Friday, 27 May 2016

West Mercia Police archives: Descriptive registers of the Worcestershire Constabulary

What are Descriptive registers?

Descriptive registers give information on a police officer's period of service.  The registers can include information on previous public service such as time with another police force or in the armed services, together with pay rates and the stations in which they worked.  Details of promotions, transfers and reasons for leaving the force such as retirement, transfer or resignation are also recorded. 

Personal detail

What is much more interesting, particularly for those researching a police ancestor, is that the registers give a physical description of the officer including eye and hair colour, weight and height.  Sometimes this includes brief reference to a birthmark, mole or operation scar, but it can be quite detailed such as 'lost end of middle finger of right hand'.  Tattoos may be described quite vividly such as 'tattooed both arms, crossed hands and heart' or 'tattooed star and crescent and Salome left forearm'.  There are also details of any sickness, injuries or accidents which may have befallen them while on duty.  You can almost picture the person being described in your mind's eye.

Place of birth, religion, trade and education are often included.  For married officers, details of their spouse and children are also noted.  Many of the officers were local to Worcestershire or to the Midlands, but some did come from much further afield such as Wales, Norfolk, Essex, Devon and Northumberland to serve in the Worcestershire Constabulary.   One even gave his birthplace as Australia.  The original trades of the officers can make for interesting reading too.  Alongside railway workers, miners, gardeners, gamekeepers and those from the armed services, a silversmith, canal boat owner, musician, cinema operator and golf professional all decided that a policeman's lot was for them.

Example pages from an early descriptive register showing an entry from 1856.
Image used with thanks to West Mercia Police.

Commendations and awards are also recorded.  This may relate to good work in helping to arrest someone or solve a crime, but may also include bravery in stopping a runaway horse and carriage or saving someone from drowning.  On the flip side the registers can also include reports of misconduct of officers such as falling asleep while on duty, persistent drunkenness, failing to turn up at point or arriving late for work.  Persistent misbehaviour resulted in docking of pay, demotion and in some cases dismissal.

What do we hold?

We hold a series of descriptive registers for Worcestershire Constabulary from 1839 to 1953.  Please note that the more recent registers will not be open to public inspection, in accordance with the 75 year closure period that West Mercia Police apply to their archives. 

Conservation work

Some of the descriptive registers have become damaged over the years, perhaps because of over-handling, poor storage conditions or a mixture of the two.  In some cases the spines have come away from the bindings and the sewing threads have broken so the pages are loose.  In other cases the binding has started to peel or is ripped and scuffed.  All this makes it difficult for the volumes to be handled without causing further damage.

Some of the descriptive registers before conservation treatment

The work to conserve the volumes has been very time consuming as there are several different processes involved.  Each volume has been cleaned with a soft brush or sponge to remove the surface dirt.  Then any damaged pages have been repaired using tissue paper.  Torn or loose binding material has been re-glued into place where possible.  Where the original binding material had been lost, suitable linen or leather has been used and dyed to match the colours of the original item.  Those volumes which had broken sewing or lost spines have been re-sewn and re-bound.  Our conservation volunteers have then made bespoke boxes to protect the newly conserved volumes.

Some of the descriptive registers after conservation

Our conservator Rhonda Niven said of the task 'I enjoy working on these large volumes, even though they can be difficult and heavy to move around. Although they were designed to be functional and robust every day volumes, I like to think of the importance that they had in recording the details of so many lives.  I am pleased they have now been repaired and can continue to be handled, revealing the details of the life they have had, both as beautiful objects and for the information they contain.'

For other information about the History of Worcestershire Constabulary and individual policemen see Bob Pooler's book From Fruit Trees to Furnaces a History of the Worcestershire Constabulary (2002) and the Worcestershire Police History website.

By Maggie Tohill

Tuesday, 3 May 2016

Monthly Mystery: Witches, Horses and The Devil

A building survey of a fairly ordinary 19th century brick stable block in the west of Worcestershire uncovered a peculiar set of objects. Nailed above the lintel to the entrance way was a pair of mammalian skeletal feet above an iron horseshoe.

Plate 1 Horseshoe and paws nailed above a stable doorway (©WCC 2015)

A horseshoe above a stable entrance may not seem so odd, but its origins as a protective symbol stem from the early medieval period and is said to come from the story of St. Dunstan, who was asked to re-shoe the Devil’s horse, but instead nailed a shoe to the Devil himself. It caused the Devil great pain, but Dunstan only agreed to remove it if the Devil promised not to enter any place where a horseshoe was above an entrance way (St Dunstan’s - who was St. Dunstan, undated).

The tale proved so popular that John Aubrey, writing in the late 17th century, noted that:

"It is a thing very common to nail horse-shoes on the thresholds of doors: which is to hinder the power of witches that enter into the house. Most houses of the West end of London, have the horse-shoe on the threshold. It should be a horse-shoe that one finds." (Aubrey 1696)

Doorways and entrances were routinely singled out for protection in historic houses, with protection symbols located around fireplaces and doorways. You can see examples of this tradition being maintained to this day at The Fleece Inn, Bretforton. In the 17th century, an overtly Christian symbol became common with "VV" being carved into timbers and stonework. This is believed to stand for Virgo Virgimnum (Virgin of Virgins) and invokes the protection of Mary.

Plate 2 Protection marks, including 'witch circles' in the fireplace, The Fleece Inn, Bretforton (©National Trust, undated)

It is not only the household that people sought to protect against witches: horses were also protected using either flint or metal, usually lead, tokens (Davis, Easton 2015, 223). These were either hung on the horse or somewhere in its stall to prevent evil spirits known as 'mares' riding them through the night:

"To hinder the night mare, they hang in a string, a flint with a hole in it (naturally) by the manger; but best of all they say, hung about their necks, and a flint will do it that hath not a hole in it. It is to prevent the nightmare, viz. the hag, from riding their horses, who will sometimes sweat all night. The flint thus hung does hinder it." (Aubrey 1696)

'Mares' were also thought to ride on the chests of people while they slept, bringing on bad dreams, hence the modern use of the term 'nightmare'.

The more peculiar object that is also nailed above the lintel is the skeletal feet, which were initially thought to be those of a cat. However, the size and context of the bones points more towards them being fox paws. There are many traditions within fox hunting which trace their origins to the 16th century. The head (mask), tail (brush) and feet (pads) are given away to certain members of the hunting party as hunting trophies (Johnson 2016). Placed within the context of the stables and with the iron horseshoe it could be interpreted that perhaps the skeletal remains of the fox feet were to bring about a successful next hunt.

By Tegan Cornah