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Records of Bedfordshire Police

Bedfordshire did not have a professional police force until 1840, although the small Bedford Borough force had been established a few years earlier, in 1836. For centuries the County had relied on parish constables, unpaid officials selected annually by ballot and appointed by the manor court, in order to keep the peace. Over the years their duties gradually expanded: the constable was responsible for maintaining the parish armour, organising the assembly and training of the militia, collecting the County Rate and other taxes and supervising local alehouses. He also maintained the local stocks, whipping post, pillory, ducking-stool and lock-up. Not surprisingly, this left little time for the officer to earn a living, and the post was consequently unpopular.

In the nineteenth century the changes brought about by urbanisation, a rapidly expanding and increasingly mobile population, combined with economic distress and political agitation, subjected the old system to considerable strain. A Bedford constable John Hopkins Warden was ahead of his time when he wrote to Quarter Sessions in 1821 suggesting that paid full-time constables should be stationed in Bedford ready to go anywhere in the County to assist in solving crimes (Ref: QSR1821/711). Nothing came of his idea, but change was not far off. During the agricultural unrest of 1830-31, and Poor Law riots of 1835 the authorities were forced to call on hastily enrolled special constables and the recently-formed Metropolitan Police in London in order to quell the trouble.

The Quarter Sessions records from 1714-c1832 contain many incidental references to the work and expenses of parish constables and the trials of the post. In 1783, for example, Thomas Philipps, a Cranfield dairyman, was prosecuted for challenging Thomas Simson the Marston Moretaine constable to a fight when the latter served a warrant on him. There are no comprehensive lists of parish constables for this period, but rolls for 1840-1872 do exist (Ref: QES6). Parish records frequently contain references to constables, but pre-1700 records are scarce, as are good runs of constables' accounts. Early account books survive for Bolnhurst, 1677-1713 (Ref: P46/5/1) and for the Wyboston hamlet, Eaton Socon, 1692-1738 (Ref: P5/9) while there are extensive 18th century accounts for Eversholt, Everton, Melchbourne, Upper Stondon and Tempsford.

In 1836 Bedford adopted the Municipal Corporations Act and the Bedford Borough Police was born. In 1839 the County Police Act was passed by central government and in the following year Bedfordshire Constabulary was formed.

Bedfordshire Archives holds records relating to the police in the records of the quarter sessions and local government. The main references begin QE or PO and further information about the history of Bedfordshire police can be found in the introductions to those catalogues.

The majority of records about police personnel are held by the Bedfordshire Police Museum and enquiries about these should be directed to the museum. Many of these records were briefly deposited with Bedfordshire Archives and do appear on our catalogue under the reference PO/MUS. Those that were withdrawn from Bedfordshire Archives are marked as permanently withdrawn, some of these records are held in surrogate form on microfilm 79. 

We shall now look at the records of the various Bedfordshire police forces in more detail.

Bedford Borough Police Formed 1836, absorbed by Bedfordshire Constabulary in 1947. The Bedford Borough Watch minutes, 1836-1936 (Ref: BorBB3 series) provide the most comprehensive record of the operations of the police and the appointment and disciplining of constables. Unfortunately, only the volume for 1874-1906 is indexed. The main corporation minute books (Ref: BorBB2) are also useful, although there is little information on individual officers. The printed minutes for c1902-1947 (Ref: BorBB2/22) include the annual reports of the Chief Constable, which not only include crime and incident statistics, but some details of individual policemen.

Other operational records can be found in the Quarter Sessions archives (Refs: QEV10, QEV18, QEV22) which include a roll of men in the force in 1912 (Ref: QEV10/6) and a list of pensioners compiled in 1919 (Ref: QEV18/4). We also have a microfiche of a police conduct book, 1865-1930 (Ref: Micf79). Further reading: Bedford Borough Police, 1836-1947, by D. Hawkey and A. Marlow, in the Bedfordshire Magazine vol.23, No.178, Autumn 1991, p.61.

Bedfordshire Constabulary. Formed 1840, renamed Bedfordshire Police in 1974.The surviving records are generally more comprehensive than those of the Bedford Borough force and are mostly to be found in the Quarter Sessions archive. Deeds and other papers of police stations are held (Ref: Class QEE) as well as returns of police pay (Ref: class QEF), records of criminal offences (Ref: class QER) and various administrative records (Ref: class QEV). Other records are held on microfiche (Micf 79).

Tracing the service records of individual officers is not particularly straightforward as the survival rate of records is patchy. It is also important to realise that access to more recent records may be restricted under data protection legislation. There are comprehensive service records for the years 1840-1871 (Ref: QES8-9) contained in two volumes which give details of appointments, promotions and transfers, together with punishments for indiscipline. Many officers, particularly in the early years, served for only a short time before being dismissed or resigning through misconduct. Drunkenness on duty was a particular problem, but sometimes constables were disciplined for more colourful offences. In April 1840 three of them were fined ten shillings each for playing cricket at Potton Fair. Other subsidiary records include police pay sheets 1841-1844 (Ref: QEE2-5) and lists of men compiled by division and station, 1840-1875 (Refs: QES1-3).

For the period 1875 to 1925 the records of individual officers are not particular good. The Quarter Sessions minutes (Ref: QSM series) are indexed for officers discharged to pension c1840-1888. In 1889 Quarter Sessions combined with the new County Council to form a Standing Joint Committee (SJ catalogue) which in turn was superseded by the Bedfordshire and Luton Police Authority in 1966 (PO catalogue). The records follow a similar format over the years - minutes, reports and papers detailing the work and administration of the Police, with some details of police appointments and pensioners.

In the 1920s the records of individual officers became more comprehensive. We have a record of service book, 1927-1940, on microfiche (Ref: Micf 79), and a nominal roll of the force compiled c.1955 which give some career details back to 1919 (Ref: QEV14/1). Further reading: Bedfordshire Police, 1840-1990, by A.F. Richer (searchroom library classmark 152).

Dunstable Borough Police, 1865-1889

Dunstable Borough Police was formed in 1865 - shortly after the town became an incorporated borough. This tiny force, numbering only two or three men, was reabsorbed by Bedfordshire Police when the Local Government Act of 1888 abolished independent police forces in towns with a population of less than 10,000. Perhaps not surprisingly, few records survive, although we do have microfiche of occurrence and charge books, with details of crimes committed in the Borough and dealt with by the Police (Ref: Micf 79).

The early Dunstable Borough minute books (BORDM2 series) contain occasional references to the police, while the files of borough vouchers, 1865-1877 (Ref: BORDF4) contain receipts for police pay. Further reading: Dunstable Borough Police, 1865-1889 by B. Child and T. Madigan, in the Bedfordshire Magazine, vol.24, no.186, Autumn 1993, p.57.

Luton Borough Police, 1876-1947, and Luton County Borough Police Force, 1964-1966

The Luton Borough force was formed in 1876 when the town became an incorporated borough and survived until 1947 when it was absorbed by Bedfordshire Constabulary under the 1946 Police Act. The Force was briefly revived when Luton became a County Borough in 1964 but only lasted two years before being re-absorbed by the Bedfordshire Constabulary.

There are comparatively few records relating to the history of Luton Borough Police. We have a microfiche of a police conduct book which includes photographs, c1894-1913 (Ref: Micf 79) and a sickness record book for 1937-1944 (Ref: QEV19). Apart from these two sources, most information on the running of the force is to be found in the indexed minute books of Luton Borough (class: BorLM) but our set only starts in 1908. However, a detailed history of the force The Men who wore straw Helmets: Policing Luton, 1840-1974, has been written by T.J. Madigan. This volume includes a useful roll of all members of the Force who served between 1876 and 1947 (pp.187-196).

Special Constables

No survey of police records would be complete without mentioning the records of the special constables. As I mentioned earlier special constables were used against agricultural rioters in 1830, particularly in the Stotfold area (Ref: L30/18/27, 44) but "specials" do not seem to have been used again until the First World War. The records and rolls of the wartime "specials" are in the papers of the County Council Emergency Committee (class WW1/EC5). There are no corresponding records for the Second World War, but occasional lists of "specials" receiving awards appear in the Bedfordshire Times in 1946.