Devon Constabulary (1856 - 1966)


For many years up until the mid 19th Century the policing of Devonshire fell to the unpaid, locally-appointed parish constables in its numerous villages and towns or to paid and uniformed borough and city policemen in the larger areas of population. However, the County Police Acts of 1839 and 1840 laid down requirements nationally for counties to adopt properly run county constabularies and eventually in 1856 it was this that led to the creation of the Devon Constabulary.

1 January 1857

On 1 January 1857, Gerald de Courcy Hamilton emerged as leader of the new police force for the county of Devon and he immediately set about recruiting. Applicants for the force came overwhelmingly from serving members of the Bristol City Police; largely Devon-born men who wanted to be policemen but couldn’t find employment in the smaller municipal borough constabularies across the county.

By February 1857

By February, the strength of the Devon Constabulary was 127 men, consisting of Hamilton, four superintendents, two inspectors, twelve sergeants and one-hundred and eight constables. Training was administered in the courtyard at Exeter Castle, with classroom tuition provided at the Exeter Ragged School.

Trained to use a sword

New constables were trained in the use of swords and uniforms were provided by Messrs Hibberd & Son, army contractors in London.

HQ at home

Headquarters, at least temporarily, was located at Hamilton’s own house! This was an arrangement simply could not last, and at the 1858 meeting of the Police Committee, Hamilton complained that he could not continue to use his home as the base of operations, for the small office space he occupied was damaging his maps!

Absorption

Over time, the Devon Constabulary grew to absorb the smaller borough constabularies that had existed since 1836. Dartmouth, Honiton, Stonehouse and Torquay were absorbed in 1857, followed by Okehampton and Bradninch in 1860 and 1866 respectively. Torrington Borough Police volunteered itself for amalgamation in 1870, South Molton in 1878 and Totnes in 1884.

Local Government Act 1888

The Local Government Act 1888 forcibly merged the Bideford Borough Police with the county, leaving only Barnstaple, Exeter and Tiverton independent by the turn of the 20th century. The Barnstaple Borough Police was absorbed in 1921 and Tiverton in 1942.

Devon Constabulary and Exeter

On 1 April 1966, after a public enquiry, the Devon Constabulary and Exeter City Police were combined and became the ‘Devon & Exeter Police.’ It was the end of an era for both forces, and only a year later the arrangement was superseded by the most dramatic chapter in the history of West Country policing, when the Devon & Exeter Police, the Plymouth City Police and the Cornwall Constabulary were united under the banner of the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary.

This of course marked the end of an era in the policing of Devon, although, as in many other instances, the badges and uniforms of the old Devon county force were not to vanish from daily use until several years later.

Selection of images

Senior officers of the Devon Constabulary from a drawing of 1871.

Senior officers of the Devon Constabulary from a drawing of 1871. The officers wore the distinctive pill box hat for many years, along with frock coats.

Most superintendents were allocated a constable to act as groom for their horses. This constable would still be responsible for routine patrol duties in the same manner as his colleagues.

A sergeant and three constables also dated about 1871

A sergeant and three constables also dated about 1871. These officers wore the low brimmed hat with chin strap as well as long frock coats. The constables often wore haversacks to carry essentials whilst they walked their long beats and also had a truncheon hung from their belt as can be seen from the officer to the right.

A family

Constable John Cousins and family, circa 1897 (below left). This remarkable family photograph was taken in the rear yard of the Halwill police cottage, near Holsworthy. Constable Cousins is pictured with his wife, Ann, and their eight daughters. The girls' names and years of birth are, from left to right: Annie 1885, Violet 1886, Florrie 1888, Minnie 1889, Katie 1891, Hetty 1892, Louisa 1894 and Margaret 1896. The following year the family moved to Tawstock near Barnstaple where two boys were born - Jack in 1898 and Charles in 1899.

New 'Pickelhaub' helmets

Pictured in about 1879 in their new 'Pickelhaub' helmets are Sergeant James Richards and Constables Robert Brock, James Mitchell, George Frost (standing, left to right), William Piller and Charles Gidley.

Torquay 'F' Division, circa 1899

Torquay 'F' Division, circa 1899 (below left © Mrs Frances Peek). For over a century the Torquay division was always the F division right up until the modern times of Devon & Cornwall Constabulary. This photograph is typical of the size of such a division with senior officers still in their pill box caps. The gentleman in the bowler hat is a detective. In the rear row, second from the left, is a young Constable Potter, the great grandson of the last parish constable at Abbotskerswell. It was one of his daughters who was the prison warderess who sat with Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in Britain, on the eve of her execution.

The Barnstaple Division, 1903

The Barnstaple Division, 1903 (below right). The Devon Constabulary had a superintendent at Barnstaple in charge of the North Devon A division, although at this time there was still a Barnstaple Borough Police. The borough force took care of the town of Barnstaple and the constable of the Devon Constabulary stationed at Barnstaple, with his superintendent, did local duties and acted as groom.

Exeter Division, late 1903

Exeter Division, late 1903. Although there was an Exeter City Police force, the Devon Constabulary's X division was based in Exeter (which had the status of a county borough) and policed the city's outskirts.

By late 1903 the old 'Pickelhaub' helmets had fallen from favour, being too similar to the Prussian military helmet, and the Boar War bush hat (or slouch hat as it was known) was brought into use instead. Devon Constabulary was one of only four forces in the country to use this style of hat. Note also the officer's number and divisional letter still being worn on collars.

The King Edward VII helmet plate badge

The King Edward VII helmet plate badge. This would have appeared on the slouch hats, on the turned-up side, and also on the helmets which were reintroduced a few years into the reign of Edward VII. (image © Jeff Cowdell)

Constable 28 Fred Phillips and his wife Gertrude

Constable 28 Fred Phillips and his wife Gertrude, pictured below left, in about 1909 outside their Otterton village police thatched cottage (in the X division) in East Devon. Constable Phillips is seen with his new, much-prized silver pedal cycle. He had come into some money from an inheritance and decided to make his life a little easier by investing in a new cycle. Unfortunately his superintendent had not taken kindly to a constable coming into such wealth and decided to forbid him from riding it. The superintendent had decided that such a distinctive cycle would indicate the presence of the constable and be detrimental to efficient police duties!

Constable 296 Rowland E. Hoare

Constable 296 Rowland E. Hoare, pictured outside his police cottage in about 1914, in the L (Holsworthy) division, accompanied by his wife, Laura, and son, also named Rowland. By this time the tradition of having inverted chevrons on the sleeves of constables' tunics had been stopped, as otherwise Constable Hoare's grade as a first-class constable would have been denoted by two inverted chevrons.

From Constable Hoare's service record, held at the police archives in Exeter, it can be seen that when he joined the Devon Constabulary on 29 November 1904 he was a third-class constable and would then have worn the bush hat style of head dress. On 29 November 1906 he was appointed a second-class constable, which would be similar to an officer of today completing his probationary period, before becoming a first-class constable on his fourth anniversary of joining the force. He retired with 26 years service in 1930, after having been awarded the class of 'merit' in 1919 for meritorious service as opposed to length of service.

self-defence lessons to the young daughter of a publican.

The well-trained rural beat constable could turn his hand to the most unusual of duties as this officer in South Devon clearly displays in the late 1920s. Here Constable George Davis is providing self-defence lessons to the young daughter of a publican.
(image © Mrs Anne Blight)

arch

Commander Evangeline Booth, 1925. The handwriting on the reverse of this photograph states: "Commander Evangeline Booth at Torquay Police Station, where she was arrested with other members of the Salvation Army 37 years ago for playing their instruments in the street on Sunday". However the Devon Weekly Times of 11 May 1888 had reported the initial incident involving the arrest and prosecution of Miss Booth for leading a procession in the harbour area of the town, with instruments, contrary to the Harbour Act.

The photograph itself clearly shows the Devon Constabulary sign bearing the word superintendent, this rank being that of the senior officer stationed at Torquay - headquarters for the division.

Foot and Mouth tyre disinfection

Constable 'Tiny' Turner operates a stirrup pump whilst Constable Hancox disinfects a motor car at a farm where an outbreak of Foot and Mouth had occurred.

last helmet plate badge worn by officers of Devon Constabulary

The last helmet plate badge worn by officers of Devon Constabulary up until its amalgamation into Devon & Exeter Police (below right). At that time the Devon Constabulary officers retained their old shoulder numbers for a few months and also kept the helmet plate badge of their old force until the new Devon & Cornwall Constabulary was created, although the Devon county helmet badge was still worn by some of the officers for several years after the amalgamation.

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