he Act of 1835 created a police force in the Borough of Dartmouth, also known as Clifton Dartmouth Hardness, on 1st January 1836. The first and only head constable was William Hearn, who had four special constables in his charge, although by 1847 the Corporation of Dartmouth was able to afford the appointment of a deputy by the surname of Earle. Throughout the 1840s,

Hearn satisfied the caprices of the town's solicitors by serving notices and writs on their behalves, something that earned him a pretty penny. Headquarters were at the Town Gaol, adjacent to St. Saviour's Church.


Two incidents in 1847 tested the resolve and honesty of Head Constable Hearn. On 28th February, a gang known as the 'Swell Mob' landed at Dartmouth and burgled several houses while the residents were attending church. Infuriated by this heinous crime, the Mayor ordered Hearn and Earle to take a troupe of special constables and hunt the perpetrators down. Over the course of the day, the entire Dartmouth Borough Police force scoured South Devon in league with a retinue of determined volunteers, taking in Dittisham, Torquay, Paignton, Preston and Newton Abbot. Late in the evening, the word of a mail carrier who had seen a group of tired looking men heading towards Chudleigh led Hearn to a busy public house where the mob he was looking for were basking in the glory of their success. Or so they thought. Hearn and Earle arrested the lot of them, although during the fracas the offenders cruelly discarded items of stolen finery in the pub's fireplace. Despite the loss of evidence, the Mayor of Dartmouth was convinced enough of their guilt and committed them to the Town Gaol until the next Quarter Sessions.


The second incident occurred during the run up to the 1847 General Election. Messrs Prout and Bridgeman, attorneys for the Liberal interest, employed Hearn to investigate citizens of the borough suspected of trying to corrupt the vote. A campaigner from the Tory Party approached Hearn one evening and offered him £500 in exchange for the names of the alleged. Before slipping off into the night like some dastardly spectre, the mysterious gentleman told him to 'sleep on it.' Hearn was having none of it, and immediately shopped the man in to the Dartmouth Magistrates, severely damaging the reputation of the Tory Party.

Pity for the poor Kingdon caused many spectators to throw him their spare change!

The Town Gaol, governed by Thomas Bourden, was not completely secure. Between 1st and 7th November 1840, a prisoner known as Kingdon twice escaped from his cell by climbing down the drain in the cell floor and into the cesspit. The cesspit carried on into a lane to the rear of the gaol, where Kingdon used only his bare hands to remove a large amount of earth. While his first attempt was mostly successful (he was captured by the town constable a short time after) the second attempt was not so. Noticing that Kingdon was sat in his cell one morning covered in dirt, the gaoler wandered off to get him some water to bathe in. On returning and finding the cell empty, a concerted effort to locate him was made and Kingdon was found making his final grasp for freedom in the lane behind. Such was the sensation caused that a large crown gathered as the now obviously trapped Kingdon had to be dug out. Pity for the poor Kingdon caused many spectators to throw him their spare change!


In the first week of January 1857, the Town Council announced its intention to disband the Dartmouth Borough Police in anticipation of the services of the new county police about to be formed in Devon. By decree of the council, the Devon Constabulary was paid £15 per annum for its services and an additional £20 per annum for the employment of a Police Sergeant in the town. Three additional constables were appointed in Dartmouth entirely at the cost of the corporation, and on 8th November 1858 nineteen special constables were sworn in. Constable Hearn did not find employment with the Devon Constabulary, although in 1861 he was still active about town as a mace-bearer. As Dartmouth was a municipal borough under the Act of 1835, it was entitled to keep its Police Watch Committee which continued to oversee policing of the town for many decades after the county police moved in.


The Watch Committee was often at odds with the chief constable of Devon over how the police in Dartmouth should be run. The chief insisted that the force paraded weekly in Kingsbridge, and it was the committee's frequent complaint that the journey there and back was exhausting the men. In December 1887, the town Sergeant Thomas Allin was demoted by the Superintendent of Totnes and ordered to remove himself to a new placement at Ilfracombe in North Devon. Allin was investigating a case of arson at the home of a well-connected gentleman whose manservant was the accused. Allin found no evidence of criminal intent, which infuriated the victim of the fire who then made a complaint to the superintendent.


The superintendent's circumvention of the Watch Committee, his decision to demote and remove Sergeant Allin, and to have done so with no evidence of Sergeant Allin's alleged insubordination infuriated the Watch Committee who called for an enquiry into the future of policing in the borough. The most tragic part of the saga was the suicide of Sergeant Allin only days after his demotion. In his grief, Allin took a large dose of strychnine and died in the arms of his landlady. (Submitted by Mark Rothwell)


Grave of Sergeant Thomas Allin at Dartmouth Cemetery (©Mark Rothwell)


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