Policing in Great Linford
The history of policing in our country is a complex one; it was only in 1856 that an act was passed to compel counties to create their own police forces, with Buckinghamshire duly forming one in 1857. Prior to this, the word “police” was essentially absent from our language, partly because there was a very English suspicion that such a foreign institution (the word was borrowed from the French) would be used for suppressive purposes.
So for a long time local enforcement of the law had fell primarily to the so called constables, an ancient appointment whose origins are somewhat shrouded in the mists of time, though we know that in 1285 King Edward I, "constituted two constables in every hundred to prevent defaults in towns and highways.”
The actual responsibilities of a constable probably varied according to the peculiarities of their parish and their own interpretation of the law. Bear in mind that these men were hardly the graduates of any law enforcement training course and their only qualification might be some prior military service. In 1584, the legal scholar and magistrate William Lambarde wrote a guide called, “The Duties of Constables, Borsholders, Tithingmen, and Such Other Lowe Ministers of the Peace.” Borsholders and Tithingmen were other words for constables, and Lambarde defined the role as maintaining the peace, preventing offenses and using the law to punish offenders.
Clive Emsley in his book The Great British Bobby, takes issue with what he sees as the Shakespearean comedic slight on the character and ability of the constable (and his cousin in law and order the Watchman) arguing that the portrayal of these men in Much Ado About Nothing and Measure for Measure as inept and ineffectual upholders of the law has tainted the historical record. Historians argues Emsley have made the error of viewing Shakespeare as an eyewitness to the actual reality of the constable’s life and work, and indeed Sir Frank Markham in his History of Milton Keynes seems to do exactly as Emsley charges, offering up the Shakespeare analogy and the observation that these men, ”knew little law and less logic.”
Yet if in 1657, Oliver Cromwell thought it fair to compare himself to, “a good constable set to keep the peace of the parish”, then this would certainly suggest that Shakespeare may have inadvertently caused many of these man to be unfairly maligned, though if there were “good” constables, then it stands to reason there must have also been “bad.”
Emsley offers up an exciting view of the life of a constable, though largely from the perspective of big cities. He describes men of bravery and resolve, who were ready to pursue violent criminals and put life and limb at risk, though some caution should be exercised in assuming the life of a constable in Great Linford was quite so thrilling. Turning back to Markham, he provides a long list of rather more mundane responsibilities for a constable, including the arrest of vagrants and beggars, to assist travellers, to impound straying cattle, to allocate billets for troops passing through the parish and to ensure that the public houses were abiding by the terms of their licenses and shopkeepers maintaining honest weight and measures. Another task often undertaken was to report persons for their failure to attend church!
Constables could be appointed in a variety of ways according to local tradition. A manorial court might make the decision, an election could be held amongst parishioners, or it might even be decided by something as simple as picking the oldest householder who had not yet served. However a constable was not traditionally a paid position and hence sometimes proved a deeply unwelcome burden. Failure to accept the honour or carry out their appointed duties could also land a constable in court, so it was not unknown for the incumbent to pay another person to take on their duties.
We do not know how these decisions were always made for Great Linford, but from 1617 onwards, the justices of the Quarter Sessions became more formally involved. They were empowered to make a variety of appointments, including chief constables for counties and petty constables for parishes, hence Markham records that in 1647, the judges approved two constables at Great Linford. A constable was expected to stay in the role for a year.
There was some financial compensation to be made as a constable, some of it rather familiar even in modern times, and just as still happens today, open to abuse. One of the duties of a constable was to convey undesirables such as vagrants out of the parish, and for this acts of parliament allowed them to charge 3d a mile on foot and 6d a mile by horse. It is unknown if the Great Linford constables were called on often to do this task, but Markham remarks that in the 1700s, the constables of Little Brickhill and Stony Stratford were in the habit of taking the long way round to feather their nests with inflated expenses.
So who were these men tasked with maintaining law and order in Great Linford? The Quarter Session records provide an excellent early source, so from these we can learn that in 1690 a Joseph Mallaine and William Hare were appointed. A William Hare was buried at Great Linford in 1719 and Joseph’s surname recorded in the sessions may be a corruption of Malins, a name with particularly deep roots in the parish.
Another document providing a constable’s name is the 1798 posse comitatus, a list of able bodied men liable to serve in the militia. This tells us that a John Thomas Robe was a constable at the time. John was not apparently a native of Great Linford (we do not yet know for sure where he was born), but was clearly a man of some standing and accomplishment. He is commemorated on his wife’s impressive memorial stone in St Andrew’s churchyard, where a very detailed (and perhaps somewhat vainglorious) inscription reveals that he worked at the Army Pay Office at Horse Guards Parade, Whitehall. We can also decipher from the inscription that he was the youngest son of William Lamb Robe of Wacton Hall in Norfolk and Frances Miles Ward, a native of Great Linford. Turning to the parish records, John and Frances had a daughter Sarah born 1801 in Great Linford followed by a son John in 1802. Sarah married in 1831 in Great Linford to a John Monkton, the only son of Admiral John Monkton, who saw action in the French Revolutionary Wars. He also gets namechecked on the memorial.
Little else is known of John Thomas, other than he held the post of clerk at the Army Pay Office, as we find him listed as such in a number of volumes of the “Royal Kalender” between 1808 and 1818. Clearly the family were moving in polite society (his son also married well) and so John was likely a figure of some authority and prestige in the village. Of his activities as a constable at Great Linford, there is but one tantalising report from the Northampton Mercury of Saturday November 11th, 1797, which announces that a horse, blind of one eye and fifteen hands hight, and believed to have been left by a Highwayman, can be returned to the owner on application to Mr Robe.
There are other constables we can identify from newspaper accounts. Joseph Rivett was a man of some wealth and standing in the village, a builder and mason by trade, and we do find in general that those selected or putting themselves forward as constables were drawn from the professional classes of the village and seemed happy to be re-elected year after year. Joseph’s work as a constable first crops up in a newspaper report in the Oxford Chronicle and Reading Gazette dated Saturday May 7th, 1842. The account comes from the Newport Pagnell Petty Sessions, with testimony that Joseph has been the victim of an assault, “while in the execution of his duties.” The miscreant in the dock is a James Conquest, and while unfortunately the story does not explain what caused the assault, we know that James was fined £1 and 10 shillings, but unable to pay was committed to gaol for a month.
Also very likely involving Joseph Rivett, in October 1842 a quantity of wool and split beans, presumed to have been stolen was recovered, and the owner requested to claim them by applying to an unnamed Constable of Great Linford within 14 days. Just as in the earlier case with the horse, the goods are to be sold if not claimed to defray costs. Clearly as regards the day to day expenses of the role, a constable’s lot was not a happy one.
In April 1850 Joseph Rivett was re-appointed as constable, but so also was a Johnathan Herbert; perhaps an indication that an increasing population was putting some strain on the social fabric, and two men were required to keep order. Rivett was still in the role in 1857, as we find him then bringing the aforementioned James Conquest before the bench for beating his wife.
Another name that can be tied to Great Linford is that of William Cole, who we find sworn in at the Petty Sessions of April 18th, 1860 as constable and again in 1862, 1865 and 1866, so presumably here was another incumbent in the post who was happy to serve many terms. William Cole was also the village baker, who lived on the still existing Forge End Row on the High Street. His house can still be identified as it is named “The Old Bakery.” It is interesting that despite the passing of the County and Borough Police Act in 1856, the old system of appointing someone from the community to act as “constable” had not entirely died out, and in fact, the system appears to have endured for some time after, as in 1898 we find a case of poaching in which Gerard Uthwatt, brother to the lord of Great Linford Manor is referenced to as the recently appointed parish constable.
A clue to the dilemma facing communities comes from an account of a meeting held by the Board of Guardians at High Wycombe in 1869, in which the argument is made that though the constables, “had very little to do”, there was routinely only one policeman in a very large district who might be days away if needed, and the constables therefore fulfilled a valuable purpose, as someone to whom parishioners could quickly turn to for help. It seems likely then that this was a problem throughout the county, including at Great Linford.
By the 1870s we start to see the appearance of a modern police force and familiar job titles, hence in 1873, we find an Abel Lindow charged with assault against an Inspector John Hall at Great Linford, in which having been attacked by Lindow’s dogs and verbally abused, the inspector pursues his man toward the nearby toll gate, and assisted by a Police Constable named Shrimpton, makes the arrest. It should be noted that neither Inspector Hall nor Constable Shrimpton were residents of Great Linford; the Inspector appears to have resided at Fenny Stratford, but clearly the long arm of modern law enforcement was now quite visible in Great Linford.