Law And Order in Nineteenth Century Tewkesbury, Part 2

by Janet Devereux

In 1840 a document was published which gives an interesting insight into the working of the local constabulary. It was the handbook of the Tewkesbury Constabulary, containing instructions for both the Superintendent and his constables. Printed by 'Jenner, Printer, Tewkesbury', it is A5 size and convenient for the officers to handle. The background to what was happening in the Borough in 1840 is recorded in James Bennett's invaluable 'Tewkesbury Register', which may be consulted in the Local Studies section of Tewkesbury Library, for reference only. 

We know that the Municipal Corporation Act required the town to maintain a police force, which had been set up at the Town Hall since 1839. In 1869 it merged with the County Police Force. The former prison on the Bredon road became a police station. In 1840 there would have been a superintendent and four constables, for a population of 5,861 people, according to the census of 1841. Most of these were tightly congregated into the alleyways off the old main streets, and there were also the new developments in the Oldbury. To visualise the town of the time, we must mentally ease the modern estates of Mitton, Northway, Priors Park and Newtown from the map of the area. 

Stage coaches still regularly carried passengers, but it is of interest that the value of the collections at the toll gates of Mitton/Bredon, Ashchurch/Aston, Lower Lode, Mythe, Strensham, etc., was only £3,233.0s.0d., £1,166 less than it had been when let in 1839. 'This extraordinary reduction was occasioned by the opening of the Birmingham and Gloucester railway,' concludes Bennett, our chronicler. The town had recovered from the alarming visitation of cholera in 1832. The workhouse was fully operational with 169 inmates, and a new Anglican church, Holy Trinity, had been built in 1837 in the Oldbury Road. An unusually wet period, from August 1839 to February 1840, with frequent floods, had prevented farmers from operating, and 'a great depression in trade and manufactures' in the subsequent winter led charitable people to subscribe £359.0s.0d. to distribute coal and bread to 'every poor family'. 

In 1840 the Superintendent of Police had control of the constables, and was responsible to a Watch Committee, keeping a Report Book to produce at meetings of the Committee. He was to 'observe the conduct of all loose, disorderly and suspected persons within the Borough to whom he was to make it evident that they were known and watched.' Charles Dickens records a remarkable night spent in the worst slums of London in the company of the famous Chief Inspector Field, a Chief Superintendent of the Metropolitan Police and Constable Rogers. The Constable and Inspector Field knew and were known by the most notorious villains, who trembled when addressed by him, and held him in the utmost respect. 'He had felt the collars of most of them there, and had guided many of their brothers, sisters, fathers, friends inexorably towards New South Wales'! Whether the local Superintendent here was able to exercise equal power we do not know. 

An account of a fatal accident on the railway in Tewkesbury in May 1840 refers to a former superintendent of the Tewkesbury Police, William Coles, as working on the railway in that year. He and another well-respected local man, William Davis, a former ferryman at Lower Lode, were killed because the engine driver 'was found to be in a state of intoxication' and caused the engine to go out of control in the Oldbury, having travelled down from Bredon, when a stationary wagon formed an obstruction on the line. The train was travelling at ten miles an hour, and so powerful was the shock that a load of iron bars on the stationary wagon was displaced onto people travelling on a tender in front of the engine, who were crushed to death. The local police remanded the driver. An inquest, with jury,'was held on view of the Coroner of the Borough, George Tate, which lasted nearly two days.... The jury returned a verdict of manslaughter against Joseph Howden, the engine driver, who was committed to gaol on the Coroner's warrant.' (At Gloucester Assizes, however, the Grand Jury discharged him.) 

One of the duties of the Superintendent was to inspect the inns and beer-houses, to check for after-midnight opening and any disorderly conduct. 'He is to visit all Inns and Beer- houses within the Borough during Divine Service every Sunday morning, and enforce a due observance of the law in respect thereof.' This was a demanding task, in view of the large number of such establishments then in the town! He was also obliged to attend any 'alarm of fire within the Borough,' sending the fire engines and helping with the removal and safe-keeping of property. The main part of the handbook sets out the duties of the constables, and also gave them the outline of the laws concerning what constituted arrestable offences, both felonies and misdemeanours. 

His duties included possessing 'such a knowledge of the inhabitants of each house, as will enable him to recognise their persons...' All his duty must be carried out in silence. He may 'spring his rattle' if he requires immediate assistance. He may only enter a house or talk to people on matters immediately relating to his duty. This is particularly stressed with regard to inns and beer-houses. 'He must preserve a perfect command of temper, never suffering himself to be moved in the slightest degree by any language or threats that may be used.

The constable had an established 'beat' around the borough, but this would be varied by the Superintendent from time to time. The duties included the hours of night, of course. An unusual night's work occurred for some of them in July (the month, incidentally, when workmen at a lias quarry on Brockeridge Common discovered the most perfect skeleton of the ichthyrosaurus yet found). 'Van Amburgh', the celebrated lion-tamer, exhibited his royal collection of trained animals, beneath a large pavilion in Swilgate Meadow. 'They included giraffe, monkey, elephant, lion, tiger and leopard.' The most remarkable part of the exhibition, however, took place during the night which succeeded. At about two o'clock... 'this mountain of living flesh (the elephant) broke open the house in which he had been confined, and privately and steadily perambulated the streets and lanes of the town, unmindful alike of the affrighted policeman whom he occasionally encountered, and the screams of the females whom he awakened from their slumbers. After nearly demolishing one of the walls of his prison, and making his exit through two strongly-barred doors, he strode from his quarters at the Plough (now Lloyds), up High Street, and from thence into Smith's Lane, where he tore up a large lime tree, growing against the house of a respectable widow lady, whose family he greatly alarmed, and at a neighbouring cottage he devoured a cask of wash and grains, which had been set aside for the pigs. After this, he was attracted by the pleasant smell of a large brewery, and squeezed himself between the walls of a narrow passage which led to it: he was unsuccessful in his attempt to taste the inviting beverage, but tore up some fruit trees, and frightened the inhabitants of the houses around. The police had by this time aroused his keepers, who led him back to his quarters, and soon afterwards marched him off to Worcester.' 

'The first duty of a constable is always to prevent the commission of a crime,' This enabled him to arrest anyone whom he had just cause to suspect of being about to commit a felony. 'Thus when a drunken person or a man in a violent passion threatens the life of another, the Constable should interfere and arrest. He should arrest anyone having 'any implement with intent feloniously to break into any building; or any person armed with any gun, pistol, cutlass, bludgeon or offensive weapon.'

That some persons were ready to use such weapons had been, sadly, demonstrated by a shocking incident which occurred on a January evening in 1840, on the dark road between Coombe Hill and Cheltenham. The case aroused great interest and police investigation during 1840 and 1841: 

'A daring highway robbery and attempt at murder occurred in this neighbourhood, the perpetrator of which has never been discovered, although large rewards were promptly offered for his apprehension and conviction. The unfortunate sufferer was an industrious and honest young man, named Richard Yarworth, the son ofa quarry-man and stone-merchant of Dean Pool, near Colefordt in the Forest of Dean; who had been to Worcester for the purpose of collecting money due to his father, and was returning home by one of the Birmingham and Bristol coaches. Near the Blue Bells turnpike-gate, a man got inside the coach and rode to Tewkesbury, when he then took his station on the outside, and sat next to Mn Yarworth, who in the course of conversation said, that it was not his intention to proceed farther by coach than Comb Hill, where he meant to alight, and proceed on foot to Cheltenham, a distance of about five miles. The stranger observed, that he was also going to Cheltenham, and would gladly walk with him. Accordingly they both left the coach at Comb Hill, and having taken some refreshment together, commenced their journey, about seven o'clock in the evening. After travelling a little way, Mr Yarworth's companion suddenly exclaimed 'stand,' at the same moment discharging his pistol at him, the ball from which, after grazing his ear, entered the neck, and passed round to the back of the skull: perceiving that he had not succeeded in depriving his victim of life, the assassin discharged another pistol, and the ball, in this case, entered the right side. Mn Yarworth fell prostrate on the road; and his assailant reloaded one of the pistols, but did not fire again. After rifling his pockets of 461.9s. in money, 231.5s. in bills of exchange, and a silver watcht the robber dragged him to the side of the road, and hastily walked away. The spot at which this murderous attack was made is about midway between Knightsbridge Gate and Piff s Elm, in a much-frequented turnpike road; the wounded body was consequently soon found by some passers-by, and conveyed to the public house at Piffs Elm (now the Gloucester Old Spot). Here he lay, in a distressing and dangerous state, for a long period; and it was not until the middle of April that he even so far recovered as to be capable of being removed to his fathers house. ' 

A subscription collected £190 for him, from sympathetic people in Tewkesbury, Cheltenham, Gloucester, Coleford and the inn at Piff's Elm. 'Sadly, Richard Yarworth expired on August 8, 1840.' Tile crime was now murder. A certain William Bowen, who was sworn to have been the man who walked towards Cheltenham with Yanvorth, by the daughter and niece of the landlord of the Swan Inn, was charged and held in custody. After repeated postponements of the trial, he was acquitted in the spring of 1841, only to be transported for fifteen years for a daring robbery -committed elsewhere on the day of the attack on Yarworth. (A good alibi, but it did not save him from some penalty. It saved him from the gallows, however, which presumably would have been his fate had he been found guilty of murdering Yarworth. Bennett seems gratified that he was punished for something.) 

At this time, punishment for violence less serious than murder was often less severe than for offences against property. Kellow Chesney, in 'The Victorian Underworld', relates a case of shocking violence which occurred in 1840 'near Gloucester'. A beat up a girl so badly that she lost an eye, broke her nose and induced concussion of the brain, then kicked her prostrate body violently. After this he hurled her over a parapet to a ten-foot drop. ne man was sentenced to twelve months hard labour. In an industrial town he might not have been prosecuted at all. 

This case was compared to that of a publican who stole some tripe and cowheel pie, worth ninepence, and who was sentenced to gaol. Also, as a convicted felon, he forfeited his property. The case was reported in The Times in November 1840. Even violence against the police was not treated severely. A man who attacked a policeman from behind, disabling him for life, was imprisoned for only a year.

Some violence in furtherance of a 'good cause' was thought to be justified by respectable people like James Bennett and the more affluent residents of Tewkesbury. He records that 'in February, this town, as well as Gloucester, Cheltenham and the surrounding villages, had for many months been annoyed with an infamous weekly penny publication, entitled 'Paul Pry'. Bennett's observations on what ensued speak for themselves: 

'It was printed at Cheltenham, and like similar periodicals circulated at that time in other parts of the kingdom. was regularly filled with low scandal, scurrility and base innuendos and falsehoods - the humblest and most exalted, the profligate and the virtuous, being alike the objects of its vulgar attacks. A number of this work. issued on the 7th of February, contained some satirical and coarse remarks on certain respectable individuals in this borough; and as the local agent refused to give any information respecting the author of the offensive articles, he was most severely horsewhipped by the maligned parties. The enraged assailants afterwards proceeded in a chaise to Cheltenham, and having gained admittance to the office of the printer two of them inflicted similar chastisement upon the delinquent typographer, while two others kept guard at the outer door, to prevent his neighbours from hastening to his rescue. This summary proceeding at once put a stop to these nuisances; and as a proof that the townspeople approved of the punishment which the printer and publisher of the 'Paul Pry' experienced, the costs of the prosecution for assault were met by a subscription.' 

Members of the public were obliged by law to assist the Constable if he requested their help. Some slum areas in England were virtually •no-go' areas for the police in these times, but it seems that even the worst areas of Tewkesbury, like Double Alley, were open to normal legal procedures, especially when suspicious death occurred. No doubt the police would have been involved before the Coroner and doctors were summoned to the hovel which featured in this rather macabre incident, which obviously horrified and fascinated the local worthies: 

'Considerable excitement was manifested in this borough, occasioned by the death ofa poor decrepit old woman, named Hester Evans, under circumstances which led to a rumour that she had been murdered by her fellow-lodger, Elizabeth Lane. The parties jointly occupied a wretched up-stairs apartment, in a house inhabited by several families, in a passage called the Double Alley, leading from High-Street into the Oldbury. Evans, who was in her 86th year had been afflicted with two paralytic attacks, and was much enfeebled in mind and body; and Lane, who was in her 64th year, had been a cripple for a long period. and although not deficient in a degree of cunning, was nearly as imbecile in mind as the other. They were both widows and both paupers: the former belonged to the parish of Dymock, and the latter to Hanley Castle. An inquest was held on view of the body, before George Tate. Esq. coroner for the borough, and a highly respectable jury, at the Town Hall, in the afternoon o/ the same day; when it appeared that Lane and the deceased slept together, and that they quarrelled almost every night when they were in bed, as well as frequently in the day time; that on the morning previously to Evans's death, they quarrelled from about half-past four to nearly six o' clock, calling each other by the most opprobrious names, and biting each other' s fingers. A post mortem examination of the body was made by Mr. J.N.Thomas; who stated that no external or internal appearance of violence whatever was discernible, except a mark on one of the fingers; and that he believed that the immediate cause of the death of the deceased was from an extraordinary quantity of water in the pericardium, or bag of the heart. The jury, after a lengthened investigation, returned a verdict that Hester Evans 'Died of Dropsy of the pericardium; and that her death was accelerated by the violent exertion and excitement consequent upon a quarrel between her and a woman named Elizabeth Lane.' The apathy and entire want of feeling displayed by Lane (who had, indeed, at different periods of her life, witnessed with little concern both a husband and a son transported for sheep stealing,) was in the present case most extraordinary: she not only prepared her own breakfast, but ate it by the side of the yet warm corpse of her late bed-fellow; and while the surgeon and his attendants were engaged in opening and examining the body, she cooked and ate her dinner, with the most perfect unconcern, in the same room in which the operation was performed!' 

This, however, shows that great care and concern were exhibited in the death of even the most humble members of the town. At this time there were places in London where dead bodies would lie among the living occupants of the humblest lodgings, such was the degradation of the lowest members of society. 

The constable had the right to break into houses in cases of extreme need, such as pursuing an accused person, or to stop people fighting furiously inside, but in general he had to wait until he had a warrant from a magistrate. This protected the public in the modern manner. 

If the constable saw a person exhibiting obscene prints in the street, or exposing himself before females, he had to arrest him. He had to apprehend 'every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner' There were certainly some of that profession in Tewkesbury in the 1830's, because their occupation is listed besides the names of victims of the cholera. Begging, or encouraging children to beg, in public laid people liable to arrest, as were those exhibiting wounds or deformities to solicit money. This had been common after the end of the Napoleonic Wars, when wounded ex-soldiers were sometimes in dire need. 

If the constable found people lodging in outhouses, unoccupied buildings, in the open air or in tents, not having a visible means of subsistence, and not giving a good account of himself or herself,' he had bring them before a magistrate. Fraudulent charity collectors, and people betting or playing games of chance in public were also breaking the law. 

The constable was reminded, however, that in all cases he must treat a prisoner properly, and 'impose only such constraint upon him as may be necessary for his safe custody.' Prisoners should be taken to a magistrate as soon as possible. Thus the standards which we expect in modern times were laid down for the first municipal police forces. 

The attitude of the public to law-breakers had gradually changed. By the 1840's the pillory, roadside gibbets, stocks and the flogging of women, such as the case in 1800, had been abandoned. The unwillingness of juries to convict those whom the infamous 'Bloody Code' of hanging for trivial offences would have sent to the gallows, helped to change the law. Public hangings. though fewer in number, still occurred, however. In 1847 Charles Dickens witnessed the death of a husband and wife, and was shocked by the attitude of the mob assembled to enjoy the spectacle. 'The conduct of the people was so indescribably frightful that I felt....that I was living in a city of devils.' Some aspects of law and order seem similar to our own day, others quite alien. The Home Office laid down standards for the new police forces, mostly modelled on 'the Met'. The fact that subsidies for the forces depended on the Watch Committees being satisfied that they were conforming to government standards has a modern ring to it. The new police were literate, respected public servants who gradually brought the rule of law more fully into force. Their frock coats and top hats were preferred to the dragoons who dealt with riots in 1831, charging down Tewkesbury High Street on their horses. Townsmen could not be expected to act as Special Constables to patrol the streets every night for two months as they had done in 1830, during a time of exceptional disturbances. The permanent constable with his book of rules, answerable to the Watch Committee and the Home Office, was to be the preferred way forward in the attempt to protect the community from 1835 onwards.