‘His whole time belongs to the public’: the lot of the Victorian policeman

City police

London Police (c.1891) – you can see their duty armlets on their left wrists.

A Victorian policeman was expected to wear his uniform at all times of the day, regardless of whether he was on duty or not. According to the Police Code book an officer can ‘never be strictly off duty, for his whole time belongs to the public’.* To indicate he was on duty a policeman wore the striped armlet, the removal of which – in duty hours – was considered a very serious offence.

PC Josiah Norton  (770 City) was a good example of a police officer who took his vows of service seriously. He lived in digs above a watchmaker’s shop at 11 Barking Alley on the wonderfully named Seething Lane. On the night of the 22/23 February 1869 Norton was asleep then, around one in the morning, he was woken by ‘a slight noise’. His police sense told hi something was wrong and he got up and, dressed only in his nightshirt, went to investigate. As he descended the stairs to Mr Miller’s watch shop he saw an intruder who, seeing the other man, ran off with the policeman in pursuit.

The burglar ran out of the house and towards nearby Barking Church, tripping on some steps as he fled. Unfortunately for him two policemen were nearby, Inspector Harrison and Sergeant Hartopp. The running man looked suspicious so they questioned him. As they did PC Norton came running up, still dressed only in his night wear, and told them the fugitive was wanted for attempted burglary. Norton said he would have been with them quicker but the escaping felon had the presence of mind to bar one of the exits behind him.

In the Mansion House Police court the following day the man gave his name as James Cottrell, labourer but the police described him as the member of a ‘gang of burglars, all of whom are now in custody’. The magistrate, Sir Robert Carden, granted their request for a remand so that Cottrell’s character and circumstances might be investigated further.

Cottrell came to trial at the Old Bailey on the 1 March 1869. He pleaded guilty but tried to argue that he’d only entered Miller’s watch shop by accident: ‘I was making a convenience of the place, and fell in,’ he said. In other words he was using the doorway as a toilet when it opened unexpectedly. The judge was no more convinced than I imagine you are and, since he had a previous conviction from 1865, he handed down a seven-year sentence of penal servitude.  Cottrell was just 21 years of age; he served six years being released on license in February 1875.

As for PC Norton his heroics had not passed unnoticed by the City magistracy and police. Sir Robert Corden made a point of commending his dedication to duty in pursuing a criminal despite being undressed and said ‘he hoped his conduct would be reported to the commissioner’. It already had been, Inspector Harrison confirmed.

[from The Morning Post, Wednesday, 24 February, 1869]

*Neil A. Bell and Adam Wood, Sir Howard Vincent’s Police Code 1889, (Mango Books, 2015), p.24

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