KEVIN GORDON - Crime fighting and harsh punishment


Last week I wrote about the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway Police who policed the railway line through East Sussex in the 1840s, led by Superintendent William Acton.

In October, 1845, the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway was cutting through the land to the west of Lewes close to the ruins of the Cluniac Priory of St Pancras. Workmen began to unearth archaeological evidence dating from between 1078 when the priory was built, and 1537 after which it was destroyed as part of Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries.

Today, work would have been halted until a detailed examination could take place but in 1845 nothing could stop the railways, and work continued. Among the historic gems that were found, was what was believed to be the stone coffin lid of Gundrada, the daughter of William the Conquerer.

This was the year before the formation of the Sussex Archaeological Society, so who was at hand to make sure these ancient relics were safe? Superintendent Acton, of course.

The Illustrated London News of November 8, 1845, says that the good railway policeman actually took the relics to his home in Southover High Street for safe keeping. (The grave slab of Gundrada is now on display at nearby Southover Church).

Reading reports of Victorian crime, it is often surprising the see how harsh punishments were. This is well illustrated by the case of William Page, aged 53, a petty thief arrested by Superintendent Acton. In December, 1845, he appeared before Lewes Magistrates charged with stealing a bundle of sticks to the value of one penny from the railway at Folkington.

The newspaper report describes the poor man as a ‘half-starved looking labourer’ with ten children to feed. The prisoner said that he was employed, breaking flints for the road and was very badly off. This seemed to hold no truck with the magistrates and he received six weeks’ imprisonment.

Rather more leniency was shown to 17-year-old John Edwards who appeared before Lewes Magistrates accused of stealing grass seed from the railway in April, 1846.

Edwards was actually the superintendent’s next-door-neighbour in Southover High Street and bizarrely he was caught after he sowed the stolen seed in the superintendent’s back garden. The grass seed had been purchased by the railway to sow on the newly created embankments. Edwards had stolen some and then thrown it into the policeman’s back garden, telling the superintendent’s daughter, 14-year-old Elizabeth, that it would look ‘pretty against the garden wall’.

Young Elizabeth obviously inherited some of her father’s detective acumen as she became suspicious and told her father. Superintendent Acton compared the seed in his garden (a mixture of ryegrass and clover) to that used by the railway, and arrested Edwards who admitted the theft.

Edwards worked at Verrall’s brewery in Southover and his boss gave him a good character reference. Clemency was given and Edwards was sentenced to just two days’ imprisonment in the Lewes House of Correction. Reading between the lines I suspect that the accused had a crush on young Elizabeth.

He not only dealt with crime but also attended accidents such as that at Pevensey Sluice in August, 1846, when a number of people were injured following a derailment. This was just a few weeks after the line had opened to Bexhill. It appears that the suspect was the man in charge of the points at the scene, who had absconded since the crash.

On July 27, 1846, the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway merged with other railway companies and became a part of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway. The different Railway Police Forces were also amalgamated and the new HQ of the Railway Police was based at London Bridge Station. Despite a new employer (and probably new buttons on his uniform) Superintendent Acton’s duties did not change. In September, 1846, Acton was giving evidence to Hastings Magistrates concerning an assault at St Leonard’s.

In October 1846 Acton was at Lewes Magistrates for the case of two men accused of stealing timber from the railway at Hamsey. A part of their defence queried the validity of the recent Acts of Parliament made by the new railway company. Shortly after this he was transferred to Croydon. (Having lived in Lewes all his life, one wonders if this was a transfer he really wanted) In October 1847 he was giving evidence to Greenwich Magistrates after arresting six men who had placed timber on the railway line at Lewisham with the intent to endanger passengers.

He died there in 1853 aged 70, however his body was returned to his home town and he is buried at Southover Church in the grave of his first wife Lucy.

If you would like more information about the early history of policing the railways the British Transport Police History Group website has a lot more details at