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A history of policing in Bury St Edmunds and West Suffolk since 1836



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We've been looking back through our archives for this nostalgia feature on policing in West Suffolk across the centuries.

Policing in West Suffolk did not take on a form similar to that we know today until well into the 19th century.

Bury St Edmunds Borough Police formed in 1836, seven years after the introduction of the Metropolitan Police, under the command of Supt Richard Caney.

Senior officers of the Bury St Edmunds police force in 1865
Senior officers of the Bury St Edmunds police force in 1865

There were 12 constables – four on day shift and eight working night shifts – and officers wore a uniform similar to that of the Metropolitan Police, complete with top hats (replaced with helmets in 1870) and carried a truncheon and handcuffs.

The station house was in Bridewell Lane but moved to Moyse's Hall shortly afterwards, where it remained through most of the Victorian era until a new one was built in 1892.

West Suffolk Rural Constabulary was formed in 1844, raising the question of whether there was a need for two separate forces. In 1957 the Bury St Edmunds Borough Police force was disbanded.

West Suffolk Rural Police had at its head a chief constable, with the first being Major George Derby Griffiths.

Under his command were six superintendents, seven sergeants, 15 first class constables and 12 second class constables.

Getting a job in the new police force required only minimal academic and physical prowess, meaning a low quality of recruits – with many dismissed from the force for drunken behaviour.

Between 1845 and 1874, 316 disciplinary offences were recorded against officers and of the 387 employed during that time, only 71 remained free of conviction.

Members of Bury St Edmunds police's early traffic department: Pc Jarrold, Pc Law, Pc D Smith and Insp Saunders
Members of Bury St Edmunds police's early traffic department: Pc Jarrold, Pc Law, Pc D Smith and Insp Saunders

In 1869 the West Suffolk Force merged with the East Suffolk Force to form the new Suffolk Constabulary, but this collapsed in 1868 following antagonism between the various counties and police authorities in the country. West Suffolk Constabulary was formed in 1899.

In the same year constables were provided with bicycles and in 1900 the first telephones were received by the force.

During the early 19th century, headquarters for the force were in St John's Street, moving to Shire Hall in 1932 and then Westgate Street in 1938.

The first woman sergeant Brenda Mann with WPc Olive Catton at the police pillar on Angel Hill, Bury
The first woman sergeant Brenda Mann with WPc Olive Catton at the police pillar on Angel Hill, Bury

The first two women joined the West Suffolk Force in 1946 and in the same year a traffic department was formed with four cars.

By 1950 there were 139 police officers and during the 1950s great advancements were made, including a force training department, improved communications and the use of police dogs.

In the 1960s traffic wardens were introduced, a new headquarters was built in Raingate Street in 1964, pocket radios were issued in 1966 and in 1967 the east and west forces combined to form Suffolk Constabulary as it is today.

Moyse's Hall
Moyse's Hall

Some felons were in the dungeon, others had feather beds

Throughout the 18th century, criminals could look forward to the uncomfortable surroundings provided by Moyse's Hall, in Bury, as the county gaol.

Built around 1180 by a Norman merchant, it is the oldest domestic building in East Anglia.

In 1328 it was used as a hostelry for pilgrims visiting the Abbey of St Edmund and in the 15th century part of it was still being used as a tavern.

It was given to the Guildhall Feoffees in 1626 and was used as a workhouse, house of correction and as a lock-up and continued as a gaol into the 19th century.

Inmates were separated on three floors depending on their status.

In the basement, also called the dungeon, were convicts who could not pay for their beds and they slept in barrack bedsteads – one holding 10 people, the other six people – and were kept in handcuffs and chains.

Felons who could afford a shilling a week had feather beds and sheets on another floor, while debtors had four bedrooms upstairs in front of the gaoler's apartments and one ground floor dormitory.

They also had a day room, work room and separate accommodation for their womenfolk.

In 1780 an inspection revealed a greater need for reform and when new gaol governor John Orrigde was appointed in 1798 he sought to make improvements.

The new county gaol was built in 1805 in Sicklesmere Road, Bury, and became a model for many others across the country.

In 1819 uniforms and irons were done away with and prisoners were encouraged to learn to read and write.

There were usually no more than 100 inmates in the gaol at any one time.

The gaol closed in 1880 and most of it was demolished except for the governor's house, known as The Fort, and the imposing gateway in Sicklesmere Road.

The last woman hung at the gaol was Catherine Foster in 1847 and last man hung was George Carnt in 1851.

After ending its usefulness as the town's gaol, Moyse's Hall instead became the town police station until 1892.

After several temporary uses, including a brief spell as a fire station, it was bought by the town council in 1898 and became a museum the following year.