Brian Moseley, Plymouth
Webpage created: August 27, 2019
Webpage updated: October 17, 2020




Long before our modern police service was set the enforcement of law and order in parishes was set up by the Statute of Winchester in the year 1285.  This obliged communities to look after their own law and order and introduced the Parish Constable.

In towns such as Plymouth this was achieved by setting up a system known as Watch and Ward.  The Watch was the name given to the men who guarded the town gates and walls at night.  Any wrongdoers caught during the night were then handed over to the Parish Constable in the morning.  Their daytime duties were called the Ward.  The constables carried a bell in the earliest days, a rattle later, with which to rouse the inhabitants and they called out the time and the weather at frequent intervals.

Two other implications of the Statute of Winchester were the system called the Hue and Cry, whereby a person wishing to make an arrest could call on the men, and presumably women, to join him in the chase, and the requirement that all men between the ages of 15 and 60 had to own a weapon with which to help keep the peace.  It is recorded that in 1572 Plymothians were asked to provide themselves with clubs.

This ancient system of law enforcement did not change until 1770 when Plymouth and Plymouth Dock started to promote local Acts of Parliament authorising the collection of rates to pay for street lighting and men to watch the Towns at night.

Plymouth's paving, lighting and watching Act provided for one corporal and eight men to watch between 10pm and 4am between Lady-Day and Michaelmas, the corporal being paid 12d and the men 8d each per night.  From Michaelmas to Lady-Day there were to be eleven men and a corporal on duty from 10pm until 6am, the men getting 9d each per night at this time of the year.

One of the men was always to be stationed at the Mayor's house and another at the Guildhall, where they were to be relieved every hour.   The remainder were to be alternately patrolling the town, and no fewer than three of them must be on patrol at any one time.  They were to be armed with a halberd each and a bell and were to call the hour and weather throughout the night.  In addition to this, it was considered that there should be six men on Ward (or day-time duty) on a Sunday at a payment of 4d each, as part of their duties was to visit the inns, taverns and beer shops to ensure that the Sabbath was maintained.

There were two corporals, who had charge of the watch-house, the coal and the candles, and four sets of men.

And who paid for this service?  The inhabitants.  The cost of the service as set up was calculated to be 151 3s 3d and at a Watch Committee meeting on November 25th 1766 it was resolved: 'That each person in the town shall pay by quarterly instalments four shillings a year for the watch, and on default thereof to be summoned legally to watch, and in case such person do not watch pursuant to such summons at the ensuing sessions a bill of indictment be prepared'.

Plymouth Dock likewise obtained a paving, cleansing and watching Act in 1781 and added further powers in 1814 such that the original Act was repealed.

A list of Plymouth's Constables was published in 1812 in the local directory "A Picture of Plymouth", which shows that the men sworn in were from all walks of life in the Town and from almost every part of Plymouth.   It is quoted below, with spellings as originally published:

John Sweet, Sherriff's Officer, Market Street
John Williams, bookbinder, Old Town
Francis Suly, mason, Jubilee Street
Robert Elliott, grocer, Barbican
John Bickell, carpenter, Southside Street
William Lawek, taylor, Woolster Street
Edward Ludlow, baker, Britonside
William Brown, carpenter, Jubilee Street
James Beedle, grocer, Barbican
William Fleming, carpenter, Stonehouse Lane
John Gubbell, baker, Butcher's Lane
William Nankivell, cabinet-maker, Pike Street
Henry Burnett, painter, Stonehouse Lane
Philip Shepheard, sadler, Old Town
John Smart, plumber, How's Lane
William Shepheard, grocer, Cornwall Street
Jonathan Hearder, umbrella-maker, Higher Broad Street
Thomas Wingett, boot and shoemaker, Old Town
John Kitto, mason, Colmer's Lane
Henry Honey, musician, Frankfort Street
Andrew Scardon, grocer, Britonside
William Burnell, confectioner, Market Place
William Wright, Foxhole Quay
Charles Knighton, grocer, New Street
John Prouze, carpenter, Frankfort Place
Richard Westcott, boot and shoemaker, Exeter Street
John Hellier, hatter, Exeter Street
John Curtis, brazier, Higher Broad Street
William Gay, boot and shoemaker, Higher Broad Street
John Brend, shipwright, Catt Down
John Harlow, cooper, Catt Down
Robert Baker, blacksmith, Old Town
Robert Prim, grocer, Britonside
-- Knight, mason, Butcher's Lane

What were known as the "Day Police", consisting of four men in a uniform similar to that worn by the Metropolitan Police in London, commenced their duties on Sunday November 11th 1832.  The Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal thought 'that their service will be found eminently useful'.

As a result of the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the Plymouth Borough Police Force was formed on January 1st 1836.