#MyrtleMondays: Black Police in Victorian England

Last week we talked about some of the first professional policewomen in England. This week, in honor of Black History Month, we’ll have a look at 19th century Black law enforcement officers. They’ve been protecting their fellow Britons since the very earliest days of English policing.

Parish and census records from 19th century England don’t typically record race, so the contributions of many Black Britons have been overlooked (and often obscured) by history. Thanks to the diligent efforts of historians, many more of their stories are being unearthed and shared, giving us a more complete picture of life for ordinary English people in the Victorian era.

A modern painting of 1830s Carlisle constables, including John Kent (Cumbria Guides)

The modern British police force grew out of a tradition of night watches and other patrols organized on a local or parish level, alongside private services, such as the railway police we meet in How to Get Away with Myrtle. Police departments steadily grew more organized, centralized, and professional throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. London’s Metropolitan Police was founded in 1829, and many more cities added official constabularies throughout the 1830s and ’40s. By 1851, England and Wales were patrolled by around 13,000 professional policemen—including people of color.

20th century badge (worn on the helmet) of the Cumbria police, including the city of Carlisle, featuring the royal cipher of Queen Elizabeth II. (Lakeland Arts Trust)

John Kent, Carlisle

The Carlisle City Police, established in the 1820s, employed one of England’s earliest Black constables. Born near Carlisle (northwestern England) around 1795, John Kent was the son of a formerly-enslaved man from the Caribbean who worked as a sailor. Kent began his law enforcement career as parish constable for the industrial town of Maryport, before joining the force in Carlisle in 1837, where he served as constable for seven years. His lengthy career in policework included further positions as a court bailiff, parish constable, and railway policeman. Read more about Kent’s career—characteristic of the early days of English policework—here. 


2017: Representatives of the Metropolitan Police and St. Lawrence Church hold a commemorative service at the grave of Superintendent Robert Branford (photo by David Lamming, Little Waldingfield History Society)

We know the story of Superintendent Branford of the Metropolitan Police thanks in part to the 1893 memoirs of a fellow officer: Scotland Yard Past & Present by retired Chief Inspector Timothy Cavanagh. He described working under Branford in the 1840s and ’50s:

“Not an educated man: but what to my idea was of much greater importance, he possessed a thorough knowledge of police matters in general. I should say [Branford] was about the only half-caste [mixed race] superintendent officer the Met ever had.”  –Chief Inspector Timothy Cavanagh, 1893

Branford was born in rural Suffolk around 1820. No photographs of him have been found, and little is known of his ancestry. But he served as a London police officer for almost 30 years, from 1838-1866, and would have experienced—and likely even helped drive—the evolution of modern policing. He retired as a Superintendent, a senior rank. Cavanagh’s statement raises the intriguing possibility that there were other officers of color among the Met’s early ranks whose stories are waiting to be uncovered.

PC James Gore, Salford (Greater Manchester)

The Salford Police service record of James Gore (date of this document is not given)

The dashing bobby whose portrait graces the cover graphic for this post is PC James Gore of Salford (a suburb of Manchester), the earliest known Black officer in the records of the Greater Manchester Police Museum. Born in either Leeds, UK, or Jamaica around 1880, before his career in the police, Gore served in the British Army’s Royal Garrison Artillery. Gore’s 30-year police career spanned the first decades of the 20th century, showing that Black constables continued to join police departments all throughout England. The GMPM has an intriguing interactive exhibit that takes viewers through the details shown on Gore’s service record (above).

The men featured above are undoubtedly not alone; in fact, records of the Old Bailey (London’s Central Criminal Court) include testimony of an unnamed “Negro Constable” in a theft trial as far back as 1746(The defendant was found guilty and sentenced to transportation.) It’s clear that Black Britons have been a part of England’s law enforcement foundations from its earliest days.

Why is so little known of these pioneering Black constables? In part, it’s because this achievement wasn’t necessarily seen as unusual. Because official records of the era typically don’t include race, the exact Black population of Victorian England is not known, and historian Stephen Bourne, co-founder of the Black & Asian Studies Association, suggests, “In some instances there would have been less overt racism in England at that time because there were so few black people, so they weren’t yet perceived as a threat, and someone like Robert [Branford] would have been able to become a Met officer.” (Interview about Branford in The Southwark News, 2016) (This is certainly not to suggest that there was no racism, and 19th century Britain has its own legacy as a slave-trading colonial power to contend with.)

Joining the Met in 1968, Jamaican-born Sislin Fay Allen is considered to be England’s first Black policewoman —but it would not be surprising for further research to uncover even earlier examples whose stories have not yet been told.

For more information on the achievements of Black Britons throughout history, check out the following resources:

Black Presence Exhibit at The National Archives

Black & Asian Studies Association

Black History Month UK