Burnley Civic Trust Heritage Image Collection


This article is taken from the Burnley Express and a pamphlet titled "A History Of The Burnley Police Force" by Inspector GJ Forbes and Constable GR Capstick and published by Burnley Borough Council in 1974.

The Burnley Borough Police Force was established in 1887 and remained independent until 1969.

Following the Police Act of 1964 the then Home Secretary insisted on the amalgamation of all the Lancashire forces outside Manchester and Liverpool. At midnight on 31 March 1969 those officers not on duty joined together to sing Auld Lang Syne, and four officers suddenly appeared with a dummy coffin, suitably draped with a police helmet. It was carried out with quiet ceremony through the room and out of the door - to disappear for ever.


The local history of Burnley, the description of its growth and "law and order" of the early periods of Burnley's history, are recorded by W. BENNETT, M. in the 'History of Burnley', published in four volumes, and can be obtainable from the Central Library. Therefore, I do not go into too much detail regarding the early periods of law and order in the years prior to the nineteenth century.

It is apparent that in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the local Wapentake Court was held in Clitheroe every three weeks and certain local tenants were obliged to attend. It is also recorded that there was an "officer" of the Village of Burnley in the Manor of Ightenhill; whose duty it was to drive stray cattle into a pound, returning them to their owners only on payment of a fine. Fines from this source amounted to 3.11s.l0d. in 1296, and 5. 6s.l0d. in 1305.

The first reference of a court held in "Burnley" is in 1323, when a 'Halmot' (Hall-meeting) Court was held in the Manor of Ightenhill. All tenants were required to attend the Halmot for purposes which included the appointments of a greave and a constable. The greave was the person responsible for reporting the sales and leases of land and the death of any tenant. He had as an assistant the constable, who was required to supervise the watch and make sure that they carried out their duties - duties which included collecting taxes, enforcement of ale and food regulations and the placing into quarantine of plague infected persons. During the years of the plague, watchmen were set at the entrance to all towns to stop any infected person from entering.

The records of the first Burnley Halmot Courts show that in 1323 the wife of Adam Whitaker, keeper of an alehouse in the Manor of Ightenhill, was fined 3d. for selling bad ale. Adam was not taught a lesson, for in 1324 he too was fined - 4d. for the same offence.

The watchmen and constables were not always as law abiding as they should have been, and one of the fourteenth century characters was a Mr. Robert Roods, who had plenty of experience in law enforcement. In 1537 he fled from the area after being charged to be brought before court for wounding a certain John Whitham. Roods could not be traced. However, in 1538, the same Mr. Roods returned, to become involved in another fight with a man named John Ingham - both men having no means to pay a fine, were put into the stocks. Robert, however, mellowed with age, for in 1549 he was made constable.

James Tattersall, of Piccop (Greenhill, Manchester Road), a constable in 1603, was fined 1 shilling for converting a turf house into a stone house and 'letting' it to a lodger, and a further 1 shilling fine for placing another lodger in his barn.

By the 1600s, the Courts of Quarter Session, with J.P's elected at a county level, had to some extent supplanted the Halmot Courts. At the annual Burnley Fair in 1681, a brawl led to John Denby of Padiham being reported by the Burnley constable, Edmund Holt, to the Justices. Denby, it is said, by force of arms assaulted the watchmen in Burnley and broke one of their halberds, and at the same time declared "That I care not for any J.P. in England, nor constable neither", and said that if he could meet the constable he would "stick him to the head".

The religious changes of the sixteenth century had their effects upon the law and order of the town, as did the seventeenth century trials of the Lancashire Witches (Chattox herself named several of the so-called Burnley Witches.) Mary Spencer of Burnley was taken before the King and his 'physicians' after being found guilty of witchcraft, but the basic system of watchmen supervised by the constable continued with little change through to the seventeenth, eighteenth and into the nineteenth century.

In the early 1800s, a constable and a number of watchmen helped to preserve order. A special body of watchmen guarded the sleeping town, They would go their rounds calling out the hour and adding remarks about the weather. Sentry boxes were stationed at intervals for their protection in inclement weather. There is a tale that one watchman, a Billy Armitage, had given offence to some of the midnight prowlers, who determined to obtain revenge. One stormy night, when the river was swollen, they crept up and locked Billy in his box. They then began to roll it towards the river, threatening to throw it in and loudly discussing its destination, 'till poor Billy was terrified out of his wits.'

The Fleet Lock Up stood in Fleet Street (Fleet Walk) near to the river and was apparently in the basement of a building where John Riley, a tailor, and Robert Whit taker, staymaker, lived in their workshops over the dungeon, which was actually little more than a cellar and was condemned as a prison in May, 1817. It continued to be used after that date, and in 1818 was damaged to such an extent that a new prison became even more necessary. The cause of the damage was as a result of a disturbance in September, 1818.

On the 15th September, 1818, the leaders of a textile strike in Burnley hired the town's bellman to give notice of a meeting of strikers. The crowds assembled and the military, who had been called to assist to disperse the strikers, arrested the bellman, a Mr. Brown, and handed him to the constable, William Chaffer, who placed him in the dungeon of the Fleet Prison. At 2 p.m. the same day, when Constable Chaffer went to dinner, he found himself surrounded by a riotous crowd of 300 to 400 men and women led by Sarah Brown and three men named Beesley, Collinge and Broughton. A fight started, and three special constables, Carter, Smith and Birtwhistle, rescued Chaffer and took him to the Bull Inn. Stones were thrown at them and the mob shouted for the death of Chaffer. At about 8 p.m. the strikers assembled and broke open the prison and released the prisoners, after which they quietly dispersed. The bellman and several of the ringleaders, including Sarah Brown, were later arrested and taken to Blackburn Jail to await trial.

Construction immediately started on a new prison. On the 8th January, 1819, the new prison was opened. It stood on the corner of Red Lion Street and Manchester Road, and consisted of two storeys, male prisoners being accommodated on the ground floor, female prisoners on the upper floor. The prisoners could be shackled to iron rings which were set in the walls, and they rested on straw. It is thought that the Red Lion Street prison was in use up to 1845, when a police station was built in Curzon Street. It was demolished when the Savoy Cinema was built on that site, and in 1968 traces of the prison could still be seen at the rear of the Swan Inn, St. James's Street.

In 1819 an Act was passed which placed the regulation of the town in the hands of sixteen commissioners, who were empowered to watch, light, cleanse, pave and otherwise regulate the town within a circle of which the radius is three-quarters of a mile from a stone opposite the Black Bull. This stone became the centre of Burnley, and it would be situated today in the middle of St. James's Street, between Manchester Road and Howe Walk. The "Police Circle", as it was later called, extended to a point near the colliery gates in Colne Road; the Toll House in Brunshaw; Rose Cottage, Todmorden Road; Towneley railway station; Lower Howorth Fold Farm; Hood House Street in Manchester Road; Barracks Road in Accrington Road; Nairne Street in Coal Clough Lane; and Sand Street in Padiham Road. It therefore contained the most thickly populated part of the ancient township of Habergham Eaves.

Little is known about the activities of these first commissioners apart from them meeting on the first Monday of each month at the Black Bull Inn, when each commissioner was allowed two sixpenny glasses of ale at each meeting.

The population increase (from 2,500 in 1750 to 10,000 in 1821) and the expanding town led to the old system of policing breaking down. The same population growth affected other parts of the country, resulting in 1829 in the establishment of the Metropolitan Police Force by Sir Robert Peel, The "Peelers" began to establish themselves throughout the country, and in 1835 the responsible people in Burnley, fearing that the county magistrates would introduce their "Peelers" (the new County Constabulary) into Burnley, reorganised their own force.

The Burnley Police Force of 1831 was composed of 8 watchmen and 6 constables. In 1835, 2 unpaid head constables were appointed. They were John Spencer, an Innkeeper, and James Bland, a Grocer. The title of Deputy Constable was given to William Chaffer, who received a salary of 50 pounds per annum. This was raised to 60 in 1837 and to 65 in 1838. To complete this force there was an assistant deputy constable, who received a salary of 15 pounds. It was at this time that the Reform Bill was introduced to Parliament. This proposed to sweep away a number of "pocket boroughs" and give "seats" to 'unrepresented factory towns'. Burnley had hopes of becoming a new borough.

The County Police Act of I840 allowed the Chief Constable of the county force to take over the policing of any town which did not have its own force To the disgust of the Burnley Town Committee, the Lancashire County Magistrates drafted into town six trained "Peelers" of the Blackburn Division of the Lancashire Constabulary. The "Peelers", complete with their top hats, tailcoats and light coloured trousers, set up a Magistrates' Court in the Wesleyan Chapel, Keighley Green. In 1851, the chapel was further taken over as a police station and prison. There were only four cells until 1880, when a further 10 were built. The town was then policed by the county until the formation of the Burnley Borough Police Force.

Police uniforms

Photograph and article from the Burnley Express dated 27 January 1951

The smart modern attire of the present-day policeman offers a sharp contrast to the type of clothing worn by officers of the law in the ninetieth century. Had you been a law breaker in Burnley in 1839 you would probably have been arrested by a policeman dressed similar to the officer in the centre of this picture.

Policemen in uniforms of the past, from left to right are P.C. Snelson (1950s), P.C. Briscall (1839) and P.C. Patrick (1851)


From 1840 Burnley was part of the Higher Blackburn Division of the Lancashire Constabulary, which in 1864 was staffed by the Superintendent, two Inspectors, seven Sergeants and 44 Constables. Of these, the Superintendent, one Inspector, one "charge" policeman at the police office and 15 other ranks were generally posted in Burnley, although at any time they might be drafted out of town. Indeed, on one occasion a disturbance in Burnley went unchecked because there were no policemen available to deal with it. Of the 15 other ranks, four were on duty during the day with beats of three miles each, and the remaining 11 worked during the night-time in beats of 45 minutes, covering a distance of approximately two miles. These figures are only approximate. It was proved that one policeman had a beat eight miles long and was said to pass a point at "Roberts Row" only once every four hours.

Christopher Slater was an Inspector, who, it is stated, energetically enforced the efforts of the Burnley Council to abolish nuisances by.
1. Prosecuting shopkeepers for obstructing the footpaths with their goods, and householders for failing to sweep their portion of pavements.
2. Enforcing the Acts which forbid any householder to hang washing in the streets or throw their ashes into the roadway.
3. Insisting that the mill chimneys should be at least 90 feet high.
4. Making sure that no more than two persons occupied one bed in the lodging houses.

The cost of the Burnley annual contribution to the maintenance of the police was 600 pounds and that of Habergham Eaves 660, making a total which it was said would enable the townships, if united, to have its own police force. In 1869 the joint cost was said to be 1,259, and by 1881 (the County Police Force in Burnley had by this time been increased) the cost was 2,300 pounds a year.

On several occasions in the middle of the 19th century, it was necessary to swear in a body of special constables. Chartist meetings, strikes and disorders became part of local Lancashire/English history. Locally, they became known as "Plug Riots? because the rioters raked out fires from beneath the factory boilers and knocked out the boiler plugs. The rioters also caused damage to machinery. The Burnley Police had their hands full, and special constables were enrolled to assist the regulars. Troops, both horse and foot, were also used to assist to quell disturbances. The Burnley 'troop' of specials were called to assist the Colne Police in April 1840, when there was a severe outbreak of fighting, and a special constable, John Halstead (a manufacturer) was killed in particularly brutal circumstances by a mob which was armed with sharp iron rails. A youth of 18 years was later arrested and transported for life for his part in the murder.

Many local leaders were arrested in 1843 and were tried at Lancaster on various charges arising out of the Chartist riots. Some of them were given prison sentences, mainly for periods of six months. Burnley's 52 volunteer specials under their Head Constable (John Spencer, who had previously been made redundant by the "Peelers") no doubt assisted in these arrests. The Chartist movement rapidly died away when a petition, said to contain 6,000,000 signatures, was handed in to Parliament and it was found that more than half the signatures were forgeries, a discovery which brought ridicule to the Chartists.

Further distress and political agitation followed. More special constables were enrolled. They came under the direction of the Deputy Constable, James Robertson, who received a salary of 20 pounds a year, and during the "Fenian" agitation of the 1867-8s, over 600 specials were enrolled, nearly 500 of them being members of the Lancashire Volunteer Regiment under Captain Hendsley and under the Town Clerk of Burnley.

The spread of the railway system and the various uses made of it, naturally involved the police in actions that were fairly new to them. One such incident occurred on Monday, the 12th July, 1852, when Mr. Cerswell, the Police Superintendent, and a party of local police officers were called to the Lancashire and Yorkshire railway at Burnley. A special train containing nearly 1,100 persons from Burnley Sunday Schools crashed into the "buffers". Four people were killed and 20 to 30 people were injured. Mr. John Parker, the pointsman, was taken into custody on the direction of Superintendent Cerswell, as also was Mr. Gowland (Station Master) and Mr. Gledhill (Station Clerk), who were released the following morning.

The following Thursday an enquiry was made at the Sun Inn, Bridge Street, before John Hargreaves, the Coroner, and a jury. The findings were accidental death. The prisoner Parker was set at liberty immediately after the announcement of the verdict. Certain proposals for safety measures were put forward to the railway company.

It would seem that Sunday afternoons were not a day of rest for the local police, as the attention of the police authorities was called, by Burnley citizens of 1853, to the "wicked and baneful practice of gambling on Sunday afternoons by sets of great lazy idle fellows, surrounded by groups of small boys, who save their half-pence to indulge in that wicked and degrading game Pitch and Toss with the older fellows". The "Peelers", having determined where the game was taking place, would attempt to surround the area, or rush in, in the hope of catching the players. The "groups", however, posted scouts who would quickly see the "Peelers" approaching, and would telegraph the news to the "groups", who would quickly disperse to surrounding fields and come quickly together again, to resume their game, when the danger had passed.

Following a depression of trade and offers of short-time working by cotton operatives following proposals from their employers to reduce wages by 10%, the operatives came out on strike. In April, 1877, a body of several thousand people began to assemble in Manchester Road, The cry was raised "to Kays", and the crowd turned towards a mill in Burnley Wood. Inspector Weir, with 35 constables, was already on his way to the same point. When the police arrived the work of destruction had commenced, and rioters were breaking the windows. One man, armed with a beam, was springing up to smash some of the high windows, when the Inspector's stick came down with a whack on the tight part of his clothing. A fight ensued and the police and rioters fought in hand-to-hand combat. Police were pelted with stones and other missiles. The Mayor and the Magistrates' Clerk subsequently arrived, a certain amount of order was restored, and the Riot Act was read. By this time nearly 20,000 people were gathered, and military detachments had to be sent for.

In that crowd of 20,000 people was a young man who later became one of the first members of the Burnley Borough Police Force - a James Smith, who in later years gave an exclusive interview to the local press of his early days in the Force. (See Burnley Express 29 May 1937 Page 6)


The Municipal Corporations Acts of 1835 and 1882 laid down that every corporate town had to appoint a Watch Committee which was bound to establish and maintain a police force adequate for the town. Thus, a local police Authority was created, responsible for the policing of cities and boroughs. Burnley, having achieved the status of Borough, set up their own force in 1887.

Borough Police Force 1893

An unknown Sergeant.
However, I am quite sure that, as his number is 4,
he must be from the force that is shown in the
photograph of 1893 above and is shown here
to give an example of the uniform at the time of
the formation of the Burnley Borough Police force
in 1887.

One of the original members of the force was James Smith, who as a boy had been present at the riot in Burnley Wood, in April 1877. He was a native of Garstang, who left his work as a "taper" at Messrs. Walmseleys, Hargherclough Mill, to join the new Police Force. He was 22 years of age when he joined, and he served until 1912. In 1937 when he was 73 years of age, he was interviewed on behalf of the Burnley Express and News. He recalled, "On the 3rd June, 1887, 60 men and six sergeants paraded at the Mechanics' Institute. The new Police Force actually took over the policing of the Borough at midnight on the 30th June, when they relieved the county men. We had all kinds of drunken brawls and fights to deal with. The worst areas were Wapping and Pickup Croft, in which district many 'women of the town' lived. Wapping district (behind the Palace theatre) was just like a rabbit warren, with back-to-back houses, passages, and so on. It was extremely difficult to catch anyone who escaped into that area. After dark, the officers had to police that district in couples, as it would not have been safe for one man to go alone. I myself served chiefly in the outdistricts, such as Burnley Wood, and I was never assaulted."

The local "Gazette" published some of the conditions of service of 1887 (dated 28th May, I887). "Each member of the Burnley Police Force shall carefully abstain from the expression of political or religious opinions in any way calculated to give offence and shall not belong to any political or secret society. He shall not upon any occasion or under any pretence whatever receive money from any person without the express permission of the Chief Constable. Sixpence per week will be allowed to each man in lieu of boots. A deduction of two and half percent will be made from the pay of each constable towards the superannuation fund, which fund will be forthwith established for the purpose of providing for the usual pension allowances and gratuities to constables as provided by the Act of Parliament relating thereto".

The original members of the force consisted of: Chief Constable, Mr. J. Harrop, there were three inspectors, six sergeants and 58 constables. All the senior officers were men with police experience, and seventeen of the constables had also seen service with the police.

In an effort to discover what eventually happened to these original members it was found that the Chief Constable, Mr. Harrop, was dismissed in 1901. Of the three inspectors, Mr. Wood became Chief Constable of St. Albans (1889), Mr. Teale became Chief Constable of Luton (1894), and Mr. Rawstron died in Octobers 1893.

Out of the six sergeants, two resigned in 1889; one to become an inn keeper, one died in 1896, and the other three were all later promoted.

Before the end of 1887, six constables had been dismissed, three for indecent behaviour; one for indecent conduct with a female in a water closet of the "Three Horse Shoes"; two were dismissed for being drunk on duty; and one for insubordination. Four men resigned of their own accord.

By 1900 another six were dismissed, one for keeping company with a young woman and seducing her, he being married with four children; and twelve resigned.

From 1900s one constable became inspector; one died in 1900; two res: one policeman, G. M. Lockwood, died on duty at Kippax's Mill fire in April, one transferred to another force on promotion; three left for health reasons the other 23 apparently served on until they retired.