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Policing Everyday Offending

Policing in the Three Towns

The project will examine  local policing arrangements within the Three Towns and how their respective police forces were organised by exploring the relationships between the community, the police, the magistracy and other local legal professionals. As the Three Towns grew in size during the nineteenth century, the boundaries between them became more opaque which presented challenges for the three separate police jurisdictions. It became increasingly difficult to establish where one town ended and the other began – something that is very apparent in the local newspaper coverage of crime events.

Union St Divided This problematic overlap was very noticeable on Union Street, world famous among sailors for its number of pubs and its associated drunken disorder:  part of the street was policed by the Plymouth Borough Police and the rest was under the jurisdiction of the Stonehouse Police which constituted H Division of the Devon County Police. As indicated by a brief survey already undertaken of local newspaper reportage at the end of the nineteenth century, this could lead to complications on all sides.

Devonport Police, 1913webPolice officers across the Three Towns were largely recruited from the working classes.   Exciting finds have already been made at the Devon and Cornwall Police Heritage Collection to illuminate the policing history of the Three Towns including Force Conduct and Discipline books which reveal that the previous occupation of the majority of recruits was labourer, with others having previously worked as bakers, carpenters and gardeners. For many of them, joining the Borough Police was seen as an avenue for social progression as they disclosed their reason for joining the force was ‘to better myself’ while some revealed the dissatisfaction with their previous working conditions such as a former porter of the Great Western Railway who stated that he resigned because ‘the hours of labour [were] too long’.


For the Chief Constables of the Plymouth and Devonport forces, a particular challenge was to monitor the performance and conduct of their officers. Effectively regulating police conduct is an issue which has persisted throughout the history of the police to the present day. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, typical behaviours which were punished to varying degrees included drinking (or being intoxicated) on duty, falling asleep and using improper language.

Despite the promise and expectation of social progression by joining the police, in 1872 officers in Plymouth and Devonport discovered that opportunities in other police forces were more financially rewarding. In May that year, it was reported that two-thirds of the Plymouth force had resigned to join other forces, and it was forecast that the town would be policed by just 20 officers by the end of that month. Many had also resigned from the Devonport force as their negotiations for what they considered ‘fair wages’ were not  addressed. Other police forces, particularly the Metropolitan Police Force, were able to capitalise on the local unrest by appointing the fully trained and drilled officers from Plymouth and Devonport. (Western Daily Press, 22 May 1872)


The Amalgamation of the Three Towns in 1914 streamlined the three separate forces into the single Plymouth Borough Police. This was renamed Plymouth City Police in 1928 when Plymouth was granted City status. Even after the amalgamation the borders of Plymouth still did not stretch as far as Crownhill, which became the new headquarters of H Division of the Devon County Constabulary. This Division covered an area of south west Devon which stretched as far as Horrabridge. The main headquarters for the Plymouth Borough Police was at the Guildhall on Royal Parade. There were satellite stations such as the one at Laira which still exposes the remnants of its former use in its stone lettering.
Policing (2)It was not until 1935 that the former prison at Greenbank was redeveloped to accommodate the magistrates’ court and police station (a site that has recently been developed as the aptly named The Courthouse student accommodation adjacent to the Aldi supermarket).

devonport police station original small


The Devonport Borough Police were based to the rear of Foulston’s illustrious Guildhall on Ker Street. The holding cells were situated underneath the Guildhall and the Magistrates’ Court was situated in the Main Hall.


The Stonehouse police station was based in the old Town Hall on Emma Place along with the County Court and Ball Room Policing (5). Throughout the twentieth century, the borders of Plymouth slowly expanded absorbing neighbouring communities. This included the assimilation of Plympton and Plymstock in 1967. However, the same year also saw the end of the Plymouth City Police as policing resources were further rationalised with the creation of the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary.

The ‘Youngest ‘ Chief Constable Ever

A noteworthy landmark in the history of the Plymouth Borough Police was the appointment of Joseph Sowerby as Chief Constable in 1893. Sowerby was just 29 years old when he was appointed. Policing (4) The emphasis under Sowerby’s predecessor, Superintendent Wreford, was on prosecuting low level behaviour such as bad language and drunkenness in order to try and prevent more serious violence and crime from developing and escalating. Newspaper editorials made it plain that it was this aspect of law-breaking that was considered the most detrimental to the peace and stability of the urban area of the Three Towns. When Sowerby took up his post he had a clear agenda for the Borough Police, which built on those concerns and was endorsed by the willingness of rate-payers to provide the funds for police prosecutions, ones which prioritised tackling drunkenness, prostitution and gambling.  Arguably his style of monitoring criminal and civil disorder in Plymouth can be regarded as an early example of zero tolerance policing.
PowerPoint Presentation

Sowerby was also instrumental in the arrest of Mrs Pankhurst on 4 December  1913 on her return, from the United States, to Plymouth. He arrested the suffragette leader on board the Majestic as it docked in Plymouth from New York. Sowerby was reported to have acted ‘promptly and courteously’ and he also ‘outwitted’ over 100 suffragette supporters denying them their chance to rally and protest. (Western Times 5 December 1913; Aberdeen Daily Journal 5 December 1913).

PowerPoint Presentation

There is a copy of Sowerby’s handwritten General Order to arrest Mrs Pankhurst on her return at the Police Heritage Collection.