ello, ello, ello! A history of the Wiltshire Police Force through the eyes of Paul Sample
14:19 12 January 2010
Ten years ago, Paul Sample, a one-time member of the Wiltshire Police Authority, researched and wrote a history of the Wiltshire Police Force, the oldest county force in the country.
Ten years ago, Paul Sample, a one-time member of the Wiltshire Police Authority, researched and wrote a history of the Wiltshire Police Force, the oldest county force in the country. In the New Year the force will celebrate its 170th anniversary, having just survived another Westminster-inspired threat of amalgamation, and the time is ripe to update the history accordingly. Readers who have information relating to the history of Wiltshire Constabulary can contact Paul via his office ((01722 744033) or by e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The continued independence of Wiltshire Constabulary is something to be valued and celebrated. The force has been luckier than our County Regiment, which disappeared into the Duke of Edinburgh's Royal Regiment (Berkshire & Wiltshire), half a century ago. Those charged with keeping the Queen's Peace have good reason to reflect on the past 170 years. Wiltshire Constabulary is justifiably proud of its Latin motto Primus et Optimus, literally 'First and Best' (now omitted from the crest). But it was a close-run thing. In November 1839 Wiltshire managed to beat Gloucestershire to the appointment of England's first county Chief Constable by a matter of hours!
Before 1839 law enforcement was the responsibility of the Parish or Petty Constables. They were unpaid and untrained. There was an ad-hoc approach to policing, which resulted in low detection rates. Criminals knew that they were extremely unlikely to be brought to book. Reform was needed. Throughout November 1830, agricultural workers staged major disturbances in the South West because of food price increases and low wages. On 23 November 1830, at Bishopdown Farm, near Salisbury, armed labourers marched on the city, intent on destroying Messrs Figes Iron Foundry. Within an hour, Salisbury was thrown into turmoil. Special Constables were sworn in and the Yeoman Cavalry were mobilised. The Riot Act was read and the crowd dispersed. A number of men were taken prisoner.
Trouble was in full swing in other parts of the county too. Mobs marched on Devizes, setting fire to winter food stores and stoning fire crews. One of the major disturbances during the agricultural riots was at Pythouse. The Hindon Troop of the Yeoman Cavalry came across a mob of more than 300 rioting near Tisbury. The local landowner, and local MP, Mr Bennett, attempted to reason with them but he, along with two of his employees, was attacked. The cavalry charged through a hail of stones to save their lives. One man was killed and many others were seriously injured. A Special Commission was brought to the county to try the offenders. There were 225 cases of wilful destruction of machinery and property. Two ringleaders were sentenced to death, but they were later reprieved and sent to the colonies.
These increasing levels of violence caused residents of Wiltshire to call for a force similar to the Metropolitan Police (started in 1829 with the Metropolitan Police Bill, which resulted in 'bobbies' on the streets of London). The Municipal Corporations Act was brought in during 1834, requiring police forces to be set up in the boroughs, and Salisbury took the opportunity to set up its own police force.
In 1839, the County Police Act was passed. The act was not mandatory, but authorised the setting up of police forces in the counties. The first Chief Constable, Captain Samuel Meredith RN, was appointed, and an advertisement placed in the Wiltshire Gazette on 19 December 1839. It read:
WANTED FOR THE CONSTABULARY FORCE in the COUNTY OF WILTS.
Their pay to be 17/6d. per week, with clothing.
To be under 40 years of age.
To stand five feet six inches without shoes.
To read and write and keep accounts.
To be free from any bodily complaint, of strong constitution, and generally intelligent.
Those recruited started their duties from January 1840. The first three months of recorded crimes included a highway robbery, five burglaries, nine incendiarisms, nine cattle thefts, 24 assaults, 35 drunk and disorderly, 59 felonies and 60 misdemeanours. The early uniform for a constable consisted of a coat, a greatcoat and badge, a cape, two pairs of trousers, boots, shoes, a hat and a stock (a close-fitting neckband).
Notable events that the Wiltshire force were involved in included a bomb explosion outside Salisbury Guildhall on 27 September 1884. The explosion damaged the exterior of the building and 14 panes of glass in the banqueting room. Nearby shop windows were also broken. On 24 December 1925 Wiltshire Constabulary attended the scene of the Trowbridge Christmas Eve Murder - the murder of traveller Teddy Richardson. The case caused national interest since one of those subsequently arrested was John Lincoln, son of a former Member of Parliament. Lincoln was found guilty and hanged at Shepton Mallett.
Famous French pilot Louis Blriot had a police presence accompany him on his visit to the British Army Flying Trials on Salisbury Plain in 1912. Blriot was the first to fly an aircraft across the English Channel. On 25 July 1909 his 25-horsepower monoplane made the 22-mile (35km), 40-minute flight from Les Barraques to Dover to win the much-sought-after London Daily Mail prize of 1,000. Three years later he came to Wiltshire to display his aircraft to the War Office. The men of Wiltshire Constabulary were assigned to the military exercises to keep order and liaise with the public. Blriot was exhibiting his monoplane at the trials, which were also attended by fellow aviator Samuel Cody.
Bringing the force history right up to date, I am struck by the massive impact of new technologies, like digital communications, helicopter operations, automatic number-plate recognition, computer-related crime, forensic science and genetic DNA profiling. Intelligence-led policing has also brought a significant increase in the effectiveness of the force. One of the biggest differences has been the impact of mobile telephones. The huge expansion of mobile-phone ownership has greatly increased the volume of calls. Today, the force control room at Devizes - which it now shares with the Fire and Ambulance Service - receives hundreds of thousands of calls a year. Almost everyone has a mobile telephone and a road traffic collision on the M4 or A303 may be reported from hundreds of mobiles within seconds of the incident occurring. In some cases the only response that can get to an incident in time is a motorcycle, or even a helicopter - which is now on 24-hour stand-by at its hangar in Devizes.
After the Z Cars years of the 1960s, when police rode around in Panda cars from one emergency to the next, the value of walking the beat or using two wheels is now making a welcome return. In some areas of Wiltshire, mountain bike patrols have been reintroduced. In Salisbury, the Special Constabulary have used mountain bikes to combat anti-social behaviour and vandalism in some of the city's parks and gardens.
Wiltshire Constabulary has seen great changes since 1839 and has survived abolition more than once. The next 170 years are sure to be just as unpredictable as the previous years. Let's hope that Wiltshire Police survives them.