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Berkshire Family Historian
June 2003

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Berkshire Family Historian
Main Page, June 2003 Contents

The early days of the Reading Watch
John Bowley

Having met with some success indexing the records of the Reading Borough Police 1865-1900, as described in the March 2002 edition of the Berkshire Family Historian, I set out to investigate the early days of the Watch Keeping system in the town described in the minutes of the Watch Committee between the years 1828 and 1831, and Police attendance records for 1836, again kept at the Police Training College at Sulhamstead.

In 1828 the Watch Committee consisted of 12 good men and true who met at the Upper Ship Inn and later in 1831 at the George Inn. They initially met frequently, sometimes twice a week, to set up a system of Watchmen (which probably commenced in 1826) to maintain law and order in what was at times an unruly town. The Watchmen were initially paid nine shillings a week in the summer and 11 shillings in the winter, but when the committee attempted to save money by laying off Watchmen during the summer months, several men resigned and the committee was forced to increase pay to 14 shillings in the winter and to give the men year round employment.

There were two grades of Watchmen — supernumerary and regular — with promotion from one to the other. In 1829 there were 12 regular and 19 supernumeraries. They were employed to patrol 12 beats around the town with a shift system of an early watch from 8pm to 1am and a late watch.

They were given a uniform consisting of a greatcoat and ruffle —the coat had the letters RW (possibly meaning Reading Watch) painted on it together with a number to identify each man. A list of tailors in the town who were authorised to supply the coats is included in the minutes, and there is some discussion as to the quality of the garments that they provided. The Watchmen were also equipped with a lantern and staff and the Superintendent was required to provide himself with two pairs of handcuffs and a rattle strap. The Watchmen were also instructed to call the hour and the state of the weather every ten paces whilst patrolling their beat.

It was a requirement for employment that each man could identify Reading as his place of settlement. For the month of November 1829 there is a complete listing of all the men employed, identified by first name, surname and parish of settlement (St Mary, St Giles or St Lawrence). The Watch Committee also dealt with any disciplinary matters that were required and interestingly enough they were also instrumental in pressing for improvements to the street lighting system — this was, of course, gas lighting. As today there never seemed to be enough money available to make improvements. Moving on to the Watch Committee record for 1836/7, this consists of a one-year record (May 1836 to April 1837) of the daily attendance of policemen (this term is used specifically), their identification number (up to 22), the beat they were assigned to and any remarks. The records, therefore, identify the transition from a system of Watchmen to one based on a proper system of policing. Thirty-one regular policemen were employed and once again they were backed up by a system of supernumeraries. The men employed are identified by first name and surname; they were supervised by an Inspector and a Sergeant. A list of men who were discharged or who resigned is also included.

Putting these two records together we can identify at least 70 men who served in the Reading Watch System and Police at a time when the service was in its infancy. The names of the Watch Committee are also listed. This makes the records of interest to family historians.

All the information gathered will be added to the Berkshire Name Index held at Yeomanry House for the benefit of members. Members interested in the early records of the Berkshire Police Force (as opposed to the Reading Borough Police) may like to know that they can be found in the Berkshire Record Office; they commence in 1856 and were indexed by Margaret Foreman in 1997.


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Berkshire Family History Society 2003

created 29th May 2003