The Brighton Police Centenary 1838 - 1938. Part 1

Alfred the Great (849 - 26 October 899)
Black Hole
Master Fang, the Parish Beadle
Parish Characters in Ten Plates by Paul Pry,
Padlocked in the pillory
Peter Jackson
Brighton Town Hall c1896.
Reproduced with permission from Brighton Museum and Art Gallery
As town criers often brought unwelcome news, they needed protection under the law; in fact anyone who harmed a crier was guilty of treason. Frederick Gregory 1892-1934
London Borough of Hillingdon

871 – 1843

Alfred the Great was the first King to establish a form of Policing in England. He commissioned one of his Earls to exercise the prerogative of keeping the King’s peace, which, in those days consisted of a system of mutual suretyship by which members of a Tithing or community were made responsible for one another. In walled towns the gates were shut from sunset to sunrise, and watch set. Hence the ‘Watch and Ward’ for guarding during the night and day.

A hundred consisted of a united group of ten Tithings. The head representative of a tithing was called a Tithingman of Headborough, and they were really the police officers, who raised the ‘Hue and Cry’ after a fugitive criminal. The appointment of two Headboroughs at Brighthelmston under the Saxon constitution is a proof that the population of the town was then far from inconsiderable. These officers sat together, or separately, and dispensed justice.

The Watch and Ward statute was passed in 1285 and the modern constable appear to date from that time.

On the creation of two constables in every Hundred for keeping the peace by the Statute of Winchester, Brighthelmston had a constable exclusively for itself.

In the seventeenth century, the ‘Block-house’ was the town clink or ‘Lock-up,’ and in the following century the ‘Clink’ was a small cell at the back of the ‘Running Horse’ public house in King  Street.

At the beginning of the 19th Century, although there were two magistrates and their Clerks, there was no court. All the Judicial business was conducted at Lewes.

The New Inn (‘The Clarence’) was the first place where the local Magistrates held their court in 1808 and it was not until 1814 that the first regular Petty Sessions were held at the ‘Old Ship Inn’ whence they removed to the New Inn in 1822. The following year, the Petty Sessions were held in the miserable old Town Hall, twice a week.

Peel’s Act of 1829

There were no definite steps taken in the country generally to organise a body of day and night Police until the passing of Peel’s Act in 1829. Prior to the establishment of the police Force, the care of the town was entrusted to certain Commissioners who had the power to appoint Watchmen of the antique school, by night, and a Beadle in a cocked hat and a general suit of his order, by day, assisted by the Town Crier of a similar ‘mein and garb.’

The Watchmen had succeeded the patrol, a species of self-guardianship which the inhabitants imposed upon themselves in rotation, under the supervision of the High Constable and his Headboroughs. An Act, which was passed in 1810 and amended in 1825, dealt with the local government of Brighton. (Then known as Brighthelston.) It was provided that these Watchmen should be sworn in as constables before any Justice of the Peace for Sussex. During the winter months it was also customary for a bell-man to perambulate nightly in most of the old streets of the town, and hourly proclaim the time and the weather.

The following minutes were taken from the Brighton Town Commissioners’ Book are of some interest: –

30th September 1823:

“Resolved that the town be divided into districts and sixteen Watchmen be appointed and each to take a district.”


2nd October 1823;-

“Resolved that a supply of lanthorns and rattles be procured for the use of the Watchmen.” 

25th February 1825;

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

11th June 1825;

“Resolved that all vagrants be brought before the Magistrates.”

They had Watch boxes in those days and it appears that it was the practice to move these about as was considered necessary. For instance, the box at the ‘Richmond Arms’ was moved to the front of the Phoenix Brewery.

The Watchmen were individually appointed to districts and a number of supernumeraries were annually appointed to fill the gaps. The state of this system cannot have been high; the services rendered no doubt corresponded in a measure with the bad conditions under which these men  worked, and only in a feeble way filled in the period of evolution previous to the advent of a Force such as we know it now..

We read the following account of the election of a High Constable, which took place in 1826:

“At a court Leet held at the Town hall, Thomas West, esquire, of the Union Bank, was elected High Constable of the Hundred of Whalebone.” 

(Whalebone was a corruption of Wellsbourne and consisted of Brighton, including Patcham and Withdean, Ovingdean and Rottingdean.)

The meeting also elected five Headboroughs (paid Police), three unpaid Headboroughs, two Searchers, an Aleconner and two Town Criers and Beadles.

On the day following the election, the High Constable and his officers, according to the annual useage, “trod the bounds” of the Parish, after which they partook of an excellent dinner at the Old Ship Tavern. The functions of a High Constable are rather obscure but one writer associates them with the combined duties of a Mayor and Town Clerk. As an indication of this, the following notice was issued in 1843: –

Brighton Fair. – Caution.

Notice is herby given that no gaming or thimble tables will be allowed,any other unlawful games permitted.

Edmund Burn. High Constable.

The Headboroughs had combined duties of Peace officer and minor magisterial responsibilities.

The pillory and stocks were in Market Place, and the Parish Pound was at first situated on the west side of Old Steine and later near the old Parish Church. As late as 1828, four men were put in the pillory for drunkenness.

Minutes of the Commissioners of the 3rd March 1830

From the minutes of the Commissioners of the 3rd March 1830, an attempt was made to create a Police force of a more permanent nature and a Chief Officer was appointed. Later, another Chief Officer with a superintendent were appointed for night duty; one was to be engaged inspecting the several divisions and visiting men on duty, the other to remain at the Watchhouse. Inside and outside duties was to be performed as the Chief Officer directed. This organisation was not altogether satisfactory, because the Police Committee later recommended that the Police Force as a whole be discharged and this was then acted upon. The reason for this was owing to the several complaints against various members of insubordination and neglect of duty. A new Force was appointed.

An entry dated 5th March 1832, is to the effect that the usual police clothing be obtained, also 30 oiled canvas capes.

In July 1835, it was agreed properly to fit up the required courting the Town Hall for the Spring Assizes and to grant the free use to the County should it ultimately be decided to hold the Spring Assizes in Brighton. It is not recorded however that the Court was ever used for this purpose.

In July 1838, the appointments of Beadles and town criers were again made and in May of that year, the Town Commissioners made rules to establish an organised body of Police for the purpose of keeping ‘watch and ward’ within the town, both by day and night. The Force consisted of one Chief Officer, two Superintendents, one night Constable, three Inspectors and twenty four Watchmen. They were dressed in uniform and armed with a short staff; on night duty they carried rattles. The commencement pay of a Watchman was 18 shillings a week. The following Regulations governing the creation of the new force will be of interest.

Town of Brighton. 

Rules; Regulations, Orders and Directions

For the government of the Officers and Men

Appointed and employed by the


Acting under the virtue of the Brighton Town Act

For the

Guarding, Watching and Keeping

And Preserving,

the Peace of the Town.

The Outline of Duty.

Two thirds of the Force are to be on duty during the night and one third during the day. The Division for day duty to be relieved by a division from the night duty, on the first Friday in every month.

The town to be divided up into sixteen districts or beats for the night duty, and into six districts or beats for the day duty, on each of which one man to be placed.

The duty each day and night at a certain hour, of which due notice will be given from time to time.

Each Superintendent and Inspector when on duty will have charge of the respective districts or beats.

The men for duty will individually assemble at the Town Hall fifteen minutes before the hour fixed for that purpose in the orders, when they will be inspected by the Inspector, that he may ascertain whether they are sober, clean and correctly dressed and in a fit state to go on duty. The names of the men will be entered in a book at the Town Hall, with the numbers of their respective beats, of which they will immediately take charge, remaining thereon until relieved.

The men when on night duty; will diligently perambulate the whole of their respective beats. The points from which they start to be varied, thereby securing an irregular but constant visiting of every part of their beat during the night. 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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