Cornwall Constabulary (1857 - 1967)

Unlike the older borough police forces created in 1836 after the 'Municipal Corporation Act' of 1835, the Cornwall County Constabulary did not come about until 1857. Until that time it was felt that the borough forces and the locally-appointed parish constables in the rural areas could manage the general policing requirements of the county.

1856 a discussion in Bodmin

Esteemed members of the Cornish judiciary met at Bodmin in November 1856 to discuss the formation of the Cornwall Constabulary and decided on a force numbering 178 constables under Colonel Walter Raleigh Gilbert. The building of the force, conducted by Gilbert, two superintendents and a sergeant major, was a troubled process. Gilbert set almost impossibly high standards for recruits and many did not meet the requirements. By the summer of 1857, the force was only at half-strength, drawing criticism from the Bodmin Magistrates who ordered a more lenient approach. Gilbert revisited parishes across the county and found that many of those he had rejected had instead been snapped up by the local militia for much better pay, and it took until 1861 before the Cornwall Constabulary was at full strength.

Colonel Gilbert

Colonel Gilbert was a man of proud lineage – descended from an old Cornish family and directly related to Sir Humphrey Gilbert who was a half-brother to Sir Walter Raleigh. Police forces of the era had a preference for drafting in experienced military men as chief constables; Britain was almost always at war in the 19th century and the installation of officers with military experience was desirable in the face of continued threat of invasion by Napoleon.  


With the force headquartered in Bodmin, Gilbert placed heavy pressure on the Bodmin Borough Police to merge with the county, and on 22nd October 1866, after a public inquiry, its three-man force finally succumbed to his whims. Further amalgamations occurred in the 1870s and 1880s; Liskeard in 1877 and Launceston in 1883, both voluntarily until the harsh terms of the Local Government Act 1888 forced boroughs with a population of less than 10,000 to abolish their police forces, bringing an end to the Falmouth, Helston, Penryn and St Ives constabularies.

Aged 83, the oldest policeman?

Gilbert died in office in 1896, aged 83; possibly the oldest ever police officer. One of his final acts was greeting the 2nd Berkshire Regiment in Penzance town when both the Cornwall Constabulary and Penzance Borough Police united with the military to quell a ‘fish riot’ that had endured for two whole days.

World wars

Throughout both world wars, many Cornish constables were injured or killed abroad or on home soil. The air raids of 1941 and 1942 left many casualties and when American troops arrived in Cornwall in preparation for the liberation of France, the Cornwall Constabulary found itself steeped in disorder caused by foreign troops.

By order of the Home Secretary, the Cornwall Constabulary absorbed the Penzance and Isles of Scilly police forces on 1st April 1947.

1967 the joining of the counties

The county police itself was amalgamated with the Devon and Plymouth constabularies on 1st June 1967, bringing an end to over a century of independent policing in the county of Cornwall. Nevertheless, evidence of the old uniforms still being worn by many of the former Cornwall county officers remained for some years, since they were keen to retain a degree of pride and identity with the old county force.

A collection of images

One of the first officers to serve

One of the first officers to serve in the new Cornwall Constabulary, seen here wearing the uniform of the day, which comprised a frock coat and top hat. The uniform at that time followed closely with the style of the uniform of the old borough forces which, in themselves, were often modelled on the old uniforms of the Metropolitan Police.

The Redruth Borough stocks seen in about 1860

The Redruth town stocks seen in about 1860. It is an interesting quirk of history to note that this method of punishment was never repealed by Act of Parliament, but its last recorded use in Great Britain was in about 1865, in Rugby, not long after this photograph was taken. The officers are of the newly-formed Cornwall Constabulary, and are pictured outside their station in the town. From the expression on the faces of the officers, and indeed, that of the unfortunate young man, it might tend to suggest that the photograph could have been taken as a final, slightly tongue-in-cheek reminder of the use of the stocks, rather than a record of them being used 'in anger.'

Sergeant Major George Piddick

Sergeant Major George Piddick was appointed in 1857 at the very start of the Cornwall Constabulary. He is seen here (below left) on the lawn of Priory House at Bodmin teaching the young daughters of Colonel Gilbert, the Chief Constable, how to perform 'staff drill.'

Cornwall County officer circa 1878

Cornwall Constabulary officer, circa 1878. This photograph shows the new style of helmet which replaced the top hat and which was being brought into use nationally as other police forces developed their uniform styles. It was based upon the military helmet of the day and, although many forces had slight variations, the general style was very similar. Well over a century later this style of helmet, with a little variation, is still used in the county. The constable, however, is still wearing the old pattern tunic, which took a little longer to develop and change, with his number still on his collar alongside the Victorian crown. To this day, the officer's identification number, although now worn on the shoulder epaulette, is still referred to as a 'collar number'. This is a small throwback to our constabulary forebears, which many regard as an important aspect of tradition and individual identity of the police service.

Superintendent W. H. Beare

Superintendent W. H. Beare, the Deputy Chief Constable of Cornwall, on his horse at Headquarters, Bodmin in about 1900.

Sergeant Thomas Hall and his wife

Sergeant Thomas Hall, and his wife, pictured upon his promotion on 29th November 1891 (image © H. M. Hall). By now sergeants wore their chevrons on their upper arms, but were still to have no numbers on their uniforms for many years. Sergeant Hall had joined the Cornwall force on 25th August 1865, but he had also served on attachment to several of the borough forces in Cornwall, namely Bodmin, Penzance, Helston and Truro. He retired on 4th May 1895, after 30 years service.

Cottage fire

Cottage fire circa 1897

Cottage fire, circa 1897. Then, as now, police work had its fair share of tragedy. In this photograph a constable is pictured leaning on his cycle, in company with his sergeant, at the scene of a cottage fire. Its location is not known, but it was clearly a significant event in the village to warrant this fine picture being taken. With relatively primitive fire-fighting equipment in the 19th Century, most cottage fires in villages resulted in the dwelling being totally destroyed before any help could arrive at the location.

A crash

Road accident circa 1904

Road accident, circa 1904. The age of the motor car certainly brought with it added work for the local constabulary. Here, Inspector K. Miller of Wadebridge and Constable Pomery deal with a horse killed by a car at Halfway, St. Issey, near Wadebridge. The officers' cycles rest in the nearby hedge, while Constable Pomery rests in the back of the offending car. What Inspector Miller's more modern-day counterpart might make of cycling to an accident, let alone allowing his constable to take a 'nap' in the back of the involved vehicle, remains to be guessed at!

Motorcycle officer

Motorcycle officer, circa 1934. One of the first motorcycle patrol officers is seen here on a Sunbeam Lion motorcycle at Red Post, near Bude.

Bodmin Crash

Bodmin accident

Road accident, circa 1909. This early road traffic accident on Bodmin Moor, near the village of Minions, clearly shows the increased dangers that the age of the new motor car brought.

A king's crown 'garter' type badge of the Cornwall Constabulary

A king's crown 'garter' type badge of the Cornwall Constabulary. The wording of 'County Constabulary' was favoured by many forces at this time. Many other helmet plate badges were plain in the centre, but this one shows the 15 bazants of Cornwall. (image © Jeff Cowdell)

Early helmet plate badge

A more modern version of the badge now showing the words 'Cornwall Constabulary'. As helmet plate badges developed, greater local identity was created. (image © Jeff Cowdell)

The Judge's escort

The Judge's escort The Assize Court

The Assize Court (later to become the Crown Court) was held at Bodmin, and its judges were entitled to have officers escort them from the nearby parish church across to the court. These escorting officers, with their distinctive staffs, were known as 'Javelin men' and were under the command of a sergeant. Seen here in about 1950, this tradition existed for many years.

Cornwall's first police car

Cornwall's first police car - an Austin 10 with 'dickie-seat' at the rear. Taken in the vicinity of a road accident near Bodmin Asylum in September 1936, the photograph also shows Inspector Sloman (on the right), Constable 99 Albert Clark - Cornwall's first motor patrol officer - and, in the helmet, Constable Rodney Thomas. (image © Charles L. Clark)

new star pattern of helmet plate badge

The queen's crown helmet plate and crests of the last officers to proudly wear the Cornwall Constabulary uniform (image © Dave Wilkinson).

The queen's crown helmet plate and crests

The new 'star' pattern of helmet plate badge was adopted by the Cornwall Constabulary after the 1939-1945 war, although in these examples the 15 bazants of Cornwall still appear with the king's crown. The slight differences in the wording, while seemingly insignificant, are nevertheless important to those in organisations such as the Police Insignia Collectors Association, who collect the thousands of helmet plate badges of forces throughout the country. (image © Jeff Cowdell)

The superintendent outside Falmouth station with his two sergeants and constables

The superintendent outside Falmouth station with his two sergeants and constables (image © Ret'd Superintendent C. D. Phillips) taken around the  1920s. As can be seen, the sergeants still wore no collar numbers and only had their chevrons on their right arms. The circular badge on the arm, incidentally, was the St. John's First Aid badge which most police forces had on their uniforms at this time. (The old red embroidered cloth numbers and crown on the left breast had been dispensed with by the Cornwall force prior to the Great War in favour of returning to collar numbers. Instead of the original crown beside the number, however, the crest of Cornwall appears for the first time. In addition, the helmet plate badge has now changed to chrome, and the constables are wearing service chevrons.)

When officers joined and were in their probationary period they wore no chevrons on their left cuff, but as they gained more service they became third, second and first-class constables. The officer seated on the left is a first-class constable with three stripes on his cuff. As in the majority of forces, the whistle chain goes to the left breast pocket.

The medal ribbons of some of the younger officers are from the Great War, which had not long since ended. The more senior officers, on the other hand, may well not have been called up for service, therefore no ribbons are shown on their tunics.

The ornate iron railings and illuminated sign over the front door were removed during the 1939-1945 war for smelting.

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