Abolish the Police 1841
In 1841, less than two years after the formation of the Wiltshire Police Force, the residents of Wiltshire decided that it was an unnecessary expense and petitioned the Magistrates, asking nothing less than its abolition.
In April 1839 Wiltshire Magistrates received a letter from the Government Home Department asking their views on setting up “a body of Constables appointed by the Magistrates, paid out of the County rate, and disposable at any point of the Shire, where their service might be require, would be desirable, as providing in the most efficient manner for the security of person and property; and the constant preservation of the public peace”.
Wiltshire was in favour and in August 1839 the County Police Act was passed.
On the 13th November 1839 a Wiltshire Quarter Sessions committee was set up to review the new act and on the 13th November 1839 they concluded that not less than 200 Constables, one for every 1,200 persons and a total expenditure of £11,000 per year was needed. There was an amendment opposing the creation of the force, but this was defeated. Thursday 28th November 1839 saw the appointment of Captain Samuel Meredith R.N. as the first Chief Constable of Wiltshire. Gloucestershire appointing theirs on 1st December, with other counties following their lead, making Wiltshire the oldest county force by a few days!
Wiltshire was divided in its opinion whether a Police Force was necessary. The agricultural population of the county felt that “agricultural counties where the provisions of the Police Act have not been resorted to, peace has been preserved, the inhabitants protected, and property secured, quite as effectually as in this County” But with the rise of Chartism, there was now an urgent need for reform and a Police Force.
Chartism was a political movement formed by the working class to petition the Government for votes for every man aged 21 and over. Its intention was to use petition as a way of reform and where against the use of violent protect. But many believed that the Chartists - were responsible for a series of riots and protests up and down the country.
Each parish completed its own petition for those opposing the police force largely on the grounds of the resulting increase in rates to cover its cost. The information provided was the person’s signature, residence (generally only the parish name) and the value of property on which rates were payable. I would estimate there must be 10,000+ signatures in total.
Westbury’s petition is particularly impressive; it measures 20 feet, over 6 meters in length, which we estimate to have about 500 signatures! Westbury residents clearly felt they did not need the newly set up Wiltshire Constabulary.
These are an interesting set of documents and a fascinating insight into Wiltshire’s middle class attitude towards rates and public security.
Ian Hicks, Community History Advisor