From Mrs Jean V Hayward, Wellington, Somerset
Covering the period when her ancestor, James Cornish was in the Service

Police Service Record of James Cornish

  • Age on joining _ 23 Date of Joining _ 26 Apr 1871

  • Born _ Milverton Previous occupation _ Labourer


  • 26 Jun 1880 Commended for detecting and apprehending a woman for stealing shirts

  • Nov 1881 Commended for apprehending a woman on suspicion of having committed a robbery

  • 07 Jun 1882 Promoted to 1st Class

  • Aug 1889 Promoted to Long Service Class

  • 02 Apr 1913 Retired on pension


  • 14 Oct 1871 Not finding a door and a window open where robbery had been committed _ fined 1/_

  • 24 Apr 1872 Drunk when on duty in plain clothes _ fined 3 days pay and severely reprimanded

  • 20 Feb 1876 Being in a public house when on duty _ fined 2/_

  • 21 Nov 1876 Absent from his quarters without leave _ fined a days pay

  • Received 3 testimonials I tendered to the Watch Committee on my appointment in the Bristol Constabulary and a certificate marked 'Exemplary' _ signed James Cornish


In 1876, four Divisions were set up _

  1. The City Centre and Bridewell

  2. South. Bedminster turnpike road from the Harbour Bridge

  3. NW. Brandon Hill, Jacob Wells Road

  4. E. Trinity Road, St Philips

In 1882, B Division was moved to East Street, Bedminster, and in 1891 C Division was stationed in Lower Redland Road to cover Clifton and Redland. The staffing in 1892 was _

Division Chief
Supt. Insp. Sgt. Const. Total
A 1 1   11 12 130 155
B     1 3 11 66 81
C       2 3 11 65
D     1   10 64 77
Total 1 1 3 19 44 325 393


Year Population Police Ratio
1871 182,552 303  
1872 185,367 357 1:519
1881 206,503    
1891     1:560
1897 232,040 401 1:560
1898 320,911 488 1:657
1901 326,086    
1906 363,233 549  

In 1871, Constables had 10 hour duties. This was decreased to 8 hour duties in 2x4 hour shifts in 1872. However, Sergeants normally had 10 to 12 hour shifts. It was not until 1899 that allowance was made for meal breaks. Leave for Constables and Sergeants was 10 days in 1876. Not until 1896 was this altered when they had 7 days annual leave and 1 day of each month, a total of 19 days a year. Elsewhere in the Police Service the average was 10 days annual leave and 26 days off a year, a total of 36 days.

Constables patrolled their set beats at 2.5 miles an hour and covered 20 miles a day. Discipline was severe and dismissals and other punishments, including fines, were arbitrary. The most common "crime" was drunkenness and punishment was meted out to Policemen who were even drinking off duty. This would entail a fine or "reduce to the ranks" or both. Persistent offences meant dismissal. In 1884, a Sergeant was dismissed because he married a woman who kept a beer house.

Inspectors on horseback ensured that the men on the beat were performing their duties. Absence without leave could mean seven days imprisonment with hard labour. Insubordination, idling, or neglect of duty could also be punished by dismissal. Officers could be dismissed without any reason being given. Getting into debt could also result in dismissal. But for the pension, many men would have left the Force.

Recruits joined as Sixth Class Constables and were promoted annually to first Class Constable. For some, promotion could be rapid, but generally prospects were poor. Wages were poor. In 1878, Constables received between 22 shillings and 28 shillings a week, Sergeants 32 shillings to 34 shillings, Inspectors 47 shillings and the Chief Constable received �600 per year. This pay left them slightly less than the average throughout the country.

In 1892, the Watch Committee granted an 8% increase in pay. Widows and children of deceased Policemen received a gratuity of between �25 and �50 and in 1899 the Watch Committee opened an orphanage for Policemen's children and a home for retired Policemen. In 1890 there was a pension right for 25 years service and for losing his job through injuries received through his duties. In 1893 Policemen were allowed to vote in municipal elections.

With the stability of the cost of living during the later years of Queen Victoria, the Policeman's lot became equal to that of a skilled labourer and the job offered respectability and a reasonable wage.

Recruits had to be literate, under 40 years of age, at least 5 foot 7 inches, of good character and be able to pass a medical examination. They were taught drill, use of the cutlass and Police duties, but mostly they were employed in window cleaning, fire lighting and making tea. After 3 months the recruit became a Sixth Class Constable.

Bristol Police led the way by photographing criminals in 1850 in their fight against crime. To further assist them they had helmets, whistles, handcuffs and truncheons, although lead_headed staves, cutlasses and pistols were kept at Bridewell.

A 24 hour telephone service was introduced to connect Bridewell with its outlying stations in 1882. The cost of installation was �63.10s.0d. A prison van was purchased in 1880 to transport prisoners who had until then been led in chains along the public highway.

A very high crime rate was attributed to drunkenness and in 1874 the Licensing Act required Police to inspect licensed premises. and in 1882 a police crusade was started against alcoholism and disorderly houses, and the crime figures show a decline in drunkenness from 4,277 in 1877 to 2,292 in 1895.

The Salvation Army in its parallel fight against alcoholism provoked great antagonism so that the police had to very often rescue them from the mobs. Until 1885, the police could only harass prostitutes and the landlords of licensed houses, but the Criminal Law Amendment Act then gave them powers to close brothels and arrest the owners.

Police also enforced the suppression of street trading, hawking, street_cries, street_gaming and begging. They also had to control child labour following the Cruelty to Children Acts of 1883 and 1884. In 1894, it is recorded that a Constable '.... administered three strokes of the birch to a 17 year old boy.'

The Detective Department commenced in 1880 with 278 detectives and were very successful. In 1884, a would_be assassin was arrested before he could kill the Prince of Wales during a visit to the city. Plain_clothes officers had been used since 1856, their main purpose being to arrest pick_pockets.

Other Policemen specialised in the role of fire_fighters In 1876, the Insurance Companies announced that they were to disband their private fire brigades and it was decided to use constables from the River Section, formed in 1844, as firemen. In 1884 the Watch Committee spent �2,500 on a self_propelling, floating. steam fire engine, 'Salamander', to protect the City Docks. In 1877 there were 11 Constables, a steam operated fire engine, 5 hand_operated engines, 6 hose carts and 6 fire escapes. By 1900 this had swelled to 1 Inspector, 4 Sergeants and 24 men. Their success rate was much criticised and in 1896 a separate Police Fire Brigade was formed, manned by full_time firemen. This remained in existence until 1941 when it became absorbed into the National Fire Service during World War II.

Other duties of the River Section were protecting moored vessels, helping Customs and Excise and the Harbour Master, dragging and recovering bodies from the river and, in 1875, enforcing the Plimsoll Line regulations. From 1880's the River Section became so involved in the Avonmouth and Portishead Docks that they were relieved from their land fire_fighting duties.

A mounted section was formed in 1899, consisting of 1 mounted Inspector and 8 mounted men and took its training from the British Army Cavalry Manual. They were of little effect during the labour disturbances of 1889_1893 and proper training in crowd control and horse obedience had to wait until the next century.

Fifty officers were sent to Cardiff in 1891 to maintain order during strikes there. In 1892, the Bristol Dockers Union called a strike and the Police had to protect the imported 'blacklegs'. The Police were sorely stretched and on 22 December 1892, 200 Dragoons and Hussar Lancers arrived from Aldershot to assist. The Riot Act was read, but the mob did not disperse and in came the soldiers. Many people were injured, amongst them 51 constables. This was very reminiscent of the Bristol Riots of 1831 which have been well documented elsewhere and the material is not repeated in this narrative.

As time went on, the Policeman's duties expanded. Not only did he have to deal with vagrants, destitute and unmarried mothers, alcoholics, mentally ill, child labour and other misfortunes besetting the lower end of society, but in 1882 and 1889 they took provisions to the flooded people of Bedminster, pioneered the ambulance service, dealt with the growing problem of road traffic and rescue jumpers from the Avon Gorge. In 1878 they became Inspectors of Food and Drugs, became responsible for the execution of the Explosives Act of 1875 with the advent of the storage of petrol, weights and measures in 1880's and the Shop Hours Act of 1892 and the Port Sanitary Authority.

This was proving to be increasingly cumbersome and in the 1880's civilians were employed to do the paper work and to relieve the Police for their street duties.

The period covered in this story is 1871 to 1913, the period when James Cornish was in the Bristol Police. I hope that this serves to 'put some meat on the bones'.

Acknowledgement to Brian Howell, The Police in Late Victorian Bristol.
Bristol Branch of the Historical Association ISBN 0 901388 54 X 8