Brighton Borough Police 1838 - 1967

An Excursion to Brighthelmstone made in the year 1789
Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2014
St Nicholas' Church dated 1820
Royal Pavilion and Museums Brighotn and Hove
Richard Russell (26 November 1687 - 1759)
British Physician who encouraged his patients to use a form of water therapy that involved the submersion or bathing in, and drinking of, seawater.
Mary Hare
First Policewoman in Brighton
Brighton Borough Police inspection:
From the private collection of Michael Chick
1855-1919: district police station at The Level
Photo by Tony Mould
A view of Brighton Police Station on The Level with pedestrians in the foreground and a tram moving past
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
Brighton Police Sports team in 1902. The 'B' Division were winners of the Fire Brigade Challenge Cup. During this period, all the emergency services were the responsibility of the Police and a proportion of the Force were trained and employed as firemen. It was not until 1922 that a separate Fire Brigade was formed.
Sussex Police
Seasons greetings from Supt Lacroix! This postcard is one from a series portraying seasonal messages from Superintendent Lacroix. In the centre is probably the first motorised fire engine seen in Brighton. Note the two fire extinguishers, fitted either side of the vehicle, and the early Brighton registration plate, CD 290.
Sussex Police
Part of the Brighton Police vehicle fleet, 1928. The motorcycles were introduced in 1921, and can be seen here along with the Chief Constable's "fast" car and two ambulances, one of which doubled as a prison van.
Sussex Police
Pat Drake
Old Police Cells Museum
Sgt Ernest Ewens in the B Division Sergeant's office of the then-new Brighton Police HQ at John Street. The famous white helmets were introduced for daytime summer wear in 1933 and ceased six years later. They were re-introduced between 1952 and 1968.
Sussex Police
Sir Frank Soskice.

The Early Days. 

The Brighton Police was in being between the years of 1838 – 1967 a total life span of 129 years and there are a huge number of stories to come from the archives of the Force, of which a few will be recounted through these pages. In reality it is possible to trace Brighton Police back to its start in 1830. However for what reason it is generally believed it was started in 1838. That has come about as in 1938 Brighton Police allegedly celebrated their 100 years existence with a dinner in The Royal Pavilion.

In the early years of the 1800’s Brighton was a small fishing hamlet with the main streets centred on North, East and West streets, this in fact was Brighton.


The first known use of the name ‘Brighton’ was in 1660 but it didn’t come into general use until the late eighteenth century and its official use dates only from 1810 when adopted by the Town Commissioners.

Brighton is in fact a contraction of the older name of ‘Brighthelstone.’ This name had lasted into the late 1850’s and there are more than 40 variations on the spelling of the name. It is mentioned in the Doomsday book, being spelled as ‘Bristelmestune.’ There is a suggestion that the original name has been derived from two early Saxon words, one meaning ‘division’ or ‘valley’ and the other meaning ‘stones’ but the more widely accepted name coming from a personal name not uncommon among Anglo-Saxons.

The early settlement that eventually became Brighton was probably a fishing village concentrated below the cliffs and a little farming on the hills within a few hundred yards of the sea.

Dr Russell

The small settlement really started to grow just before the 1730’s when Dr. Russell, who was in Lewes advocated that a number of ailments would benefit with the aid of salt-water and in some cases, even cures. Within ten years an ever-growing number of people started to come to the town for the salt-water cures, many made their homes here and from that time the town grew larger and larger.

As the town grew then came the time for some sort of Police Force to be formed, advocated by the local people. They wanted, in fact demanded, that the wrong doers be caught and punished. There was in place a sort of law and order system carried out by the High Constable and his Assistants but due to the growing population, something more modern and organised was needed.

The 1810 Brighton Town Act authorised the Town Commissioners to appoint eight ‘watchmen’ in January 1812 to patrol the town at night; another sixteen had been appointed by December 1815 being given the title of constable. These were supplemented by patrols of the local inhabitants and one special constable until 1818.

Watch districts

In January 1821 the town was divided up into eight beats or ‘watch districts,’ each area having a ‘Box’ for the watchman. In 1823 the ‘Watch’ Force consisted of sixteen men under the control of two Superintendents based at the old Town Hall, in Market Street. The uniform of the ‘Watchmen’ were top hats, black tailcoats and white trousers and each were armed with a baton and a rattle, as until 1829 they had to call out the hours and the weather.

In 1830 a Mr. Pilbeam was appointed as Chief Officer of the watchmen in an attempt to establish a more permanent Force, but it proved largely ineffective and the men were eventually dismissed.

The ‘Watchmen’ were first based at the old Town Hall in Market Street; this building had a very primitive custody room, which was generally known as ‘The Black Hole.’ A new ‘Watch Station’ was included in the plans when the present Town Hall was built between 1830 – 32, but like the ‘Black Hole’ it was situated in the basement of the building. It was condemned in 1929 by the Inspector of Constabularies but no action was taken and it remained the Police Station until the new one was built in John Street some 36 years later.

First fully professional Police Force

In 1838 members who were recruited to make up the first fully professional Police Force were based at the New Town Hall and replaced the watchmen. The Force consisted of a Chief Constable, two Superintendents, a night Constable, three Inspectors and twenty-four Constables. The Force soon started to grow and in 1854 comprised of ten Officers and fifty-one Constables and in that year came under the control of the ‘Watch’ Committee of the newly formed Brighton Borough Council.

One of the first decisions the council made was to increase the size of the Police force by ten men and also appointed a Police surgeon and a plain-clothes detective.


In 1855 there was a change of uniform, the tailcoats being replaced by frock coats. The top hats were replaced in 1868 with helmets. The force had by now greatly increased to a total of one hundred men and during the following years regular increases to the Force was made. The records shows that by 1901 another 50 men had been added and still more men were added during the following years.

In 1956 the Force boasted a total of 256 Officers and Constables. The total number of officers for the Brighton Borough Police Force in 1967, on amalgamation with Sussex Police being 415 men and women, these include a few vacancies.

First women appointed

It wasn’t until 1918 before the first women were appointed to the Force, due in all probability to the outbreak of the First World War when the men were recruited for the armed forces.

One of the things that made the Brighton Borough Police famous as well as rather distinctive was the issue of white helmets for constables and sergeants during the years prior to the Second World War, 1933 until 1939. They were discontinued throughout the war years but re-issued again in 1952, right through to the amalgamation at the end of 1967.

The first main Police Station for the town was when the ‘Watchmen’ were based at the old Town Hall in Market Street which had a rather primitive lock-up known as the ‘Black Hole’ A new Police Station was included when the current Town Hall was built between 1830-1832 in Bartholomew’s. It was situated in the basement of the building, dark and dingy in the main. I always remember the few steps down, just inside the main door; they were very dangerous and where a number of the more violent prisoners seemed to fall.

District Police Stations.

As well as the main police station there were other small police stations in various places around the town. In the early days these were called ‘District’ Police Stations.

The first one was established in about 1857 at an address, 64, St. James’s Street, which was near the junction with Grafton Street. This building was quite distinctive as it had a balustrade roof and urn decorations and can still be seen to this day. This lasted almost 30 years and the Police offices were moved in 1885 to No. 2, Freshfield Road. It was later agreed by the Watch Committee that other District Police Stations were required in different parts of the Town.

These were established at the southern end of The Level (c.1865-1919.), 26, West Hill Road (c.1876-1919.), and at Preston Circus Fire Station from 1903. It was recognised that as the Town continued to grow in all directions District Police Stations were required on the main London Road and so two more were established. The first one at No.18 Middle Road, Preston that was in place by 1871 and in 1888 a Station was established in Patcham on the site, which is now occupied by the Homeleigh Flats.

Rottingdean Police Station stood on the western side of the High Street between Marine Drive and West Street by 1888 but was moved to a nearby house in West Street in 1916. A further Police Station was built in the Rottingdean Parish in the 1880’s and 90’s at 25, Riflebutt Road, Black Rock. (This Road was completely demolished to make way for the new Marina Roads and complex)

The Police Box system

In 1928 most District Police Stations were discontinued as the ‘Police Box’ system was being adopted. These were special telephone call boxes whereby members of the public could call for the police. However, the Rottingdean Police Station continued until 1931. A new Rottingdean Police Station was opened in 1959 utilising an old bank building complete with the old bank safe at 53, Marine Drive. The building is still there but it is an art gallery now.

In 1947, a new Sub-Divisional Police Station was established in a number of large houses on the western side of Wellington Road. The official address being 21-27 Wellington Road and these premises were also used as the Training School. At this time the Town was divided into two Sub-Divisions, ‘A’ and ‘B.’ The ‘A’ Sub-Division’ being based at the Town Hall and ‘B’ Sub’ based at Wellington Road.

John Street

In 1965 a new Police station was built in John Street, designed by Borough engineer, Percy Billington and officially opened on 27th September by the then Home Secretary, Sir Frank Soskice. Once again the Police were housed in one building. On amalgamation, 1st January 1968, the new Police Station became the Divisional Headquarters for Brighton, now a Division within the Sussex Police.

In 1956, the then Chief Constable, Captain Hutchinson retired after a period of 23 years. He had been highly respected by the town dignitaries and enjoyed a very good relationship with the Brighton Watch Committee. He had been the Chief Constable throughout the Second World War (Although during the wartime amalgamation of the Local Police Forces to make the Sussex Constabulary, Captain Hutchinson had been the Deputy Chief Constable of Sussex with responsibilities for Brighton.) and had been privy to many wartime secrets appertaining to the Brighton area. He had gone a long way to modernising the Force and when he retired the Force had reached strength of 283 Officers including a total of 6 policewomen. He had the forethought to increase the police fleet and at this time there were 15 cars and vans as well as 5 motorcycles. However, this was about to grow considerably during the next few years.

During the years between 1957 and 1963 while Mr.A.E. Rowsell was the Chief Constable the strength of the Force increased once again, this mirrored the increase in the town’s population and so by the end of 1963 the Force totalled 328 officers including a number of policewomen.

On the retirement of Mr. Rowsell his deputy, Mr. ‘Bill’ Cavey was then promoted to Chief Constable and in fact was the last Chief Constable of the Brighton Borough Police Force. (This man amazed me, as he knew every member of the Force by name, quite an achievement, by any standards.)

This number gradually increased until at the time of the amalgamation on 1st January 1968 the total number of Police Officers in the Brighton Borough Force had increased to 402.

This was made up by the Chief Constable and his assistant, 5 Superintendents, 4 Chief Inspectors, 26 Inspectors, 65 Sergeants, and 271 male Constables, 16 Policewomen (Including One Inspector and one Sergeant.) There were 13 vacancies at this time, which were not filled due to the impending amalgamation.

 The Brighton Force was distinguished by its use of wearing White Helmets each summer from 1933 – 1939 and again between the years of 1952 – 1967. It was also the first Police Force in the world to operate with personal radios, one way only from the Central Police Station to the constable from September 1933.


Brighton Police Fire Brigade

The Police turned out with the Town’s fire escapes as well as with the volunteer brigade and the fire establishment. But after a very serious fire in Queen’s Road in 1880, an official Police Fire Brigade was formed a year later. It was based at the Town Hall under Superintendent Thomas Gibbs.

The garages for the vehicles were built close to the Town Hall in Bartholomew’s. However, following several serious fires in the Town over a number of years it was re-organised and placed under Inspector Victor La Croix, formerly with the volunteer brigade. He remained in charge until May 1921.

Following a very bad fire in December 1920 at West Street at its junction with Duke Street much criticism was levelled at this fire brigade and so consequently a full time and fully trained Corporation Fire Brigade was established at Preston Circus in May 1921, under Chief Officer Stanley Thorpe, the police and volunteer brigades were then disbanded. Thorpe remained the Chief until 1929 when Charles Birch succeeded him until 1955. Two further Chiefs were appointed, Edmund Calvert (1955 – 1973) and Frank Furlong (1973 – 74.) The Brighton Fire Brigade was also subject to amalgamation. Brighton Police


In May 2004, the then Mayor Cllr. Mrs. Pat Drake set up a committee to have a Brighton Police Museum in part of the old Brighton police Station in then basement of the Town Hall. The Committee scoured both Brighton and Lewes Headquarters and various Police historical items were found. Some of these items were displayed more than 40 years previous in the small Police museum set up in Wellington Road Police Station and moved to John Street in 1965.

Former members of the Police Force and their widows gave or donated items for the Museum and after a few setbacks but with firm determination the museum was officially opened on 4th May 2005. This was a real triumph for Pat Drake and her committee.

I would urge you to take time out and to visit this museum; the committee have every intention to enlarge the museum as time goes by. DavidRowland

Welcome to the Finsbury Publishing

David Rowland has just launched his 15th and final book, “The Spirit of Winsome Winn II”, all about the B-17 Flying Fortress which crashed at Patcham after being hit by anti-aircraft fire over Germany.

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