By Peter Hinchliffe  2018

A policeman’s lot is not a happy one,  the well known song from the “Gilbert & Sullivan” operetta The Pirates of Penzance,  is a true statement of what the life of a constable in the Cornwall Constabulary was really like, in the earlier years of the force’s existence.

We shall never know if Colonel Walter Raleigh GILBERT the first Chief Constable of Cornwall,  collaborated with his relative William S. GILBERT,  the Victorian lyricist,  to produce the conditions that made a Constable’s life such an endless grind illustrated by the song.

It is probable that life in the other 200 plus Victorian police forces was very similar to that endured by Cornishmen.   They never had a day off,  and were expected to wear their uniform at all times when not at home.    It was in 1912 that national legislation gave policemen one day off in fourteen,  sometimes!   

In 1888 The Cornwall Quarter Sessions (who were the fore runners of the County Council)  produced a set of rules governing the police in Cornwall.     The Chief Constable presented every man in the force with a printed book (1) that contained the general rules of his employment as a policeman,  they strictly regulated his entire life.  With the exception of a few days annual leave,  he was never free to do as he wished,  he was always at the “beck and call” of his supervising officers.   He was not allowed to leave his home,  or the spartan accommodation provided for single men,  even if he had completed his 9 hour patrol duty for that day.   It was suggested that they could pass the time by reading and learning the contents of the Rule Book. (17)

   If a man wanted to leave his home to conduct his “own personal affairs” ,  he required his Superintendents permission,  and had to apply in writing four days in advance  (2)       

In common with most other police forces, he was not allowed to marry (3) until after application to the Chief Constable for permission to do so.   He had to provide full antecedents of the proposed wife and her family.  If the wife was approved and a police house available for them to occupy,  the man was classified as being on “Married Strength”  and allowed to get married.     (The Cornish records contain no mention of men making application to be allowed to marry  “in special circumstances”,  which,  in other forces, seems to be the euphemism for explaining,  that the proposed wife was pregnant.    This was years before Marie STOPES expounded her theories and advice)

After the First War,  and in the reign of Sir Hugh PROTHEROE-SMITH  as Chief Constable,  (a confirmed bachelor who never married) it was even more difficult for a constable to get married.  

In 1920 a General Order (4) was issued stating that 17 men were awaiting permission to marry, these men were ordered to continue living in “singlemen’s quarters” until married.    This meant they could not see their intended wife, without written permission,  obtained 4 days in advance!

It got even worse,  the General Orders show that from 1925 onwards,  upwards of 30 men were informed they would not be granted permission to wed for about 4 years,   and no man with less than 4 years service should apply for permission to marry.(5)

The General Orders record that Constables were appearing before the Chief Constable on discipline charges of being absent from their stations without permission,  probably courting their intended!!(6)

If a Constable  decided that a policeman’s life was not for him, and left before he had suffered for six months of service, his outstanding pay was deducted on the pretext of paying for the alteration of his uniform,  so it would fit his successor (7)   If he quit the force without giving notice,  he could be arrested and taken before the justices,  where he would  face imprisonment of one months hard labour (15)

In the absence of a National Health Service,  all men were advised to join a Benefit or Friendly Society,  in order to provide against expenses incurred through illness or accident. (8) This was sound advice because the Police Authority (being responsible for his health) deducted four shillings a day for “board and lodging” from any man requiring hospital treatment (9)     A week in hospital would cost a man 28 shillings from a wage of about 30/- !!

An essential qualification for a Cornwall constable was “perfect sobriety” (10)  With all the other regulations restricting his life,  it would have been difficult for him to have been otherwise. The General Orders contain records of several men being punished for “tippling”  (11) or being advised about their drinking habits.  (Ron PETERS who was born in Saltash Police Station in 1927 and  has been closely associated with the Cornwall force for almost 100 years,  informs me that tippling was probably the charge when a man had a drink when he was “off duty”,  or at least,  not actually on patrol”)(30)

On 31st., August, 1908,  Sergeant FULLER appeared before the Chief Constable charged with tippling, he was punished by being reduced in rank to a Constable,  and transferred to another station(12)

A Constable was prohibited from even visiting a pub “on any pretence whatever”    The same rule does suggest that if he requires refreshment,  and there is no other place he can obtain it,  he should get the refreshment delivered to his home or the station.   This same order instructed that he should never sit down in licensed premises (16)

Constables in detached stations  were discouraged from ever drinking in any pub on their beat, this policy existed throughout the existence of the Constabulary and until 1967.    (By contrast,  when Ranulf BACON was appointed Chief in Devon, in 1947,   the first disciplinary matter he was called to deal with,  was a Devon man charged with “playing darts and drinking beer” in a Honiton pub.    It is claimed that BACON asked the “prosecutor”   where the man was supposed to drink! (19)  

During the tenure of PROTHEROE-SMITH Chief Constable (1903 to 1935) only one constable was disciplined for being drunk(13)  whilst one sergeant and four constables were punished for other misconduct involving licensed premises (14)    

There is an unnumbered section in the rule book   “Members of the force are forbidden to play cards at a police station,  or to meet elsewhere, in order to play cards”.

Rule 15 declares “No member of the Force is ever to be seen carrying an umbrella when on duty in uniform!

Men appearing on disciplinary matters in Cornwall were usually punished by being required to transfer to another station at their own expense,   this was usually from one end of the County to the other.   For a man with several children,  the train fare alone,  would have been a considerable financial blow,  before payment to the carrier for removal of his few household accoutrements  (11)

In 1912, the government introduction of a rest day,  one day in fourteen,  was seemingly not welcomed by the senior officers of the Cornwall Constabulary.      At first the Constables thought they were free to do what they wanted on that day.    Their “freedom”  was short lived,  their Supervisors had very different ideas,  rules were soon issued.    A man was only allowed a days rest if there was no requirement for his services on that day,  he was not to leave his home before 8 a.m. and had to be home by 10 p.m.   If he served on a detached beat,  he required the Superintendent’s permission to leave the area of the beat. (12)    When rest days were first introduced,  if a Constable left his beat area,  he was required to parade at the Divisional Station on his return to work,  this could involve a march of many miles,  but this requirement was rescinded within months.     With the outbreak of war in 1914,  the men were expected to have the patriotic spirit to forgo the entitlement to a day off,  it is reported that they all did,  throughout the war.

Beat routes were specified by the Superintendent, the Constable ordered to make conference Points at appropriate places,  these points were set,  so that the constable would need to walk  2 to 3 miles between each,  a night duty beat was to be about 12 miles in length(24)

When on duty,  and at all other times a constable was not allowed “on any pretence whatever” to ride on any private or public conveyance,  unless by “ express permission or direction of a superior officer” (20)      This rule applied also to cycles until about 1904.  

In 1905 the constabulary had realised the usefulness of bicycles and introduced an allowance that could be paid to men using their machine  for police purposes,  BUT only after written application to,  and approval, from the Superintendent.     This rule meant that cycles were not available for urgent matters in isolated stations.    The initial allowance was one penny per mile,   after the first four miles.    There followed several orders regarding the payment of the allowance, men started cycling considerable distances across the county,  when they did so,  they were not allowed to claim more than the cheapest rail fare!    Another order stopped the men from using their cycle to go to the Section station to collect their monthly pay,   they were required to walk,   distance of 20 miles in some cases.

On the “Journal” which were submitted by Constables, there was a requirement to state whether a cycle was used in any patrol,  and still a requirement in 1967!.

The Chief Constable used the words “utmost economy” in several of his orders.   An example of the financial constraints applied to the force is provided by the General Order of 20th., June, 1905      The Chief was concerned about the cost of the oil consumed by the lamps,  those carried by men on patrol and those used to illuminate offices.   The cheapest “Colza Oil” was to be purchased,   and each lamp to be limited to one pint of oil per week!!!!    (According to Wikipedia “Colza” is created from various sources,  petroleum and vegetable oil mixed.  Kerosene being mainly a by product of diesel, was not plentiful in those times)

The force was provided (possibly bi-annually) with new uniform,  with each issue came an order that the new garments were to be worn only on Sundays,  until the New Year. (21)

Sunday was a special day in Cornwall probably in respect to the strong traditions of Methodism in the County.   Constables were expected whilst on duty, to attend a Devine Service each Sunday morning and evening,  their duty plan for the month included special detail for the Sundays (22)

PROTHEROE-SMITH being a military man,  showed concern with the appearance and bearing of his men.    The practice of putting a crease down the legs of trousers,  introduced in 1913,  had reached Cornwall by the time the Chief returned from his recall to the Army for First War duties.   In a General Order in 1923,  he issued directions for getting the creases in trousers,  explaining that they should be put under the mattress of the bed at night!    He was also concerned with saluting,  advising the men always to use their right hand,  and move their hand to their head,  rather than the other way around.    He also instructed that men should stand to attention when giving evidence in Court.    Hair cuts did not escape his notice.     In this same Order he informed the force that he would be visiting their homes and inspecting their wives once a year,  to ensure that they were clean and tidy!! (23)


The incursion of debts by a constable was a disciplinary offence.     They were also strongly advised,  on threat of disciplinary proceedings,  not to purchase anything on hire purchase terms (24) 

The Constabulary’s loyalty to King and Crown was never in question,  each year the General Orders Ledger contains a record of the despatch of birthday cards to both the King and the Prince of Wales,  followed by the reproduced acknowledgement letter from an equerry for each man.    There is also a special order issued each year with detail of the arrangements for “Armistice Day”.

There is the record of an unusual disciplinary appearance before the Chief Constable.    On 1st., February, 1927,   PC 217 Reg TABB appeared charged “that for the past 7 years at all the ceremonial events he had attended,  he had worn medals to which he was not entitled”    He had also failed to tax his motor bike.   He was quite severely punished,  losing six shillings a week for one year.   

When radio broadcasts started in 1922,  men were allowed to install a wireless at home,   but only after obtaining written permission from the Superintendent,   this would not be granted unless the man had installed a lightning conductor on the police house !!(27)

 Before the Desborough Commission required all forces pay the same rates,   and apply the same general conditions of service.    The men in Cornwall were required to make contributions for their accommodation,  in 1920  The charge was 3 shillings a week,  men in detached stations lived rent free.   Desborough abolished rent payments,  but  Probationary Constables in Cornwall were still required to pay one shilling per week for accommodation.     Some detached Constables in Cornwall were required to live in Bed & Breakfast type,  or Boarding House accommodation, where they paid for their food.    So it was not unusual to see signs advertising lodgings at the same building that was the police station!  (26)

Constables were obliged to provide their own note book and pencil (26)    This was the same in most forces.    The Museum has several examples of the type of notebooks used in the First War period (25)    Cornwall started to issue pocket books in 1914.

Constables were issued with a knapsack which he wore on his back (28)  They were still in use in 1934  The ledger shows the preparation for the annual inspection by the H M I  and details the required contents of the knapsack,  which were  “Electric lamp (not an oil lamp), Night belt, and leggings “(29)

We are unsure when knapsacks were discarded.

References and Sources


The South West Police Heritage Centre holds the Ledgers of General Orders which are hand written, with reference numbers A 2008..03536,and A2004. 03552,

The Rule book was originally produced in 1888 by the Cornwall Quarter Sessions,  printed in 1900 and issued to every man.     A copy of the contents is held at the Centre, it is reproduced in full on the XDANDCC Blog site.

  • Rule Book Leave of Absence para 2,3,4
  • Rule Book  Conditions of Service para 18
  • General Order 21.10.20 page 39
  • General Order   1.6.25 -   5.8.28  - 1.2.29   &  1.6.30
  • General Order12.5.20
  •   Rule Book  Conditions of Service  para 26
  •  Rule Book   Conditions of Service para 27
  • General Order  1.8.26   page 16
  • Rule Book  Constables para 1
  • General Order 31.5.07 page 120
  • General Order 31.8.08  page  161
  • General Order 31.8.08  page  161
  • General orders 1.5.1923 page 125, 1.11.24, page 42,31.5.07, 1.3.06.  31.8.08
  • Rule Book  Conditions of Service  para 9
  • Rule Book Constables  para 3
  • Rule Book Constables   para 3 
  • Rule Book rule 15
  • “Take Cover”  book by Ted Trist,  page 161
  • Rule Book Constables para 10
  • General Order  June, 1904  page 35
  • General Orders 19.9.20  page 29
  • General Orders 14.7.23  page 136
  • Rule Book  Beat Duty  para 3
  • Rule Book Conditions of service para 8
  • Rule Book “                       “       para 22
  • General Order 9.7.20 page 134
  • General Order 1.12.24 page 190
  • Rule Book Clothing para 2
  • General Order 29.9.32 page 45
  • Ron PETERS was born in Saltash Police Station in 1927 son of Supt PETERS,  he     joined the force in 1948 and later served in the Cornwall Constabulary as an Inspector