Margate Crime and Margate Punishment

Anthony Lee

5. A Proper Police Force for Margate.

The pressure for change at Margate finally became irresistible and, for once, things moved rapidly. In January 1838 the Margate Commissioners met ‘to determine on the propriety of re-establishing a night watch for the winter months’.1 The two local magistrates, the  Rev F. Barrow and William Nethersole, ‘censured the street keepers and night watch for the very inefficient manner in which they discharged their duties. They remarked that some public houses in Margate were kept open at very unseasonable hours, and that the practise of allowing card playing and gambling was the cause of much misery in the town. The night watch were cautioned, and desired to be more attentive in future, and to report the houses that kept open at late hours’.2 But the town thought that more was needed than just an improved night watch and on 8 July 1838 the Commissioners were meeting to ‘consider a  Requisition numerously signed praying the establishment of an efficient Police and to take such steps thereon as may be determined proper’.1 The issue was passed to the Police Committee who quickly produced their report so that on 13 July the Commissioners met to ‘appoint Policemen and define their duties, wages &c’.1 The Margate Police force was duly established in July 1838 with an inspector and four constables, with the principal objective of ‘The Prevention of Crime’.3

The force was immediately criticised for being too small. At a meeting between a deputation of rate payers and the Commissioners it became clear that things had not been well thought out. Mr Carter, one of the deputation, suggested that four constables would not be enough as ’there could not be more than two on duty at one time; and he [Carter] wished to know what use two men were to preserve order in a town like Margate?’4 The Deputy, Francis William Cobb, defended the proposal:  ‘he thought it a pity to throw cold water on their attempt to establish a police’ but William Nethersole, one of the magistrates and a Commissioner, agreed with Carter: ‘four police could affect very little more than the present constables did.’ Cobb then explained that it was intended that the new police force would work together with the existing constables: ‘the appointment of the police would not supersede the use of the constables for the present. In fact they would be merely the leading horses of the team; not only of special constables, but of the ordinary constables.’  This proposal, however, worried John Boys, another of the Commissioners and clerk to the Cinque Port Justices, who was not convinced that the police and constables would ‘pull well together.’ The issue of the relationship between the Pier police, four in number,5 and the new Margate Police then came up. Mr Carter thought that cooperation between the two forces would help: ‘the pier police took care to prevent touting at the Jetty, but there was no prevention on the Parade, where they [the touts] congregated in great numbers, to the annoyance of every one who lived on it.’ Cobb, although agreeing that the two police forces working together would be a good thing, did not see how the pier police could be forced to help in this way. Nevertheless, despite all these worries, the new police force were showing off their new uniforms in August and ‘well conducted as they are, [they] have already been of great service to the town’.6

The duties of the new force were spelt out in a book of instructions published in 1839.3 A constable was to receive 20s per week pay and for clothing a ‘great coat, every other year; two pairs of boots, each year; [a] hat and cover, every year; [a] coat and two pair of trowsers, every year; [a] cape, every third year.’ The Inspector was to receive an additional five shillings a week pay, ‘with clothing of superior materials’. They were warned that ‘Police constables may rest assured that no man will be suffered to remain a day in the Police who shall be in the slightest degree intoxicated on duty’ and ‘they are forbidden to carry sticks or umbrellas in their hands when on duty.’ When off duty they were ‘to consider themselves liable to be called on at all times, and will always prepare themselves, when required, at the shortest notice.’

The particular duties of the Inspector were defined:

     To see that the men going on duty are perfectly clean and sober, and properly dressed in the Police Uniform.
     The inspector shall not take into custody any person brought in by a Police Constable, on the vague charge of “obstructing the Constable in the execution of his duty.” If such charge is to be made, it must be accompanied by a specification of particulars.
     He will visit . . . the Public Houses and Beer shops, and report in writing all such as keep improper hours and disorderly company in their houses, especially on Sundays.

The duties of the Police Constables were also spelt out:

     It is indispensably necessary that he should make himself perfectly acquainted with all parts of the town, with the streets, thoroughfares, courts and houses.
    He will be expected to possess such a knowledge of the inhabitants of each house, as will enable him to recognize their persons, he will thus prevent mistakes and enable himself to render assistance to the inhabitants when called for.
    He is to notice the state of the gas lamps, whether any are dirty or extinguished, and report the same to the Inspector.
    In case of a fire taking place, the Police Constable at the spot will give an immediate alarm by springing his rattle.
    A Police Constable must not use his staff except in necessary self-defence.


In the accounts of the Margate Commissioners the police force are referred to as the ‘police watchmen’ emphasising their primary role of ‘watching’ the town.7 In the year 1839-1840 John Boncey was also employed as ‘Watch-house and Hall-keeper, and Assistant Watchman’ at 20 s per week and £11 7s was paid for ‘additional watchmen’.7 The Dover Chronicle reported in 1842 that the Margate Police, although small, were run very efficiently by the Inspector, Mr Marchant, and that  ‘the men are well paid, and their place is worth their keeping. They have also a share in the various perquisites for the capture of offenders; and thus are they induced to be vigilant in their duties’.8

In 1851 Margate came under the regulations of the Health of Towns Act [see Public Health Act in Margate].9 The aim of the act was to improve the sanitary condition of towns in England and Wales by placing the supply of water, sewerage, drainage, cleansing and paving under a single local body. The Margate Local Board of Health took over the powers of the Margate Improvement Commissioners, including supervision of the police in Margate. The Board had its first meeting in September.10,11 and one of its first decisions was to continue with the police force as it was, under the Inspector, Mr Merchant.12 As described by the Margate Clerk of Works, the position of the police was, however,  rather odd: ‘the police were appointed by the Corporation of Dover and were the constables for the whole parish. The Local Board paid and clothed the police, but their services might be demanded by the whole district; the remedy was the appointment of constables by the members of the Board.’ John Boys, one of the local magistrates, said that the committee ‘wished to appoint constables, but had no power under the previous Act of Parliament’.13

The Police Committee issued a set of ‘Rules, Instructions, & Orders for the Regulation, Management and Guidance of the Police Constables,’ obviously based on the previous book of instructions of 1839 (Appendix I).14 The document started: ‘It should be understood at the outset that the prin­cipal object to be obtained is, THE PREVENTION OF CRIME.’ It continued: ‘in watching the conduct of loose and disorderly persons, and of all persons whose behaviour is such as to excite just suspicion, he [the constable] will keep in mind that the prevention of crime — the great object of all exertions of the Police — will generally be best attained by making it evident to the parties that they are known and strictly watched, and that certain detection will follow any attempt to commit a crime.’ It was made clear that the position of constable was a full-time job: ‘each man shall devote his whole time to the Police Service; he is not to carry on any trade or calling, nor can his wife be allowed to keep a shop.’ The pay of a constable was to be 20s per week and he was to receive a ‘great coat every other year; two pair of boots every year; hat and cover every year; coat and two pair of trowsers every year; cape every third year.’ All payments for serving summons, conveying prisoners to Dover etc. that had previously been paid to the constables, would now go to town’s General District Fund. As to discipline it was stressed that ‘Police Constables may rest assured, that no man will be suffered to remain a day in the Police who shall be in the slightest degree intoxicated on duty.’ Similarly, ‘on no pretence shall he enter a public house or beer shop, except in the immediate execution of his duty, and no liquor or refreshment of any sort shall be taken from a publican without paying for it at the time; such a breach of positive orders will not be excused.’ He was expected to be familiar with the town and its inhabitants: ‘it is indispensably necessary that he should make himself perfectly acquainted with all parts of the town, with the streets, thoroughfares, courts, and houses’ and ‘he will be expected to possess such a knowledge of the inhabitants of each house as will enable him to recognize their persons; he will thus prevent mistakes, and enable himself to render assistance to the in­habitants when called for.’ Finally, ‘the Police Constables are upon all occasions re­quired to execute their duty with good temper and discretion; any instance of unnecessary violence by them will not be overlooked. A Police Constable must not use his staff except in necessary self-defence. The Police Constables are not to use language towards parties in their custody calculated to provoke or offend them, such conduct often creates resistance in the party, and a hostile feeling amongst the persons present towards the constable. The Police Constables are always to bear in mind, that in taking any one into custody, they are not justified in doing more than is absolutely necessary for the safe custody of the parties while being conveyed to the station.’

   In 1857 with the Incorporation of Margate, the old Town Police Force became the Borough Police Force with most members of the force simply transferring into the new force, including the Superintendent, Marchant, although Marchant’s appointment was not to last long. In December it was reported in the local press that the 'Superintendent of Police, Mr Marchant, after a service of twenty years, has been compelled through confirmed illness to resign his post, and Police Constable Shelvey has been appointed temporarily to his place'.15 This was opposed by Mr Keble who criticized the conduct of the Police Committee, who, he said, ‘constantly allowed the most flagrant dereliction of duty on the part of the Superintendent and Constables to pass censure, when it was manifest to every inhabitant that they (the Police) were totally incompetent in the performance of their duties’.16 The appointment of a new Superintendent was delayed because of uncertainty over when exactly the powers of the old Local Board of Health would be handed over to the new Town Council [A Charter for Margate] but eventually, Henry Saunders, an ex-Metropolitan Policeman, was appointed Superintendent. The appointment was welcomed by the Kentish Gazette: 'We are glad to hear such satisfaction expressed upon the improved state of our Police Force under the new Superintendent, Mr Saunders, and we hope that 'ere long it will be a credit to the Watch Committee and of considerable value to the town'.17

The force remained small, and when visited by the Inspectors of Constabulary in 1856 consisted of just one Inspector (or Superintendent), paid 40s per week, and five constables, paid 20s per week.18 The Inspectors of Constabulary suggested that this was too small, and that at least two sergeants and one further constable were necessary.18 At the time of the next inspection in 1857 nothing had changed and the force was judged to be ‘not efficient in number or discipline’.19 This negative report did, finally, lead to improvements and by 1858 four further appointments had been made, so that now the force consisted of one superintendent, two sergeants and seven constables.20

The performance of the new borough police force was supervised by the Watch Committee, whose ledgers exist from 26 February 1858. Right from the beginning it was clear that the Committee wished to keep a tight control over the police; a minute from 16 March 1858 recorded that ‘the Watch Committee considered that one of their number should attend weekly, and in rotation to inspect the Police Station and to supervise the proceedings of the Police Constables’.21 Such close supervision by the Committee might well have proved unpopular with the Superintendent of Police, and could well have contributed to the difficulties the town experienced in keeping its Superintendents for any length of time, as detailed below.

 The records of the Watch Committee report many problems with indiscipline and drunkenness in the force.16,21 At the end of May 1858 the Watch committee ordered that ‘ the visiting of Public Houses on Sunday for the purpose of ascertaining that they are closed to be confined to the Superintendent and Sergeant of Police' and further ordered that ‘the Superintendent be directed to inform the Constables that a report to the Watch Committee of any of them being found in a Public House, will be followed by instant dismissal, except on duty.' At the end of June Superintendent Saunders had found Constable Richard Crump drunk when coming off duty. Crump admitted it: ‘It was my birthday, I drank some ale with my friends, served some notices, drank some gin, being unwell it overcame me, I did not go into a Public House.’ Saunders reported that Crump ‘was one of his best men, orderly and cleanly, and that he had never seen him under the influence of liquor before.’ Crump was admonished by the Mayor and suspended for a fortnight. Unfortunately, Crump was in trouble again in November and the Watch Committee ‘met to investigate the charges against Police Constable Richard Crump for drunkenness and also disobedience of orders . . . Police Constable Crump was called in, and the entries in the Report Book having been read to him and having been asked what he had to say respecting the same, he replied that, "He had nothing more to say, than he beg leave to resign". It was moved and carried unanimously that the resignation of Police Constable Crump be accepted, and that his services immediately cease'.

 Crump was not the only constable with a drink problem. In April 1859 Saunders reported Police Constable Young ‘for being in front of the Bar of the Brewer's Arms Public House on the 25th of March at 7.10 pm while on duty’. He was fined 2s 6d and told that ‘he would be suspended for the next offence and probably discharged for the third'. Again, in June Police Constable Edward Young was reported by Saunders for having  been ‘under the influence of drink at 6.30 pm’ and was suspended for a week. In September Young was found asleep on duty at 2.30 am and was again fined 2s 6d. In October 1860 'a complaint having been made to the Committee that Police Constable Young had been found intoxicated on duty, he was called in and examined and, there being some extenuating circumstances, he was admonished and warned that for the next offence he would, in all likelihood, be dismissed the Force'. Yet when Young was reported by Saunders of being ‘guilty of drunkenness and cadging on the 27th of December last’ he was only suspended for one month and reprimanded.

 The Watch Committee became increasingly disillusioned with Saunders and his management of the Margate police force. On 24 September 1867 the Watch Committee reported:

Several complaints having been received of the inefficiency of the Police Force — Police Constable Harlow complained of for allowing a person given into his custody (at the Hall-by-the-Sea during a disturbance) on the night of Saturday the 21st inst. to escape. The same Constable charged with being found asleep at the Police Station while in charge on the morning of Sunday the 22nd inst. The same Constable charged with refusing to go to the assistance of a well-dressed man reported to be drunk and helpless with considerable property about his person, found by the Coastguard at 2.30 am Sunday the 22nd inst. and reported at the Station to Police Constable Harlow and Police Constable Douglas to be lying on the grass at Buenos Ayres covered with the awning of their boat, where he remained until further application at 9.30  am when Sergeant Shelvey found him insensible and brought him to the Police Station — Police Constable Harlow to be suspended for one month.

The Watch Committee concluded: 'The Committee, having investigated the several complaints and heard a number of witnesses, is strongly of the opinion that there has not been much vigilant supervision and attention on the part of the Superintendent Saunders, as the Committee expect to find in the Chief of their Police, and unless there is a great improvement in the discipline and management of the Force he will be called upon to resign'. The Watch Committee were also worried about the Police Superannuation Fund that paid the pensions of retired police officers, a Fund that was under the control of Saunders. On 14 October the Watch Committee resolved ‘that the Sub-Committee appointed at the last meeting to investigate the deficiency in the Superannuation Fund not being yet prepared with a report, this and the further complaint of a report of Misconduct against the Superintendent of Police be adjourned to a special meeting.’ They also resolved ‘that Superintendent Saunders be desired to pay the Balance of the Superannuation Fund into the hands of the Treasurer forthwith.’ The deficiency in the fund was £25 17s 1d. On 12 November the Watch Committee reported: ‘Superintendent Saunders having reported that he had failed to obtain the money required to make up the deficiency in the Superannuation Fund, the report of the Sub-Committee upon the state of the Superannuation Fund was received and ordered to be entered in the minutes — Resolved that Superintendent Saunders be called upon forthwith to give three month's notice to resign his appointment as Inspector of Police'. Saunders duly resigned in a letter of the 25 November but remained in post until a new Superintendent could be appointed. There were three applicants for the vacant post and T. M. Compton was appointed, taking up his post on 20 April 1868.  Unfortunately he also came to offend the Watch Committee. In August 1872 he was in trouble for being away from Margate without permission:  'Resolved — That in future the Superintendent of Police shall obtain the sanction of the Mayor on every occasion of absenting himself from the Borough, and that a book be obtained in which shall be entered the time of the Superintendent leaving the Borough, the time of his return and the business on which he was engaged while absent, the same to be produced at every meeting of the Watch Committee.’ In April 1875 Compton managed to offend the great and the good of Margate: ‘The unanimous opinion of the Committee is that in entering the Ballroom of the Artillery Volunteers, the Superintendent of Police was guilty of a very great indiscretion, the appearance of an Officer of Police in his official uniform conveying a necessarily unpleasant feeling to the assembled company. They regret that the occasion has been given for a well-founded complaint which they must consider to be a very grave charge which they consider to be fully proved, and in the event of a similar complaint being proved against him he will be suspended for a period.’  In 1876 the relationship between Compton and the Watch Committee had become so bad that the Committee held a vote of confidence in him which was passed by only a narrow majority. A few months later he resigned and by September a new Superintendent, Robert Wilcox Romanis had taken over.

  Romanis seems to have had no more success with the Watch Committee than had Compton. By 1886 relations between Romanis and the Watch Committee had became so bad that the Watch Committee wrote to the Home Office asking that they send down an official to institute an enquiry into the discipline and general efficiency of the Margate Borough Police Force. Perhaps in response to this move, in October 1886 Romanis was presented with a silver plated tankard and a marble mantle clock by the other ranks of the  police force; the clock was inscribed ‘Presented to Robert Wilcox Romanis, Head Constable, by the Sergeants and Constables of the Borough of Margate Police. 16th October, 1886.’ In a report of the occasion in Keble’s Gazette, the paper commented on how for ten years Romanis had  'efficiently and admirably' discharged his duties. Present on the occasion were the Mayor, three Sergeants, seventeen Constables, ex-Sergeant Shelvey, ex-Sergeant Jarman and ex-Constable Harlow,  the last three having bought Romanis a silver-mounted, ivory-handled Malacca cane, but absent were most of the Watch Committee. Despite this praise, in January 1887 the Watch Committee passed a resolution: ‘The Mayor be requested to call on the Superintendent of Police and to impress upon him the necessity of giving more personal supervision to the duties of his office’ and finally in December 1888 he resigned. The Mayor denied  reports in the press that Romanis had resigned because he was unable to agree policy with the Watch Committee  and reported that relationships between the Committee and Romanis were most amicable, which seems unlikely to have been true. In July 1889, Romanis wrote to the Watch Committee requesting a Certificate of Service for the time he had  time spent as Superintendent at Margate. The Watch Committee agreed the following reference: ‘This is to certify that Robert Wilcocks Romanis joined the Borough of Margate Police Force on the 9th day of September, 1876, and resigned while holding the same office on the 21st day of December, 1888’. Not surprisingly, Romanis wrote complaining of this reference and in September the Watch Committee agreed to add the following to their reference: ‘ . . . during which time his conduct was good.’

A series of Superintendents followed, none staying for very long. In 1873 ‘some difficulty is reported in obtaining candidates for the police service, and it is supposed that the high rents which men have to pay in this town for their residences . . . tends to disincline men to enter the service,’ despite the fact that ‘the police in this force are each allowed seven days' leave every year, besides one Sunday in every four during the winter’.22 By the end of the century the police force had increased to one chief officer, two inspectors, four Sergeants, and twenty eight constables.23

Finally, it should be mentioned that for many years the police force was in charge of fire fighting in Margate and the police were expected to look out for fires when patrolling the streets. When the borough police force was established in 1857 they took over responsibility for one ‘large engine’ with six lengths of hose and four lengths of suction pipe, a ‘second engine’ with three lengths of hose and three suction pipes, and a ‘small engine’ with three lengths of hose ‘partly out of repair’.21 They also had 46 buckets, ‘some out of order’, 10 torches and 6 axes. The way the system  worked is described in a report from Superintendent Saunders to the Watch Committee about a fire in the High Street in February 1859:12

About 9.15 pm on 5th Feb while on duty at the Police Station, I received information  that the house of Mr Hellen, draper of 140 High St was on fire. Immediately with Police Constable William Hobday I got the fire engines out and proceeded to the spot and got them to work and played on the fire. At this time the whole of the lower part of Mr Hellen’s house was in flames. I then sent PC Hobday to report to his worship the Mayor who was immediately on the spot and rendered great assistance in directing and encouraging others to work and assist in putting it out. I also sent for the whole of the Police both on and off duty their being a short supply of water and seeing no chance of saving Mr Hellen’s house I directed attention to the one adjoining, Mr Fells. — There being no one there I forced open the door and with assistance got out the greater part of the stock and furniture which I had deposited at the Bathing Rooms, placing a constable in charge until locked up. Every exertion was used both by Police and civilians to prevent a spread of the fire, which was not got under control until both houses were completely gutted. I left at 7.30 am the 6th inst, all was then safe.

The Watch Committee resolved that ‘the Insurance Offices be charged £12 10s for the use of the two engines.’

The history of fire fighting in Margate is described in detail in the book by Robert Varnham.24



1. Kent Archives, U1453 060 Correspondence with J. E. Wright, Clerk of Commissioners, Bundle E 1838.

2. Kentish Mercury, January 27 1838.

3. Kent Archives, U1453/z35/15, Police booklet 1838.

4. Kentish Mercury, July 21 1838.

5. Kentish Mercury, June 23 1838.

6. Kentish Mercury, August 11 1838.

7. Kent Archives, U1453 060, Correspondence with J. E. Wright, Clerk of Commissioners, Bundle G 1840.

8. Dover Chronicle, March 26 1842.

9. Public Health Act, 11 & 12 Vict. c.63, 1848.

10. Dover Telegraph, April 26 1851.

11. Dover Telegraph, September 27 1851.

12. Dover Telegraph, November 1 1851.

13. Dover Telegraph, November 27 1852.

14. Local Board of Health Bye Laws, Rules, Instructions, & Orders for the Regulation, Management and Guidance of the Police Constables. 21 October 1851, Margate Library.

15. Kentish Gazette, December 29 1857.

16. Mick Twyman and Alf Beeching, A Policeman’s lot, Bygone Margate Vol. 10 Nos 1-5, 2007.

17. Kentish Gazette, April 25 1858.

18. Parliamentary Papers 1857-58, Reports of Inspectors of Constabulary to Secretary of State, 1856-57.

19. Parliamentary Papers 1859, Reports of Inspectors of Constabulary to Secretary of State, 1857-58.

20. Parliamentary Papers 1860, Reports of Inspectors of Constabulary to Secretary of State, 1858-59.

21. Kent Archives. Borough of Margate Watch Committee Minutes 1857.

22. Parliamentary Papers 1874, Reports of Inspectors of Constabulary to Secretary of State, 1872-73.

23. Parliamentary Papers 1899, Reports of Inspectors of Constabulary to Secretary of State, 1897-98.

24. Robert Varnham, Thanet’s Victorian Fire Brigades, Polly’s Publishing, 2010.