The Denbighshire Constabulary: Challenges and Development 1840-1945

Guest blogger and volunteer, Stephen Lewis, has written this month’s blog post

About me

As a recent graduate of the University of Liverpool with a degree in history, the question of what steps to take next can sometimes be more challenging than any essay or exam a student may be faced with. Fortunately, when posed with this question myself in the closing years of my degree, the answer came relatively quickly. After vastly enjoying working with historical documents and material over the past three years, it soon became clear to me that managing, protecting and preserving the past as an archivist was the perfect profession to continue my love of history. To this end, I have had the pleasure of spending the past 4 months volunteering at Denbighshire Archives, in the hope of gaining enough experience of the archiving sector to undergo a Master’s Degree in Archives and Records Management in the near future.

After completing a variety of cataloguing projects during this time, I was also asked to use the archive’s collections to undertake a mini research project on a topic of my choosing by Sarah Roberts, the Lead Archivist responsible for Digital and Outreach Services. Due to my own interest in the police and with my grandfather being a former police constable, I quickly noticed the archive’s collections on the Denbighshire Constabulary, which left me curious about what information there was to uncover in its records.

The piece below is the result of my research project into the Denbighshire Constabulary. All documents used blog post can be found in the Denbighshire Constabulary collection at Denbighshire Archives under the reference DPD.

Stephen Lewis, Volunteer, Denbighshire Archives

Forming North Wales’ First Police Force

Once Sir Robert Peel’s Metropolitan Police Act established Britain’s first professional police force in London in 1829, it would be another 11 years before Denbighshire set up its own constabulary in an attempt to cut down crime in the area. The County Police Act (1839) paved the way for counties to create their own police force and enabled the founding of Denbighshire Constabulary following a Court of Quarter Session in 1840 that voted 17-4 in its favour.[1] The newly formed police force was amongst the first rural police forces in the UK as well as being the first police force in North Wales. Due to the large area it was expected to cover and the limited modes of transportation available at the time, Denbighshire Constabulary was split into 4 divisions, of which 3 were headed by a superintendent. The primary division was the Wrexham A division which had 8 constables and 1 horse, the Wrexham B division possessed another 8 constables and 1 horse, the Llanrwst division had 6 constables and 1 horse, followed by the Ruthin and Yale division that had 4 constables and no horse.[2]

With society developing at an ever-increasing pace in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it poses the question: how did the Denbighshire Constabulary change and adapt to the various challenges its faced in the first century after its formation?

Public Perception

One of the greatest challenges faced by the Denbighshire Constabulary was the intense distrust and animosity from the local community towards forming an organised rural police force. Like many civilians across the UK, it was feared that police would be used to oppress the public instead of protecting them, which led to the growth of substantial popular resistance against the Constabulary in its formative years. For example, in 1844 the discontent grew so strong that the matter of abolishing the Constabulary was brought before the Court of Quarter Session where it was saved only by the fact that the opposition lacked the two thirds majority required to disband the force for good.[3] Furthermore, in the 1850s, an article was published in the Wrexham Advertiser condemning the local authorities, claiming they lacked intelligence, had maintenance costs of over £1000 a year and were ineffectual in catching criminals.[4] While the County and Borough Police Act of 1856 asserted the Constabulary’s position by making rural police mandatory across all counties, it did little to reassure the public of both their ability and necessity.

With this in mind, one of the foremost priorities of Major Thomas J. Leadbetter, Denbighshire’s Chief Constable from 1878-1911, was to drastically improve the appearance and conduct of his officers in order to promote better relations with the community. Like all of Denbighshire’s early Chief Constables, Leadbetter was a former military man and carried with him a strict sense of duty, discipline and direction regarding where his reform of the Constabulary was headed. As a result, much of Leadbetter’s early general orders are devoted to matters involving strict rulings over officers keeping their uniforms and facial hair in a smart and presentable condition.[5] Leadbetter’s high standards and awareness of the public’s perception of his officers can be summed up by his general order on 28th September 1885 where he warned officers against ‘slovenly conduct such as gossiping and smoking which he believed was quickly seen by the public who were ‘apt to form an opinion of the whole force by the actions of one man.’[6]

Denbighshire Archives: DPD/2/15 Major Thomas J Leadbetter circa 1900

Denbighshire Archives: DPD/2/15 Major Thomas J Leadbetter circa 1900

However, while these issues in police conduct were relatively minor, the relationship between alcohol and police constables proved to be a far more difficult problem to resolve. For example, between 1860-1907, over 100 Denbighshire police officers were disciplined for alcohol related offences.[7] Mindful of how the Constabulary’s reputation might be tarnished upon seeing officers behave in a drunken manner, Leadbetter and his successors as Chief Constable issued severe punishments to offending policemen, including fines, demotions and even dismissals.[8] While the drinking culture amongst police officers did take a number of years to resolve, by 1908 the issue appears to have been largely dealt with. Between 1908 and 1944, just 9 officers were disciplined for alcohol related troubles, which marked the substantial progress made by the Constabulary towards ensuring the professionalism and discipline of its officers in front of the community.[9]

The Tithe Wars

Although the issue of public perception was a considerable challenge for the Constabulary, the civil discontent posed by the Tithe Wars led to unrest both in the community and in the police force itself. Between 1886-1891, North and Mid Wales erupted into a series of protests against the full payment of tithes, which was an obligatory tax paid by the public to the church that amounted to one tenth of a person’s income.[10]

The popular unrest in the community soon developed into an organised political movement following the founding of the Farmer’s Tithe Defence League, which combined with Thomas Gee’s Land Defence League and sought to reform the tithe system and calculate fair rents for farmers.[11]To make matters worse, those who did not pay their tithe faced eviction from their homes, which not only antagonised the public further, but also amplified the violence of the protestors.

As the demonstrations against the Tithe became more focussed and volatile, so too did the response from the Denbighshire Constabulary against them. On 20th December 1886, 80 policemen from the combined police forces of Flintshire and Denbighshire were required to escort an auctioneer tasked with selling land from those who refused to pay their tithe.[12] However, the presence of such as large police force did little to deter the protesters, who pelted the police with a volley of stones, eggs and snowballs.[13] With the police struggling to manage the rioters, the situation only deteriorated as the Tithe War continued. In 1888 the situation became so severe that a tithe auctioneer was almost thrown off a cliff by a mob at Llangwm, near Cerrigydrudion and was saved only by the appeal for common sense and morality from the Anti-Tithe League leaders present.[14]

However, it was not only the violence of the Tithe War that endangered the Denbighshire Constabulary, for the sympathies and emotions evoked from the Anti-Tithe League’s struggle led to a conflicted situation amongst the force. The duty of policemen to remain upholders of the law regardless of their personal beliefs came into serious question by the riots, as many constables came from the same working class, agricultural background as the very people they were attempting to suppress.[15] It is apparent that Leadbetter was likely aware of this conflict of interest, since in May 1888, he issued a general order declaring that all constables were to refrain from any communication with the Anti-Tithe League unless they were under obligation to do so.[16] As Kevin Griffiths suggests, it is probable that once the Tithe War ended following the passing of the Tithe Recovery Act in 1891, there was a sense of great relief amongst the Constabulary, following several years of violence, turmoil and conflicting emotions.[17]

The First and Second World War

Although the First and Second World War were each an incredibly challenging period for all of British society, for the Denbighshire Constabulary, it was both a time of development as well as adversity. When the First World War commenced and Britain turned to its people for aid, the Constabulary found itself in the potentially uncomfortable position of having to maintain a sufficient number of staff to uphold the law whilst also facing the question of whether to allow its officers to fight for their country. The answer for Edward Jones, the Chief Constable between 1912-1921, was to allow his men to join the conflict and to even guarantee that they would keep their jobs upon their safe return, albeit by sacrificing their pension whilst they served their country.[18] For those who remained in their post, life continued relatively as normal, with the exception of a few extra wartime duties such as reporting any foreign aircraft spotted on the coast.[19]

By the time of the Second World War, the Constabulary was once again ready to give up its manpower for the protection of the country, but in doing so, was forced to adapt to the challenges of wartime Britain. In order to reinforce its strength, the Constabulary imitated other British police forces by recalling its retired officers back to the force, as well as recruiting special constables for the first time. [20] Moreover, the Constabulary also made its first steps towards gender equality by employing its first female officer, Glenys Jones, in February 1944.[21]

Just as in the First World War, police officers were once again tasked with adapting to the wartime environment, though on an even greater scale. For instance, officers were now responsible for ensuring that all motor vehicles were only in use when absolutely necessary and that all houses turned off their lights after sunset, with officers being given the power to enter the houses of people who did not comply.[22]

Policing Denbighshire Today

Following end of the Second World War in 1945, the Denbighshire Constabulary continued to operate until it merged with Flintshire Constabulary and Gwynedd Constabulary in 1967, under the name of the latter. By 1974 however, the expanded Gwynedd Constabulary was renamed the North Wales Police in order to better reflect the various counties that fell under its jurisdiction. Today, the North Wales Police force is based at its headquarters in Colwyn Bay, in addition to its divisions in St. Asaph, Caernarfon and Wrexham.

[1] K. Griffiths, The History of Policing in Denbighshire 1839-2000 (2001), Denbighshire Archives, DRO NTD/1714, p.1.

[2] Ibid, p. 2

[3] Ibid, p.2

[4] Ibid, pp.2-3.

[5] Chief Constable’s Papers, General Order Books 1878-1922, Denbighshire Constabulary Records, Denbighshire Archives, DPD/2/1, p.4.

[6] Ibid, pp.10-11.

[7] Description Books of Police Officers, 1849-1902, Denbighshire Constabulary Records, Denbighshire Archives, DPD/5/4, pp.1-100.

[8] Ibid, pp.1-100.

[9] Description Books of Police Officers 1902-1946, Denbighshire Constabulary Records, Denbighshire Archives, DPD/5/6.

[10] T. Jones, Rioting in North East Wales 1536-1918, Denbighshire Archives, BPD 1788, p.56.

[11] Ibid, p. 59.

[12] Ibid, p. 59.

[13] Ibid, p.59.

[14] Jones, Rioting in North East Wales, p.62.

[15] Griffiths, The History of Policing in Denbighshire, p.4

[16] Chief Constable’s Papers, General Order Books 1878-1922, Denbighshire Constabulary Records, Denbighshire Archives, DPD/2/1, pp. 11-12.

[17] Griffiths, The History of Policing in Denbighshire, pp.4-5.

[18] Chief Constable’s Papers, General Order Books 1878-1922, Denbighshire Constabulary Records, Denbighshire Archives, DPD/2/1, p.121

[19] Ibid, p. 121.

[20] Griffiths, The History of Policing in Denbighshire, p. 10.

[21] Ibid, p. 10.

[22] Ibid, p.10.

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4 Responses to “The Denbighshire Constabulary: Challenges and Development 1840-1945”

  1. Deborah Smith Says:

    My great great grandfather was John Bradshaw, mentioned in this article . He joined as superintendent at Llanwrst 1840s, moving to Wrexham where he was promoted to Deputy Chief constable. He retired 1877 with a pension, presentation and general acclaim from the local population

    • Gwyn Roberts Says:

      Deborah Smith – I am composing the History of the Denbighshire, having served in that force and now 76 years old.
      I have come across the name John Bradshaw, your Great Great Grandfather, on numerous occasions.
      Could you impart any more details about him? – and anyone else who served in thst force.

      Gwyn Roberts
      Gwyncid@aol.com

      • Deborah Smith Says:

        Hi Gwyn, would be very pleased to give you some info about John, including his photo. I feel he was a very interesting character. If you give me your email address or message I will get back to you
        Deb

  2. Margaret Owen Says:

    I am in a similar position to you, having just graduated with a history degree from Glyndŵr University. I too am working as a volunteer at my nearest archives in Llandrindod. However, I am, at 63, probably a little older than you and probably not likely to make a career in the archive world! I wish you all the best as you begin your career as an archivist. This was an interesting article and it has encouraged me to look for the research possibilities available in my own archives.

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