Constables of the Close – Exeter’s Forgotten Police Force





Above: The West Front of Exeter Cathedral in the early 20th century. (Submitted by Mark Rothwell)


n the present, policing of Exeter’s Cathedral Close falls to the Devon & Cornwall Constabulary, an arrangement that commenced on 1st June 1967. Before that, a strong body of officers, the Exeter City Police, patrolled the entire city for 130 years with bravery, integrity and vigour. In 2018, after consultation with Exeter Cathedral’s archivists, it was discovered that a private police force for the

Cathedral Close existed from at least the 17th century until the arrival of the ‘new’ police in the 1830s. Given the age of Exeter Cathedral (the site where the building stands was used for religious observation as early as the year 1050) it is possible there were constables operating much earlier.


In August 1642, a city watch was formed in Exeter as a direct response to the start of the English Civil War. This ‘tyme of feare and danger’ led the Dean & Chapter to permit free passage of the watchmen between the city and Cathedral Close via the Broadgate. It is likely a number of these men were injured or perished in the multiple Royalist sieges inflicted on Exeter between 1642 and 1646. One such incident caused serious damage to the cloisters.


The first recorded appointment of a dedicated officer for the Cathedral Close was that of Thomas Poynington, sworn in as ‘Dean & Chapter Constable’ in 1668. He was likely a church official, selected to serve for the ensuing year much in the spirit of the traditional parish constable and was answerable to the Dean and Chapter. In 1676, Thomas Whithaire was admonished by the Cathedral authorities for taking the oath of constable outside the sphere of the Chapter’s influence, suggesting it was illegal for members of the Chapter to be policeman in any of Exeter’s surrounding parishes. Whithaire was reprimanded again in 1677 for taking the same oath ‘contrary to Cathedral statutes.’


In the early 1800s, the Constable of the Close was George Walker. He died in office in 1818 and was succeeded by Richard Risden. Risden was aided by a deputy, William Rench, between 1820 and 1822. Thereafter, Risden held the office of constable for several years more and was required to ‘keep the peace and prevent nuisances and annoyances by fireworks or otherwise.’ The aversion to pyrotechnics in the close can be traced to an incident on 5th November 1810, when Messrs Chave, Cox and Coward entered the close and set off a large number of fireworks and caused ‘great Riot’ during which the Cathedral constables were verbally abused. The offending trio were arrested and committed for sentencing at the next Quarter Sessions. A week prior to the incident, public notice was given by the constables that ‘all persons found letting off any squib, rocket or fireworks, or lighting any bonfire in the churchyard and streets adjacent will be prosecuted.’ The reference to constable in the plural sense indicates the force comprised more than one man, likely special constables appointed during public occasions when large numbers of citizens gathered.



Above: Exeter Cathedral Close in the early 20th century. (Submitted by Mark Rothwell)


On 11th August 1821, six men were paid 2 shillings and sixpence each to assist the constable of the close on Coronation Day. By 1826, it appears the Cathedral police was no longer present, evident in a grievance lodged by Thomas Tierney who complained that 'the nightly disturbed state of the Cathedral yard where, in the absence of all police, fireworks are constantly let off not only dangerous in themselves but to the great annoyance of passengers as well as the inhabitants in general, and where a number of disorderly persons assemble who continue to a late hour making noises and using language the most disgusting and last night only murder was repeatedly cried.'


It was proposed in 1829, in response to increased crime and depravity in the city, that a night watch for the whole of Exeter was required to ensure the safety of the residents. The system of watchmen came into force in October 1830, and included members of the Chapter; two vergers, a dogwhipper and Mr Newcombe who was keeper of the ‘treasury ground.’ Each were sworn as special constables and assisted the watchmen.


The Municipal Corporations Act 1835 installed a proper police force in the City of Exeter. Captain Hugh Cumming was appointed superintendent of the new police which comprised a day force consisting of two sergeants-at-arms and six staff bearers. The old night watch continued under Cumming’s leadership, consisting of the watch captain, twelve night watchmen and four inspectors. Uniform consisted of great coats, capes, boots and patent leather girdles with strong white-metal buckles and silver lace decoration. Early equipment included rattles, lance wood staves, lanterns and handcuffs. All officers were headquartered at the rear of Exeter Guildhall on Waterbeer Street. Beyond the establishment of the ‘new’ police in Exeter in 1836, no record can be found of a cathedral constabulary. It seems the strong body of police in Exeter was sufficient to ensure the safety of the residents, including the Dean & Chapter and inhabitants of the Cathedral Close.



Above: Members of the Exeter City Police parade at the West Front of the Cathedral on Exeter Assize Day 1935. (Submitted by Mark Rothwell)


Perhaps had the Cathedral police endured, then one of the most notorious unsolved crimes in the city’s history may not have occurred. On Saturday 1st July 1950, a five-foot six tall silver altar cross was stolen from the Cathedral. Studded with the Newman Family Jewels, it was donated in 1923 as a tribute to the late Mrs Mary Lumley, sister of Lord Mamhead of Exeter and ancestor of the actress and campaigner Joanna Lumley.


On the morning of the 2nd July, a verger opened up the Cathedral doors in readiness for Sunday Service. To his shock, the cross was missing. At 11am, the police were notified of the cross’s discovery in a field, minus the jewels, some 12 miles away in Fenny Bridges. Despite the offer of a reward and the discovery of tools, footprints and an abandoned getaway car, neither the jewels nor the culprits were ever found.



Above: An Exeter City Police constable and detective returning the stolen altar cross, minus its precious jewels, to Exeter Cathedral on 3rd July 1950. (Submitted by Mark Rothwell)

  1. Chapter Acts – Exeter Cathedral Archive (
    D&C3557 P311
    D&C3560 PP70-71
    D&C3560 PP421-422
    D&C3578 PP352-353
    D&C3578 PP544-545
    D&C3576 P501
    D&C3576 P501
    D&C3578 P475
    D&C7076 P195
    D&C3580 P312-313

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