KEVIN GORDON - Constables on the track of criminals

Railway policeman of the 1800s
Railway policeman of the 1800s

Last week I wrote about the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company (BL&HR) which started running services in June 1846 and was incorporated into the London Brighton and South Coast Railway just four weeks later.

However the Railway Company did have its own police force to maintain order as the line was being built.

Having spent 34 years as a British Transport Police officer I have always been interested in the history of policing the railways.

The very first railway policeman I have been able to trace was Joseph Sedgewick the first constable to be employed by the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

This was before 1826. It is a strange fact that there were railway policemen before there were railways and the BL&H Railway illustrates this well as they employed police before the line was opened. Although the railway started running in 1846 it took two years to actually build.

Thousands of Navvies were used to construct the line. They were a rough and ready bunch of labourers from all over the country including Ireland and even the continent.

They had previously been used to dig navigations (canals) hence their name. A contemporary account says: “They injured everything they approached, from their huts to the part of the railway they were working on, over corn and grass, they tore down embankments, injured young plantations, made gaps in hedges with no regard to the damage or property they invaded.

“Game disappeared from the most sacred of game preserves, gamekeepers were defied and country gentlemen who had imprisoned country rustics by the dozen shrank in despair of the railway navigator.”

As a result the Special Constable Act of 1838 required railway companies to employ police officers to keep the peace. Sussex magistrates pre-empted the act and the Brighton Petty Sessions of 30th July 1838 engaged Henry Reed to be the first railway policeman in Sussex.

Brighton Borough Police were also established the same year but the East Sussex Constabulary was not formed until 1840.

The new Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Company employed a police superintendent and several constables. The superintendent was William Acton who was based at Lewes Station. Acton gave evidence a number of times to the Lewes magistrates. Not every case concerned the railway; on one occasion providing a report as to the sanity of a Southover publican.

In December 1844, he arrested one William Pullen with the assistance of a Lewes Special Constable. Pullen had damaged a gate protecting the railway works and had stolen a small amount of timber. He was sentenced to two weeks’ imprisonment with hard labour.

Superintendent Acton also arrested seven labourers who had been responsible for beating up a railway man at a pub (Reed’s Beershop) at Hodshrove (near the present day Moulscoomb Station)

The victim, Robert Apsley, said that he was set upon in the pub and feared for his life after he had been kicked in the face, several teeth being knocked out. The men were convicted and served time at Lewes Gaol. Superintendent Acton and his police officers had an office at Falmer Station. The Sussex Advertiser of 3rd June 1845 records the case of the theft of a velveteen jacket from a railway worker which was reported to “Falmer Railway Police Station” One of the Brighton. Lewes and Hastings Railway Police Constables, Henry Alderton, hurried into Brighton where he spotted the offender and arrested him, taking him back to the railway police station at Falmer where the victim identified his missing coat.

William Harris (23) was later convicted and received six weeks imprisonment with hard labour. Superintendent Acton also arrested William Akehurst in October 1845 for stealing turnips from a field at Moulescoomb. Akehurst, received 10 days imprisonment with hard labour. Another constable of the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Police was James Warrener who lived in Lewes. He arrested a man in July 1845 for the theft of money from a laundry in South Street, Lewes. As the thief was believed to be a railway worker, a complaint was made to PC Warrener, who, following enquiries traced the thief and arrested him at Mr Lyego’s Beershop in Ripe.

Superintendent William Acton was born in Lewes in 1784, the son of the Parish Clerk for Southover. At the age of 24 he married Lucy Clark at Slaugham Church and they had eight children. Lucy died in 1825 and William remarried Elizabeth Trott three years later and he had a further three children. For most of his life he lived in Southover High Street. Prior to being appointed superintendent for the local Railway Police he was a constable in Southover, variously described as a ‘Parish Constable’ or ‘Headborough’ (A term that dates from Saxon times).

Next week I will write more about Superintendent Acton. If you would like to know more about the history of policing the railways, the British Transport Police History Group website has a lot more details on www.btphg.org