From medieval times, local police work was carried out by part-time parish constables, who received expenses but no wages. In Witham there were usually two of them, perhaps a blacksmith or a butcher or a farmer. At times of trouble, “Special constables” were recruited as well
The County Police Act, passed in 1839, authorised counties to give up this old system and to employ paid policemen. They could also raise money from the rates for police stations, equipment and so on. The Essex county magistrates, sitting in Quarter Sessions, adopted the Act straight away. And in April 1840 one of the newspapers reported that ‘Braintree, Witham, Coggeshall and Ongar have now the protection of the Rural Police; their presence has been hailed with satisfaction’.
That was how Witham’s original police station came to be built, in about 1849 in Guithavon Street (see the photo). This street had been built in 1841 to accommodate the new church of All Saints and the new National Schools. It became quite an elegant civic centre. Other buildings there included the curate’s house, the Savings Bank, the Methodist church, the Fire Engine House, and some attractive terraces of houses.
The police station incorporated two residences for policemen and their families. For instance, at the time of the 1861 census, Police Superintendent James Catchpole, born in Earls Colne, was living there with his wife Elizabeth and their three children. There was also Police Constable Samuel Barber, born in Norwich, with his wife Sarah Ann and four children. They had a young Police Constable lodging with them, James Pepper. Finally, in the cells there was Henry Carter, described as a “Farm labourer but now in custody on the charge of stealing wheat from a farmer at Gt Wigborough”.
Henry would have been held in one of the small brick cells, mostly used for suspects waiting to be examined. Readers who attended clinics in the building in the 1960s and 1970s may remember these very small cells, because by then they had visitors’ toilets in them.
There was also a court room where the local magistrates heard cases in “Petty Sessions”. These were the lowest level of court, the equivalent of the magistrates’ court today, dealing with several parishes. They had existed since the 18th century. Before 1849 the Witham sessions had been held in The Blue Posts inn, at the bottom of Newland Street (now nos.126 and 128).
The Petty Sessions often heard quite important cases, before referring them on to higher courts. They could be quite dramatic and varied, and frequently the newspapers reported that the public had filled the court and listened enthusiastically to the proceedings. Here are a few examples.
In 1851 a youth was accused of taking “copper money” worth about thirty shillings from the master’s desk in the Boys National School, and hiding it in various places in All Saints churchyard next door.
Three years later, three men from Wickham Bishops hadn’t paid the church rates. They were non-conformists and were withholding the money on principle. Two of them were Dixons from Blue Mills. The church rate was finally abolished in 1868.
In 1855 the court heard at very great length about a long dispute between the landlord of the Spread Eagle and a nearby corn merchant (who was bankrupt). Their families were also involved. There had been a big fist fight, and many insults had been exchanged at all hours of day and night.
More or less every year, the results of bonfire night on 5 November required the attention of the magistrates. In fact Witham was quite notorious for it. There was a bonfire, squibs, and general noise and excitement, in the wide part of Newland Street. For instance, in November 1859 the Petty Sessions dealt with the recent “Riotous Assemblage and Attack on the Police”. Some of the accused were said to be “sons of respectable tradesmen” which may be why the magistrates allowed everything to be settled out of court.
A hearing in 1862 “excited extraordinary public interest” and proceeded for many hours. Dr Thomas Tomkin, who ran a private lunatic asylum at The Retreat, was accused of cruelty. The magistrates decided he should go on to a higher court, and granted him bail. They found it an emotional and painful decision, in view of Mr Tomkin’s “high respectability”, and the esteem in which they held him.
And in 1868, five magistrates gathered in the police station to hear a ‘Singular charge of assault by shooting’. Richard Sutton Cheek, a stationer and printer, was charged with attempting to shoot John Warricker, a bricklayer. John and another man had been picking walnuts from a tree which hung over Mr Cheek’s yard. Harsh words were exchanged, and Mr Cheek brought out a revolver and shot at the men. In the end, the case rested on whether the revolver had a ball in it, or just powder. The magistrates decided on the latter and let Mr Cheek off.
Mrs Dorothy Ireland (born 1894) remembered court days on Tuesdays and said ‘Oh yes, you noticed, they all went’, you saw the magistrates going, and the people. ‘You’d watch, on a Tuesday, you were interested. And old Blood, he was a solicitor and a magistrate. I know one or two cases that were really genuine and they lost, he “wasn’t going to have his clients proved guilty”. Baby cases in particular, when they were trying to prove for the father. He said no. “Wasn’t going to have him proved a guilty man”’.
Although the Guithavon Street police station and court had coped with all these dramas and many more, it could not manage the arrival of the motor car in the early 20th century. By the 1930s ‘the courts were inundated with motoring cases, which took hours to deal with’, to quote a senior magistrate. To help out, the magistrates’ room was made into a second court, but this meant that ‘Justices, if they wished to consult, had to retire to the stairs, or to one of the resident inspectors’ sitting rooms’.
To solve these problems, a roomy and elegant new police station was built in Newland Street. Like its predecessor, it contained a police station and courts, and two residences. It was opened in 1937, and stated to be ‘pleasant, airy and dignified’ [note: since I first wrote this article, this ‘new’ station has been closed, and its future is uncertain]
At first, the old Guithavon Street police station housed a new Government scheme for “increased motor vehicle patrols”, with a number of constables in residence.
But in 1939 it was taken over for War use. Part was occupied by some of the Emergency Demolition Squads. And the rest became the Control Centre. Miss Irene Springett and a fellow teacher volunteered at the Centre every fourth night from 10 p.m. till 6 a.m. One of them received and wrote down the phone messages about local incidents such as bombings, and the other one phoned them through to the HQ at Braintree. Their beds were in the cells that I mentioned earlier, but they didn’t sleep very much because of the continual disturbance.
After the War, the old police station became a children’s clinic, and then during the 1970s it was demolished. Mill Vale House was built in its place
A version of this article appeared in the Braintree and Witham Times in November 2015