The Constabulary Short Sword

Cardiff Story Museum
Here is an illustration from the Illustrated London News from 1867 of Police undergoing sword training at Wellington Barracks in London.
Illustrated London News
One of the earliest photographs of police officers in Bristol, undertaking cutlass drill
Victorian British River Police Cutlass With Crown Inspection Mark & Scabbard
the saleroom
The Cutlasses are on display at Stalybridge Civic Hall
19th Century British Police Cutlass Sword 74cm long overall with a 61cm long curved blade

Police Swords and Hangers.

Firstly, I should make clear the difference between the two rypes mentioned in the title.

In the police context a sword is a straight weapon, usually worn by officers on ceremonial occasions as a mark of their rank. The Thames River Police was issued with straight swords as late as 1862. These were very attractive items with polished brass handles and their blades stamped with the ‘M.P.’ cypher and the date. A hanger was a shorter, curved sword, based probably on the original naval cutlass – its blade of approximately 24 inches was held in a black leather scabbard with brass mounts top and bottom. Hangers were issued to the police, to the prison service and sometimes to Customs and Excise, and since many of them did not have markings it can be very difficult to rell them apart. Some types have a greatly curved brass handguard, whilst others are more angular. All have fishskin handgrips with wire binding, and if you are fortunate you will find the original frog attached to a brass stud near the top of the scabbard still in position. Rather like a bayonet frog, this was made of leather and had a large loop and when attached to a crossbelt was then hung over the right shoulder with the sword hanging from the left hip.   Meryn A. Mitton ‘The Policeman’s Lot’


Cutlasses, popularly known as hangers were of a standard police pattern and incorporated a safety catch to prevent loss or unauthorised release from the scabbard during a melee.

A cutlass maybe supplied to any constable who is so situated that in the opinion of two Justices, it is necessary for his own personal protection in the performance of his duty. The cutlass is to be worn at night only, or when rioting or serious public disturbance has taken place or is anticipated, or upon any sudden emergency when orders have been given by the Chief Constable.   East Suffolk Police

In the crime museum at Scotland Yard are a dozen or so cutlasses of the sort that constables once took on their patrols of Victorian London.

Arguments over whether the police should be routinely armed date to the creation of the capital’s first force by Robert Peel in 1829. Indeed, senior officers in the 19th century would often carry a side-arm.

The reason for this was set out in Peel’s principles of policing: he regarded the police as the public in uniform. Not for us the military–style Continental carabinieri of whom the general populace walk in fear and distrust. Our police, said Peel, are civilians, members of the public “who are paid to give full-time attention to duties which are incumbent upon every citizen in the interests of community welfare and existence”.  Philip Johnston

The River Police

The Thames River Police, claimed to be England’s oldest police force and was formed by Magistrate Patrick Colquhoun and Master Mariner John Harriott in 1798 to tackle theft and looting from ships anchored in the Pool of London and in the lower reaches and docks of the Thames. Pre-dating the Metropolitan Police, it merged in 1839 with that Force instigated by Robert Peel. Its base was (and remains) in Wapping High Street.

The success of the early River Police led to other Victorian Police Forces whose Policing area contained bodies of water issuing their own waterway Patrols with these types of cutlass. This is a very good Victorian Cutlass as used by Constables involved with River Policing. It has a 27” single edged blade with fuller. The blade is clean and has a sprung scabbard retaining clip at the ricasso. The blade is stamped with a Crown Inspector’s mark. Its brass hilt has grooved finger grips with bar knuckle guard & stepped pommel. The overall length of the cutlass is 32 ½”. The cutlass has its original brown leather scabbard with brass locket and chape. The scabbard retaining clip keeps the sword securely in the scabbard and functions as it should.

the saleroom   

London and Cumbria.

When the Metropolitan Police were established in 1829 it was deemed politic that they should not carry swords and firearms, but they were armed with truncheons. No one can doubt that the heavy police truncheon could be a very lethal weapon, especially when wielded in the way shown in this picture.

Moreover, the Victorian police were routinely trained in the use of cutlasses, which were then issued to the men if a riot or serious disturbance was anticipated.

Cutlasses were issued to police in Cumbria at the 1884 Cleator Moor Orange riot. There were no reports of anyone harmed by a police cutlass, but they must have helped the police deter any attack on themselves as the Orange men fired on the stone-throwing Catholics. (The only death was of a Catholic shot by the Orange men.)

Black Country Bugle

On the clear morning of 30th August 1858, over 800 Black Country miners gathered at Horseley Heath, led by Mr Joseph Linney. The men were angry. The ‘masters’ were intent on cutting wages by a shilling and the colliers were having none of it. Their strike had lasted until the Oldbury Wake, and, if forced, they’d carry on until the West Bromwich Wake at the end of the November. There were defiant speeches and loud cheers.

Around the colliers stood lines of police armed with staffs and cutlasses. They were led by Colonel Gilbert Hogg, Chief Constable of the County, assisted by Captain Seagrave, Wolverhampton’s senior police officer. The men they commanded, in their smart frock coats, pillbox or kepi hats, and military bearing, were a far cry from the early Victorian parish constables, watchmen, and lamplighters. In the 1840s these old-timers had been overwhelmed by the great numbers of men and women who had flooded into the Black Country from the countryside. Alongside the honest men looking for new opportunities for work, came thieves, pick pockets, and rabble-rousers. Public disorder became a problem. The rise of the Chartists, working men demanding the right to vote, increased the number of incidents.

Hogg’s men, armed with their staffs and cutlasses, were to be feared. Cutlass drill was an important part of a Constable’s training. Ex-Army men would earn as much as £2 on top of their pay for holding cutlass classes. Yet both staff and cutlass were weapons used sparingly. The lethal staff was only to be used ‘in self-defence’. The cutlass was to be drawn only ‘under the order of a Superior Officer’.

Gloucestershire Police

In 1842 the Home Office rules stated that cutlasses should be made available if required. In Gloucestershire cutlasses were issued to police stations and usually remained hanging on the walls.

Only one incident is recorded in the county when officers did deploy cutlasses. This was during 1895 when rioting broke out at Bisley, where a house used to home inmates from Bisley workhouse, suffering from smallpox was set on fire. At least 15 policemen were sent with cutlasses and sentences given out to rioters ranged from one month to one year’s hard labour.          Gloucestershire Police

 Leicestershire Police

The earliest officers were issued with a truncheon – some of which were painted in a manner not dissimilar to narrow-boat art today. The wooden truncheon, in its various forms, remained on personal issue until the early 1990s.

But in 1843, with the growth of the Chartist movement and the struggle for working class political rights, officers were issued with cutlasses.

100 cutlasses (a short sword with a slightly curved blade) were issued to county stations for the personal protection of officers in the performance of their duty. The Chief Constable directed that they were only to be worn at night or at a time “when rioting or serious public disorder had actually taken place or upon a sudden emergency.” In 1857, wearing of the cutlass was confined to superintendents, inspectors and sergeants on night duty. Cutlasses were withdrawn for patrol use in 1868 but not actually recalled from stations until 1950.

In 1857, wearing of the cutlass was confined to superintendents, inspectors and sergeants on night duty. The weapon was withdrawn a decade later. Leicestershire Police Force

Metropolitan Police

The Met’s Commissioners (they did not actually hold this title officially until 1839) evidently believed that only they should give authority for their officers to be armed and they had to seek the approval of the Home Secretary if the measure was to become in any way routine. The Act which created the force allowed them to ‘frame such orders and regulations as they shall deem expedient … [including] the description of arms, accoutrements and other necessaries to be furnished to them’ but only ‘subject to the approbation of one of His Majesty’s Principle Secretaries of State.’
In November 1830 the residents of Tulse Hill in Brixton in London petitioned for officers in their neighbourhood to be supplied with a sword or cutlass and ‘at least one pistol’ because ‘the men are not sufficiently protected for the fearless discharge of their duty in the dead of night in such a neighbourhood as ours’. Constable Berry had just been ‘barbarously attacked’ by two ‘ruffians’ and they were convinced that he would have been able to safely take them into custody had he been armed. It was the Home Secretary, Lord Melbourne, who ‘approved of the proposal that each Police Officer in that district should be provided with a Cutlass for his defence’ The officers would have to make do without pistols  Police Firearms Officers Association

In Manchester the escort of  Fenian prisoners was provided by the army. Nevertheless, some steps were taken to provide officers in the Met who did not have access to a firearm with a means of protection as was announced by the Illustrated London News on 19 October.

Readers were told that: ‘The frequent repetition of murderous attacks on the police in these days of Fenian fury makes it highly expedient that the civil guardians of our peace should be taught how to use more formidable weapons than the truncheon, in case of need, for the purpose of self-defence. Arrangements have, indeed, been made for the instruction of the officers of the Metropolitan Police Force in the cutlass exercise; and a portion of the groundnbelonging to the Wellington Barracks, St James’s Park, has been placed at the disposal of Sir Richard Mayne. … A squad of twenty or thirty of the police sergeants and inspectors now assemble there daily to be instructed by Inspectors Fraser and Robinson, who have already been initiated in the exercise. The sergeants and inspectors will communicate similar instruction to the constables under their command.’ Quite what use the ‘cutlass exercise’ was against men armed with revolvers is open to question and fortunately it does not seem to have been put to the test.

Victorian illustration  showing a picture of policemen of the Metropolitan Police learning cutlass drill at Wellington Barracks. They have formed two long lines. One line lunges forward in attack, the other line defends; each man has one hand on his hip with his cutlass in his other hand. Five policemen look on. All wear their uniform and helmets; three men wear capes. At this date (1860s) the police were routinely trained in the use of cutlasses, which were issued if a riot or disturbance was anticipated. These weapons were not regularly carried.

Cutlasses were held in reserve in police stations for issue when required until the early twentieth century. The last appearance of a metropolitan police cutlass, known to the authors, was in 1910 at the Tottenham Outrage.    The official encyclopaedia of Scotland Yard

Bristol Police

Bristol’s Victorian policemen were issued with a top hat, blue swallow-tailed coat, white dress trousers, cape, greatcoat and boots. Each carried a wooden truncheon in the tails of his coat.

Later on, in a scare over the Chartist agitation of the late 1840s (these dangerous radicals were making the outrageous demand that all men should have the vote) the nervous city fathers ordered a consignment of cutlasses for the police.

Bristol Police

Cardiff Police

Cutlass of police who patrolled violent Bute Dock displayed in Cardiff Museum

Into the thriving industrial heartland of Cardiff, where sailors and dock workers rubbed shoulders with criminal gangs and soldiers just returned from the bloody Crimean War, who forced to scratch a living using any means they could.

In charge of protecting this motley group were the Bute Dock Police, set up in 1858 and headed by Superintendent Daniel O’Brien Gavin, a retired military man who took no prisoners when it came to fighting crime in his grimy patch of the city.

According to historian Viv Head, of the British Transport Police History Group, at its height the Bute Dock force had some 40 officers.

He said: “Were they elite? No, quite the reverse.

“The officers were part of the local community – hard men, often ex-soldiers themselves and often fond of the drink.

“Robberies and thefts were rampant. Ships’ captains complained of being stopped and robbed by gangs, and thefts of ships’ stores were an everyday event, with both rope and chain particularly sought after.

“But anything not screwed down – and some things that were – were fair game.

“It was not unknown for a ship’s funnel to be stolen in the night and little urchins were always up for anything, especially theft of coal or food – no doubt encouraged by their families.”

It was with this in mind that the order was made to arm 20 burly officers of the Bute Dock Police with long, curving, naval-style cutlasses.

“In other police forces of the time, cutlasses were issued to officers on patrol after dark or when things were particularly violent and this may have been the case with the Bute Dock Police,” said Mr Head. WalesOnline

Fighting for food

In 1863, Lancashire was in the grip of the cotton famine, a crisis caused by the American Civil War disrupting the flow of raw cotton to the area’s mills.

With nothing to work with, many mills were shut down and the workers left with no means of income and therefore no money for food.

Stalybridge was one of the worst-hit towns. The majority of its factories and machine shops were closed and the local population became dependent on money given to them through relief schemes.

It was a pressured situation, and when the local relief committee took the decision to replace the money with ticketed hand-outs, a public meeting of Stalybridge people decided they were not going to accept the change.

On Friday 20 March 1863, the committee went to hand out the tickets but found not only did the locals not want them, they were ready to protest in the strongest of ways.

The officials were forced back onto the streets and their cabs were stoned. Once they’d been dispatched, the mob turned on the shops and depots belonging to the relief committee.

With fighting on the streets, the Riot Act was read and a company of Hussars was dispatched from Manchester. In the meantime, Stalybridge Police turned to one of their most extreme weapons: a set of cutlasses they had for use in case of emergency.

The combination of threat and strength quelled the disturbance and 80 men were arrested.

The cutlasses were used again during the Murphy Riots of 1866. Irishman Murphy travelled the country lecturing against the Roman Catholic Church. Fierce disturbances broke out wherever he lectured and his visit to Stalybridge ended in rioting. Amid the disturbances a Murphy supporter was shot, allegedly by a priest.    BBC News Manchester


Par/Const James Beech Died 4 August 1843. Fatally stabbed with his own cutlass attempting to arrest armed poachers.

Cutlasses were held in reserve in police stations for issue when required until the early twentieth century. The last appearance of a metropolitan police cutlass, known to the authors, was in 1910 at the Tottenham Outrage.    The official encyclopaedia of Scotland Yard

This, as far as we know, the last time the cutlass was employed in England.



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