Reading Borough Police registers at Sulhamstead

by John Bowley

PC49 John Weller

The museum at the Thames Valley Police Training College at Sulhamstead contains an exceptional collection, including uniforms and equipment, and accounts of notorious crimes committed in Berkshire in Victorian times. The Metropolitan Police Force was created by Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel in 1829, but it took another 27 years before counties and boroughs established their own police forces. Reading was more progressive than most towns, establishing its own force in 1836.

Among the many documents in the Sulhamstead collection I concentrated on just one volume that simply stated on the leather bound cover 'Police Register'. This turned out to be a record of recruits joining the Reading Borough Police force between the years 1865 and 1890 (Reference No. RB7). It was only possible to discover that this related to Reading from the street names which are mentioned in the individual reports and which would be familiar to us today. It begins with a helpful index and includes the records of 260 young men, mostly between the ages of 20 and 30 who joined the Reading force during these years. The entries contain details of age, height, complexion, hair and eye colour and trade. The 'parish and county' is also given although it is not clear if this indicates place of birth or residence.

Previous service in the police and armed forces is often given and may contain details of the number of years and days of service and sometimes regimental name or number. Many recruits did have previous service, although others have trades like labourers, grooms, gamekeepers and gardeners.

Whether these backgrounds fitted men for service in the police is doubtful. Some did not pass the medical examination, others were never 'sworn in', indicating that they did not pass the induction process and by the time they resigned or were dismissed, sometimes after as little as three months, they had collected an unfavourable disciplinary record.

These are contained in a volume under the heading of 'reports' and they give a significant insight into the way in which the police service was run in Victorian times. The constable was essentially a beat officer in that he was expected to patrol a given beat around the streets of Reading, mostly during the hours of darkness. He was expected to report to his sergeant or other superior officers at certain times and in certain places during the evening and night. If he was late in reporting he was put 'on report' and these details are included in this volume. This procedure would not seem to leave much room for initiative, although late reporting could mean that the constable concerned was asleep somewhere, as the entry 'found asleep in Abbey Square' indicates.

Many of the problems concerned with the policing of Reading would have been associated with the supervision of the many public houses in the town. Social historians of the time would gain a valuable insight into the running of alehouses and public houses in Reading from this volume.

Constables were required to regulate the running of public houses without succumbing to the obvious temptations. Many constables manifestly failed to do so. How one officer managed to leave his staff in the lavatory of a public house is difficult to imagine. Another lost his cape, belt, staff and lantern in a fight; his punishment was to be dismissed from the force whilst being asked to pay 5s. for the missing lantern.

Not every recruit fell foul of the system. Many had exemplary records and gained promotion through the second class, first class and merit class of police constable. Once they attained the rank of sergeant they disappear from this record, although their names may reappear in the report section previously mentioned when reporting their underlings for misdemeanors.

Many of the officers who went on to make a career in the police seem to have had their records transferred to a second volume (Reference No. RB27), which covers the period 1866 to 1913 and which in some cases gives details of pensions and even date of death. There is a hundred year rule and not all the details are freely available.

In all I found cataloging these records a most rewarding experience and would commend them to anyone who suspects that an ancestor may have served in the Reading Police. Many of the recruits came from all over the country. I found one from Dornock in Scotland. What was he doing in Berkshire?

The early records are being indexed and will eventually be incorporated into the Berkshire Name Index held at the BFHS Research Centre, Yeomanry House, Reading, for the benefit of all members.

This information from March 2002 is almost certainly out of date: The Police Museum at Sulhamstead is run on a voluntary basis by Ken Wells who is not in attendance every day. Because of this, and for security reasons, researchers are asked to make an appointment by telephoning the Training College at Sulhamstead on 0118 953 6000. Alternatively you may leave a message on Ken Wells' answer phone on 0118 932 5748. The museum is self-financing and a small fee for searching the records is requested.

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