the Night Constable with a tin ticket on which the number of his Beat is marked.’

25 FEBRUARY 1825

‘Resolved that after giving every Watchman a strict charge in consequence of the several robberies that have lately occurred in the town, any watchman detecting any such offender shall on conviction of the same be paid one guinea as a reward.’

13 MAY 1825

‘Resolved that any Supernumerary or Watchman misbehaving himself be suspended until a Meeting of the Committee be called to investigate the same – and that the meeting be called within one week after the same be reported.’

At the same meeting, the 16 Watch boxes were ordered to be re-painted and numbered – the last coat of paint to be an olive green.

II JUNE 1825

‘Resolved that a Night Chair be provided for the Night Constable.’

‘Recommended that all vagrants should be brought before the Magistrates. ‘

By 1830 the population of Brighton had increased to about 40,000, and on March 3 of that year the Commissioners appointed a ‘new police force’ consisting of 25 Watchmen under the direction of a Mr Pilbeam, but it was not until May 1838 that an organized body of police was established for the purpose of keeping ‘watch and ward’ within the town both by day and by night. This was the beginning of the police force in Brighton, a force which, in its early days, retained many of the characteristics of the Night Watch from which it had evolved.

Gerald W Baines

Comments about this page

  • My uncle inspecter C Noble; great full for any information

    By M Slow (19/07/2018)
  • James Feldwicke was my great great great great grandfather! I’d love to know more about him!

    By Abi feldwicke (19/01/2018)

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