As a retired police officer, I am fascinated by the history of the police. Although I was in the British Transport Police and have been actively researching the history of policing the railways, I am also interested in the Sussex Police. As I have lived in Seaford for many years I have found out a little about one of our local constables.
Police Constable James Selmes of the East Sussex Constabulary was based at Seaford in the 1850s and 1870s.
James was born in 1823 and was later married to Elizabeth. They were both born and had lived for many years in Battle. They had two boys, John and Henry, and a girl called Mary. James was over 30 when he joined the East Sussex Constabulary, just a few years after it was established in 1840. His previous employment was as a farm labourer.
I suspect he joined the force in the mid-1850s and served a short time in Lewes (where the headquarters of the force were) before moving to Seaford. In June 1857 he was giving evidence to Lewes Magistrates for a case where a beer shop owner, William Welfare, was convicted of allowing drunkenness.
Following his transfer to Seaford, he moved into the Police Station in the High Street opposite where the Cinque Ports Pub is now located. (Although at this time it was called the Rising Sun Inn).
He lived in the police station with his family and made an immediate impression. On 29th September ,1857, Henry Simmons new Bailiff (mayor) was appointed at the town hall in South Street. The outgoing bailiff, Mr Charles Saxby, gave a speech thanking the other members of the corporation and said there had been very few problems in his year of office, which was particularly attributed to ‘the exertions of Constable Selmes’.
It was good that PC Selmes was keeping the peace but he was also busy catching criminals.
Today it appears that these crimes were somewhat petty but when you look at the punishments meted out, it can be seen that the magistrates did not consider this to be the case.
In January, 1858, Jesse Wood was convicted of stealing an old door from the back garden of the Reverend Dennis of East Blatchington.
PC Selmes had discovered some broken wood in the prisoners’ yard which had been identified by the clergyman’s gardener William Reed. Wood was convicted and when it was discovered he had had previous convictions, he was given three months’ imprisonment with hard labour.
In August, 1859, the Sussex Advertiser described Seaford as being a “healthy little watering place which is full of visitors’.
Officer Selmes must have been extra vigilant with all the crowds. The same edition of the paper also reports that he had arrested James Blackford for picking the pocket of Edwin Vintey who was a visiting reaper.
Searching for references for PC SELMES shows the range of his work.
The Buckle Inn was a busy seafront pub and one day in April 1858 the landlady, Mrs Geering, noticed a beer glass was missing from a table where Susanna Pearce had been sitting a few minutes before. The police were called and PC Selmes searched the suspect’s home and discovered the missing glass. She was arrested and later sentenced to serve one month imprisonment with hard labour. Can you image such a fuss being taken about a missing glass in 2012? It presumably proves that drinking glasses were more valuable in Victorian times than they are today.
In June, 1864, PC Selmes was in the local Magistrates’ Court (held at the town hall in South Street) twice.
First caseinvolved Margaret Davies who he had arrested in the New Inn (now the Wellington Pub) after she had stolen the cap of labourer, Robert Simmons.
The second case involved Mary Smith for the theft of money. In both cases the women had been drinking heavily. Davies was sentenced to seven days’ imprisonment which would have been served in one of the cells under the town hall. Mrs Smith was found not guilty, mainly because her accuser was also drunk at the time of the offence.
James was a police officer for many years. The census on 1881 shows that at the age of 58, he was still in the East Sussex Constabulary but had been transferred a few miles towards Eastbourne to East Dean. I have done more research on this police officer and have discovered some of the interesting cases in which he was involved. These will be the subject of an article at a later date.