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Widecombe History Group Talk August 1999
Illustrated Talk - History of the Devon Constabulary by Simon Dell
Simon Dell, Community Policeman for 16 years in the Tavistock and Lamerton areas of West Devon gave us an amusing, interesting and informative talk on the History of The Devon Constabulary.
"The Beat on Western Dartmooi" is his first book and this he was encouraged to write after realising that very little on the history of the police force has actually been written down. Copies were available for anyone wishing to purchase a copy and can still be obtained through most police stations and local book shops. He is currently researching for his next book which will mainly be a photographic record of the police forces that now make up the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary. He started by giving a slide show and explaining that years ago there were many Parish Constables, then individual police forces, Okchampton, Liskeard, Truro all had their own, and City police, Exeter, Plymouth etc. Several police forces were assisted by Special Constables recruited from the parishes within their areas. Cornwall Constabulary formed in 1857 and their uniform was based on that of the Bow Street Runners.
That was Top Hats and a Frock Coat. Each policeman had a number on his collar (duly called collar numbers), they are still known as collar numbers but they are now worn on the shoulder. Early truncheons were painted and decorated, this in the early days was the equivalent of a badge of office as they had no uniforms. The first helmets came in about cl870's and the wearing of breast numbers commenced. By the 1890's they were back with collar numbers, uniforms seemed to change quite regularly. In 1913 there were "Clay Strikes" in Cornwall and Devon when many clayworkers went on strike for more money and better conditions, this gave the police a lot of extra work and police from other areas were drafted in to help with law and order. The Glamorgan police force had more protective uniforms, that was due to them having been used to quell disturbances in the Welsh Mines earlier. As uniforms altered they also wore chevrons on their sleeves to depict first or second or third class policemen. Up to 1928 in Plymouth there were Plymouth Borough Police, Devonport Borough Police and Stonehouse District Police, after which it amalgamated to Plymouth City Police. During the war the police force suffered many losses of man power. 1967 saw the final parade of the Plymouth City Police Force before becoming part of the Devon Constabulary. St John Ambulance badges were worn by many who had the necessary qualifications. Some of the police forces had mounted horse groups for special occasions, some also had police boxes placed around the towns for their use. In the early days cottages were rented as Police Stations and a Devon Constabulary sign was erected above the door and the policeman's collar number attached. This was before they had their own police houses built on the style of our last police house, (now Rutherford House). The prison mutiny at Dartmoor Prison of 1932 was mentioned, when police from all over the county were called into action. The 1952 floods at Lynton was another major incident that the police had to deal with and many acts of bravery were undertaken during that emergency. Mid 1960's saw the arrival of a dog section in the county, it started with the use of bloodhounds but has developed farther since.
Then came 'Panda Cars' and in 19834 more industrial strikes needed policing.
Many of the uniforms, scenes of activity and duties were depicted in the variety of slides shown to the meeting and after that part of Mr Dells address various artifacts relating to policing and uniforms were exhibited.
A selection of truncheons were shown including the early painted forms, and the more modem types. Handcuffs of different types were shown some needed a lot of time to fasten and even the old toggle type of handcuff was included in his collection. Very often son followed father into the force, a family occupation not unlike other services. Even an old belt lantern which was carried on policemenís belts was shown to the group. Whistles formed part of his collection several with different constabularies engraved on them, and in different shapes. Many had 'Metropolitan' engraved on them. This did not mean the Metropolitan force, but the style and manufacturer that made them. Many special constables only had an arm band to wear. The old police Ledger Books are a wonderful source of historical information. The old beat books recorded everything that happened in the parish, alas Geoffrey Bamsey stated that the Widecombe Ledger seems to have been destroyed. Simon showed a photograph album, rescued from a skip, that had a wonderful collection of photographs of the Dartmoor Prison Mutiny, the meeting expressed surprise at the amount of artifacts that still get dumped and destroyed, by all and sundry. A selection of helmets and hats were passed around. Examples of forgeries were shown, a coin which was hollowed out to hold small L. S.D. tablets, forged 10p and 50p pieces, £10.00 and £20.00 notes, articles that are made by prisoners, pipes, boxes etc. Simon Dell finished his talk with several amusing stories and anecdotes and we were left with the impression that sometimes "A Policeman's lot is not a happy one, but there are times when it is!"
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