A particular focus of the project is to investigate the involvement of military and naval personnel in everyday offending to ascertain what evidence there is of soldiers and sailors creating crime problems amongst the civilian population, especially those associated with immoral conduct such as drink related disorder and prostitution, and how service transgressors were subsequently dealt with. Particularly problematic was the area around Union Street and The Octagon, world famous among sailors for the number of public houses in the locality and associated drunken disorder and immorality.
In the mid-nineteenth century the number of brothels in Plymouth prompted concern from ratepayers and the local gentry about the perceived scale of such ‘immoral practices’. In 1863 there were 154 brothels in the Plymouth area which led to regular crackdowns by the police and magistracy to control activities by arresting and prosecuting the owners and landlords of licensed premises and lodging houses. In 1865 it was estimated that over 100 ‘girls of ill- fame’ were working in the Fore Street and George Street areas in Stonehouse where between 2-3,000 soldiers were lodged in the immediate vicinity. The Stonehouse Police Superintendent successfully prosecuted a number of beerhouse keepers who were convicted for permitting prostitutes to frequent their premises. The Chairman of the Bench of Stonehouse Police Court commented that ‘We look upon your occupation with the most profound and unmitigated disgust, for the consequence on the morals and health of the town is to fearful to contemplate’ (The Royal Cornwall Gazette, 14 December 1865).
In addition to the Three Towns’ forces was the Metropolitan police who policed the Dockyard from 1860. Although their duty for the most part involved in tracking AWOL servicemen and policing the river, more controversially, they also came into frequent contact with the public when using their powers under the Contagious Diseases Acts 1864-69. By 1870 there were still 139 brothels in Plymouth despite the enactments which attempted to indirectly improve the health of sailors and soldiers by controlling prostitution through the arrest and detention of ‘infected’ women. The Contagious Diseases Acts gave power to the police to arrest anyone they believed to be a prostitute and subject them to invasive and brutal tests for venereal disease and also to send them to secure hospitals. In Plymouth and Devonport this was conducted by the Metropolitan Police whose insensitive and indiscriminate practice seemed to make little distinction between prostitutes and the poor. The particularly unsympathetic Inspector Salis Anniss was reported to have received between 70-80 women a day in the examination room. (M. Partridge, (2013) Policing in Plymouth, Devonport and Stonehouse, 1835-1886, unpublished MRes Thesis, Plymouth University, p. 76)
An 1872 Town Clerk noted that Union Street was unhealthy ‘ its level being as low as the sea and its inhabitants lower still.’ While the Acts were popular with Plymouth magistrates (but not Devonport magistrates) the police were less enthusiastic: for example, when testifying to the Home Office in 1882 Plymouth Chief Constable Wreford criticised their usefulness.
Plymouth’s Chief Constable Sowerby described Union Street as the ‘most difficult street in Plymouth to manage’. He ordered his constables to be proactive filling the magistrates and petty sessions’ registers with lists of offenders charged with minor offences such as drunk and disorderly, drunk and incapable, using profane and obscene language, keeping disorderly houses and harbouring prostitutes. He also regularly visited the premises of every licensed trader in Plymouth instigating proceedings against many of them for unlawfully permitting drunkenness, opening premises during prohibited hours, permitting them to be used as an improper house, and harbouring thieves and prostitutes.
Sowerby instigated 79 proceedings against licensees for unlawfully permitting drunkenness, opening premises during prohibited hours and permitting them to be used as an improper house, harbouring thieves and prostitutes. The magistrates closed 60 public houses as a result with few licensees winning any appeals at the Quarter Sessions. And the reason why Sowerby conducted the inspections himself? Licensees were harbouring and supplying liquor to police constables on duty. When giving evidence to the 1897 Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws he said: ‘I do not entirely trust to the men I have the honour to command, to get my information. I visit the houses myself, personally, night and day, and I have done so the whole time I have been there’ (Royal Commission on Liquor Licensing Laws  c.8523 p.215).