Policing in Bedfordshire
by Bob Ricketts
Up to four separate police forces served Bedfordshire during Queen Victoria’s reign, as boroughs became incorporated:
- Bedford Borough Police Force – established in 1836, policing the Borough of Bedford.
- Bedfordshire Police Force – established in 1840, initially serving the rest of the county.
- Dunstable Police Force – created in 1865 to police the town, amalgamated with the County Force in 1889.
- Luton – established as a separate force in 1876, with an inspector and constables transferring from the County force.
The Bedford Borough Force was a small force, with a Chief Constable (William Coombs) and initially six constables, rising to twelve by 1864 fourteen by 1877. Two sergeants and an inspector were added in the 1870s. By 1847, the force operated from rented premises at 15 Silver Street. The station was moved to Horne Lane in 1896. The force’s initial workload was largely routine, dealing with theft, shop-lifting, burglary, poaching, assault and brawls, vagrancy, horse or cattle theft and (bizarrely) poultry or rabbit stealing (many householders bred and kept poultry or rabbits to save money (fresh meat was expensive) and supplement their diet. Hutches or runs were usually insecure and represented easy pickings for opportunistic thieves).
William Coombs (born c.1796 died October 1881). Grave Ref: E8.233
William Coombs was the first Chief Constable of the Bedford Borough Police force, serving from 1836 to 1852. Coombs had been born in Bedford and been the mayor’s sergeant at mace, receiving the same 10/6d a week paid to his men, on top of his payment for being the mayor’s sergeant.
Richard Stennett (died 24th May 1898 aged 91) Grave Ref: G9.60
The second Chief Constable of the Bedford Borough force, serving from 1852 to 1869. A Bedfordian, prior to his appointment he had been the landlord of the Old Cross Keys on Market Square. The Bedford Borough police force was still comparatively small, with only 12 constables by 1864. Stennett therefore had to play an active role, supporting his men in dealing with crime and disorder. His office was no protection. On 11th June 1852 Henry Hull, a Bedford labourer aged 21, assaulted and beat Stennett; Hull was sentenced to two month’s imprisonment. Grave Ref
There were tensions between the town and county Chief Constables, both of whom were based in Bedford. These boiled over in June 1859 in the ‘battle of St. Peter’s Green’. A dispute between groups of Grammar School and Commercial School (later Bedford Modern) pupils over who could use a sports pitch, escalated into a running battle on St. Peter’s Green. One of the Grammar School boys, Augustine Lempriere Foulkes, armed with a stick, charged the other side and struck Adderley Clarke, knocking him unconscious. The following day, Captain Thomas Davies, J. P., drew up a summons for assault and went with Stennett to serve it at the Grammar School. Despite the town not being in his jurisdiction and having a conflict of interest (he was a friend of the offender’s mother), Bedfordshire’s Chief Constable, Captain Boultbee (see below), insisted on going with Stennett to the headmaster’s residence. Once the outer gate was opened, Boultbee took the summons (which he had no authority to serve) and went in. The gate was shut in the face of Stennett and Davies. When Boultbee re-emerged, he handed the summons to Stennett, saying (incorrectly) that it had no legal validity. Despite Boultbee’s intervention, Foulkes was tried and fined five pounds plus costs.
Stennett’s Borough force investigated the brutal unprovoked assault on and murder of Frederick Budd in Castle Lane in 1863. The crime, committed on a wealthy and respectable inhabitant, scandalised many Bedford residents and generated a ‘moral panic’ in the town. It also demonstrated again the propensity of the senior officers of the County force to interfere in crimes within the Borough’s jurisdiction. Budd and his wife were walking home after dinner. When they reached Higgins’ Brewery in Castle Lane they were confronted by members of the Militia and two civilians, Robert Jordan and William Craddock, who were standing across the road. Budd was abused then struck repeatedly. He was knocked to the ground, helped up by his wife, then felled again and struck while he lay. The assailants ran away and none of the Militia provided any assistance. As they walked to Lurke Lane they met a picket sergeant. Mrs. Budd explained what had happened, but the sergeant didn’t believe her and accused her husband of being drunk. The Budds staggered to the house of Mr. Graham, the Deputy Chief Constable for the County force. Mr. Graham was out, but his son escorted them to Mr. Boultbee’s house. The Captain was ill, but his son accompanied the Budds to their home, whilst Graham junior went for the surgeon, Mr. Couchman, who stayed for several hours attending Budd. Shortly after the surgeon left, Mr. Budd died. William Craddock, a carpenter, and Robert Jordan, a blacksmith, were arrested the next day and charged with murder. They were found guilty at Bedford Assizes and each sentenced to seven years imprisonment.
Whilst serving as Chief Constable, Stennett began to build up a portfolio of rented properties in the run-down and notorious working class riverside suburb of Waterloo – by 1878 he owned six houses. Although he retired as Chief Constable in in 1869, he remained Inspector of Weights and Measures until 1885.
Harry Thody (born in 1854 died 30th December 1925). Grave Ref: H11.163
Chief Constable of Bedford from 1887 to October 1906, when he resigned due to ill health. Thody oversaw the steady expansion of the Bedford force, the number of constables rising from 18 in 1885 to 24 by 1898 and 33 by 1903. He was a good manager, understanding the need to bolster morale and cohesion and (unlike his predecessors) to co-operate with neighbouring forces. In 1888, for example, he hosted a dinner for his force at the Clarence Hotel, supported a sports day at Howbury Hall, Renhold, between the Bedford and County forces, and held a cricket match between the Bedford and Luton forces. Bedford won by 81 runs, “which was mainly attributed to the splendid play of Chief Constable Thody, who scored 49 runs and took eight wickets” (Northamptonshire Mercury23/6/1888). Thody’s efforts in encouraging inter-force collaboration paid off in 1898, when the County assisted Borough officers during the visit of Barnham & Bailey’s Circus. The County, following a request from Thody, provided thirty constables to help supress the Priory Recreation Ground disturbances in June 1899.
Under his tenure, the town’s police station moved from cramped leased premises in Silver Street to Horne Lane in 1898.
Thody was an experienced and insightful investigator. In 1898, Samuel Tomlinson, alias Henry Smith, alias Frederick Tomlinson, was arrested and tried for stealing two watches, books and clothing, the property of James McCall, a guard in the Midland Railway Company at Bedford. Shortly after his arrest, Thody began to suspect that his prisoner could be the person who had placed obstructions on the Midland and LNWR railway lines at Wellingborough in an attempt to wreck one or more trains. Thody sought advice from the Home Office; officials advised that Tomlinson should be discharged on the charge of larceny and then immediately re-arrested on a warrant to be issued by the Wellingborough magistrates charging that on the 9th September 1898 he unlawfully and maliciously placed on the railway line three iron bars, fish-plates, nuts and bolts and pieces of wood, with the intention of endangering passengers. The prisoner was reported as having smiled at the formalities, presumably anticipating his release, before being re-arrested and taken to Wellingborough for trial.
Thody investigated the murder in 1895 of Effie Jane Burgin, a cook in service and the cousin of Arthur Covington. Arthur had suffered from chronic health problems including depression. Arthur formed a relationship with Effie and she visited him at his parents’ house in Wellington Street. During her visit on 13th June 1895, she went into their sitting room, followed by Arthur. He shot her three times with a revolver and was found kneeling by her body kissing her. His defence lawyer tried – unsuccessfully – to convince the judge and jury that Arthur was of unsound mind. Arthur was found guilty, but the jury recommended mercy, but to no avail. He was executed at Bedford Gaol on 3rd December 1895.
Bedfordshire County Police Force
Established in 1840 under the County Police Act 1839. Bedfordshire’s magistrates were quick to establish a county police service – only 20 of the 56 counties in England and Wales had adopted the Act by the end of 1840. By June 1840 the new force had appointed six superintendents and forty constables, organised into six divisions, including Bedford (rural) – Eaton Socon, Kempston, Turvey and Wilden. The county force’s headquarters were in Bedford.
Captain Edward Moore Boultbee (born 1797 died December 1889).
Captain Edward Moore Boultbee was the first Chief Constable of the County Police, serving until 1871. He was born near Temple Balsall in Warwickshire. His early career was spent in the service of the East India Company’s fleet working the shipping lanes between Britain, Bombay, Calcutta and Madras. In 1818 he was shipwrecked and set adrift when the ‘Cabalva’ sank in a violent storm. He would occasionally entertain dinner guests with vivid accounts of the sailors’ ordeal and their rescue. His maritime service and ability to manage men and maintain discipline counted in his favour as desirable attributes to be Chief Constable.
Boultbee’s initial challenge was to establish and recruit to the new police force. This was a significant logistical challenge – he had to find six men to become superintendents and a further forty men to be constables. Some proved unsuitable – PC 1, Frederick Porter, was suspended from duty on 18th July 1840 for being found drunk on patrol. He was given a final warning and reinstated, but dismissed on 7th October 1840 for unsatisfactory conduct.
In common with many of the new police forces, there was a high turnover amongst the new recruits – in 184o 14 men left the Bedfordshire Constabulary, followed by a further 13 in 1841. Boultbee was forced to spend much of his time to finding new recruits. Despite high turnover, Boultbee set high standards and was a firm disciplinarian.
In April 1840 three of his constables were each fined 10/- for playing cricket and drinking in a public house whilst on duty at Potton fair. Dismissals were frequent – Constable 16, Davies, was dismissed on 6th May 1840 for being drunk on duty; Constable 11, Lacey, was dismissed on 19th August 1840 for “general bad conduct”; Constable 6, Owen, was dismissed on 5th August 1840 for being “unfit for the situation of police constable”.
To reduce turnover and encourage good conduct, he introduced merit pay and created a career structure, allowing for promotion to the ranks of sergeant and inspector.
Alongside dealing with routine petty thefts, drunkenness and brawls, policing Bedford Races, which fell within the County’s jurisdiction, required concerted action against numerous pickpockets and maintaining public order. A more high profile challenge was presented by the visit of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert to Woburn Abbey in July 1841. Captain Boultbee and Superintendent Turle attended throughout the visit supported by a small detachment of constables, co-operating with four members of the Metropolitan Police.
Boultbee also oversaw the investigation of three murders during his tenure. The first was the fatal poisoning of William Dazley at Wrestlingworth on the 30th October 1842 by his wife Sarah. She was not initially suspected and allowed to leave to work in London. Suspicions remained and after the exhumation of William’s body in March 1843, the post-mortem found that his death had been caused by arsenic poisoning. Superintendent Blunden of the Biggleswade division travelled to London and took Sarah into custody. She was found guilty of murder at Bedford Assizes and sentenced to death. She was hanged in public at Bedford Gaol on the 5th August 1843. The second murder was that of Jane Castle by her husband, Joseph Castle, on the 9th August 1850. Joseph cut her throat and left her body on the road from Luton to Someries. He was found guilty of her murder, sentenced to death, and hanged outside Bedford Gaol on the 31st March 1860. The last murder was that of Sarah Marshall at Little Staughton on the 29th/30th November 1870. William Bull, a local labourer, was charged, found guilty of murder and executed at Bedford Gaol on April 3rd 1871 – the first execution there to be held in private. Although Bull pleaded not guilty, he confessed to the prison governor before his execution.
Captain Boultbee retired in 1871 on a pension of £233 a year (two thirds of his salary).
In his private life, Boultbee became “a popular figure in Bedfordshire society”, supporting many local charities and personally organising an annual treat for the inmates of the Bedford Workhouse and hosting charity bazaars. He died on the 19th December 1889, aged 92, at his Bedford home. His funeral service was held at St. Cuthbert’s Church, followed by burial at Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: F4.139
Major Ashton Cromwell Warner (born 1835 died December 1879)
Major Ashton Warner was the second Chief Constable of the County Police, serving from 1871 until his untimely death in service in 1879. Warner was born in Brighton in 1835. His forbears were directly descended from the line of Oliver Cromwell. Ashton’s father, a captain in the
Fifth Regiment of Fusiliers, had close connections with Bedfordshire and arranged for his son to be educated at Bedford Grammar School. Ashton Warner then joined the army aged eighteen.
He had a successful military career, serving in India. During the Indian Mutiny he was part of the besieged garrison at Lucknow. His commanding officer noted that “whenever a volunteer was wanted for a dangerous sortie young Warner was always ready”. He was twice mentioned in despatches and received a medal for gallantry with two clasps. At the time of his appointment to major, he was the youngest officer to hold that rank in the British Army.
Major Warner retired from military service in 1870 and spent some months learning about the duties of a Chief Constable from Admiral McHardy, Chief Constable of Essex. Warner was one of seven candidates for the post of Chief Constable of Bedfordshire and was appointed in January 1871.
Warner’s first major challenge overseeing the role of his superintendents and constables in combating a widespread outbreak of foot and mouth disease. Superintendents acted as inspectors of contagious diseases in animals, regulating their movement, imposing quarantine and ordering the slaughter of infected livestock. The national Royal Agricultural Show was held at Cow Meadow outside Bedford in July 1874, attended by large crowds (72,000 visitor from outside the county); Warner deployed 40 constables, 60 special constables, supplemented by officers from London and the Midlands.
In 1876 the County force investigated the notorious ‘Stagsden Child Murder’. On 20th March 1876 a gamekeeper found the body of a child hidden in undergrowth near Stagsden. The police doctor confirmed that the child had died from asphyxia. Extensive enquiries were made in north Bedfordshire and on 4th April 1876 Sergeant Mardlin travelled to Hampstead in north London to arrest Lucy Lowe, a maidservant. Her employer, the Reverend Joshua Kirkham, tried to prevent the arrest and summoned the Metropolitan Police, only to be informed that Sergeant Mardlin had the necessary authority. She was tried for murder in the Summer Assizes at Bedford, found guilty and sentenced to death. Despite this, in July 1876 she received Royal Clemency and her sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. Lowe’s was a sad case – her first husband died within a few months of their marriage. Her second husband deserted her and her three children. Her three children were placed in Bedford Workhouse.
Major Warner’s first wife and child died shortly after he became Chief Constable. He remarried and started a second family. Tragedy struck. On the 19th November 1879 Warner spent a day’s shooting with a friend at Flitwick. He contracted a chill, which led to a severe chest infection and he was bed-ridden for ten days, before dying on the 29th November, aged only 44, from a lung haemorrhage. His funeral took place at St. Peter’s Church, where the six County superintendents acted as pallbearers. Officers from the county and borough forces lined the route to Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: F2.170
Warner was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel Frederick John Josselyn, who served from 1880 to 1910.
Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Frank Augustus Douglas Stevens (born 1877 died in October 1939)
Lt. Colonel Sir Frank Augustus Douglas Stevens was the fourth Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, serving from 1910 until his death from a shooting accident in 1939. He was born in 1877, the eldest son of Colonel F. F. Stevens of Marlow. He joined the second battalion of the Bedfordshire Regiment as a second lieutenant in 1897 and was promoted to lieutenant in 1899. He was active service in South Africa during the Boer War, fighting at the battle of Diamond Hill and the relief of Kimberley. He was mentioned in despatches and awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal with five clasps. In April 1903 Stevens became the adjutant of the third battalion of the Bedfordshire Militia, based at Kempston Barracks. He also became the regimental recruiting officer. He was promoted to captain in 1906.
Stevens set his sights on becoming a Chief Constable and was mentored by Lt.-Colonel Josselyn. He attended meetings of the standing joint committee and familiarised himself with police procedures and the working of the law courts. He also attended an instructional course on the detection of crime at Scotland Yard.
In January 1910 Stevens resigned from the Bedfordshire Regiment and applied for the post of Chief Constable of Bedfordshire, along with seventeen other candidates. One of his referees was Josselyn. The standing joint committee recommended his appointment on the 22nd October 1910.
In response to growing industrial unrest in 1911 Stevens seconded an inspector, a sergeant and 13 constables to Liverpool, where strikes by the dockers and transport workers had caused serious disruption and protests. The general railway strike in August 1911 forced Stevens to recall his men and swear in fifty special constables to protect signal boxes on the St. Pancras railway line from attack. The Home Office, increasingly concerned about the threat of industrial and social unrest, encouraged Chief Constables to increase their reserves; Stevens added a further fifty.
Stevens was keen that his force should benefit from new technologies. In January 1913 he authorised the purchase of a 11.9 h.p. four seater, Arrol Johnson car for the force, stationed in Bedford. Later that year, all the eight county police stations had been connected by telephone. Despite wartime financial constraints, a Triumph two speed motorcycle was added in 1915, based at Sharnbrook, and two two-seater motor cars in 1916 for the Luton and Leighton Buzzard divisions.
The declaration of war in August 1914 presented immediate problems. Reservists were called up, depleting police ranks, and a combination of panic buying of foodstuffs and profiteering led to unrest, including a two thousand-strong protest and vandalism of premises at Dunstable. Despite growing manpower shortages, 40 men had to be deployed to patrol and protect railway bridges, main roads and reservoirs from sabotage and respond to air raid alerts, supported by a force of 600 special constables. Extra duties were added – the registration and supervision of aliens and Belgian refugees, billeting troops and tracing and arresting deserters. Stevens also oversaw the organisation and training of reserve military forces at Ampthill Park Camp. In late 1918 Stevens was presented by the Lord Lieutenant with a silver cup in recognition of his contribution.
By 1922 Britain faced a growing financial crisis and police forces, including Bedfordshire, had to reduce their establishments and cut running costs, despite rising crime rates. The county force also had to respond to major incidents, such as the Kempston balloon disaster in August 1926, which killed killed five, and the funeral of the victims of the R101 airship at Cardington.
During the 1930s, Stevens continued to modernise the force, buying eight Royal Enfield motorcycle combinations in 1930 for road traffic patrols. By 1938 there were five traffic patrol cars, equipped with cameras. He also strengthened the detective force and equipment, including a fingerprint camera. As war became more likely, Stevens led contingency planning, civil defence and preparation. He was created a Knight Bachelor in the 1939 New Year’s Honours List and knighted by King George VI at Buckingham Palace.
Sadly, on the 7th October 1939, whilst attending a shooting party at the Whitbread’s Southill estate, Colonel Stevens’ loader slipped in a muddy field of brussels-sprouts and fell. His gun went off and critically wounded Stevens in the liver and kidneys. His wounds were inoperable, gangrene set in and he died on the 16th October 1939. His funeral was held at St. Paul’s Church. Columns of officers escorted his funeral procession from his home at Biddenham to St. Paul’s, thence to Foster Hill Road Cemetery. Grave Ref: F.494
Bedfordshire Archives Service Z49/836 (Bedford Borough Police Force)
A. F. Richer, Bedfordshire Police 1840-1990, 1990, pp. 10 (Boultbee)
A. F. Richer, Bedfordshire Police 1840-1990, 1990, pp. 42 (Warner)
A. F. Richer, Bedfordshire Police 1840-1990, 1990, pp. 90 (Stevens)
A. F. Richer, Bedfordshire Police 1840-1990, 1990 – a detailed, comprehensive account of the development and history of the County police force
B. Ricketts, Policing Victorian Bedford, Bedford Architectural, Archaeological & Local History Society Newsletters numbers 90-92 (October 2012-2013) and number 89, April 2012, Waterloo – “A place where every description of vice abides”
May 18, 2021