Service Records

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Finding the relevant information about the birth, marriage and death of an ancestor sometimes isn't enough - you're left with the feeling that you would like to know more about the way a person lived their life.

Service records are a very useful means of discovering more because they can be quite detailed. Even in old records, you find general descriptions of a man's appearance, height and build, for instance. His children are often detailed with their birth dates ( although, rather annoyingly, the wife's maiden name is rarely mentioned.)

Policemen have service records very similar to those of soldiers but although military records have been carefully preserved over a very long period, the collection of police records is fairly recent and rather patchy. Here, we are most fortunate that the Devon and Cornwall Constabulary has set up a Police Museum where a number of individual records dating back to the 19th century are stored.


Coventry Police Station and Gaol around 1858

Coventry Police Station and Gaol around 1858

©West Midlands Police

James and George Stentiford were brothers who joined the Devon Constabulary in 1872 and 1874 respectively. They entered a service with strict rules and tight discipline and, certainly in their early days with the Force, it was a very hard life.

Until 1880 when 8-hour shifts were introduced, they would have worked a 12 hour shift, seven days a week with no time off for holidays. The day shift started at 6.45 am with a military-style parade and inspection and ended at 7.0pm. The night shift paraded at 6.45 pm and ended work at 7.0am.

Helmets were introduced in the 1860s - before that, policemen wore top hats to make them seem taller. The collar of their uniform was reinforced with leather so that they could not be strangled from behind and they had to wear a complete uniform at all times, even when off duty.

All kit and clothing were inspected once a week and, once a month, all police officers had to parade in order to have their hair and beards trimmed in the regulation style.

No police officer was allowed to marry until he had served in the force for at least a year and then only with the Police Commissioner's permission. Amazingly, this rule continued to be observed in some areas of the United Kingdom until the early 1950s! The families and backgrounds of both Mary Ann Cross and Sarah Martin were thoroughly investigated before their marriages could take place.

Each police officer had his own beat and was required to be in a certain place at a certain time. This was checked by an Inspector and recorded on a beat card. While going round, the duties ranged from "removing orange peel from the footpath" to "impounding stray cattle". A Police circular of 1881, asked that a special look out be kept "for the employment of children in sweeping chimneys". On the night shift, duties included calling at each shop several times to make sure it was still securely locked. A man on the beat could travel 25 miles during a night and this had to be walked at a set speed of 2˝ miles per hour.


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