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Front-Line Officer’s Problems | John F. Wake


Cardiff 1891

6 May 1891 and Little Frederick Street was once again in the news. It certainly was not the first time nor would it be the last. A woman came running up to PC Price in Millicent Street. The time was around 8:00 pm. ‘Come quick, there’s hell going on’, she said.

The officer walked quickly to Little Frederick Street and, as he approached, the sounds of a full-blown domestic dispute got louder and louder. On the pavement outside number 27 was a drunk woman systematically smashing every pane of glass in the windows of the house. He found out her name was Margaret Jones. There had been an almighty quarrel and a fight in the house, with a seemingly innocent party named Catherine Collins. It was Catherine’s brother that Margaret was after, why we do not know. But poor Catherine had a jug thrown at her, knocking her to the ground. She was then pulled to her feet by the hair resulting in a handful being torn from her scalp. Margaret was arrested and charged.

In her fit of drunken rage, she had smashed twenty-one panes of glass, damaged the window frames, hospitalised Catherine Collins, and been another burden to the overstretched Cardiff Borough Police.

As it was her first offence she was fined half a crown (2/6d or 12½p) for assaulting Catherine, plus the costs of the windows, jug, and other damages. If she failed to pay it was prison for fourteen days.

The above offence, which was a common occurrence, adds another job into the daily life of the police. If someone did not pay their fine a warrant was issued, and they had to be arrested all over again. Not an easy task in a busy house, especially if the person named on the warrant does not want to come quietly. Sometimes the person simply could not pay even if the they wanted to so emotions ran high with reports of women crying and begging on their knees for the police to give them more time.

It was a problem for patrolling police officers when they came up against violent and savage women. It was common for male officers to fight women as though man-to-man with women who had been brought up in backstreet hovels. Many were homeless and drifted from man to man, sailor to sailor, or via various workhouses, just to survive.

How did society deal with Lizzy Hutchings? She appeared deeply disturbed and even when in the Union Workhouse she was angry and violent towards staff and other residents. When one day she started smashing the panes of glass in the Refuge the staff had to fight to get her into a strait jacket, or as they called it a ‘strait waistcoat’.

Police officers today know how difficult it is to placate hysteria in an individual, as of course do the other professionals who work within mental health institutions. The officers who were called to the Workhouse soon found out they had a problem. Hutchings had torn off her straight jacket and thrown it on the fire. She was still fighting and screaming as she was taken to the police station. She calmed down for a time then exploded once again into violence. These fits were taking up the time of the officers detailed to look after her. She was put before the court, an officer close by should she turn violent again.

Lizzie Hutchings was described as ‘an object of pity, being without a friend in the world’. She was sent to prison for twenty-one days for her violent conduct. If she continued her behaviour it would be the lunatic asylum.

An officer simply did not know what awful events he was to encounter next on the streets, in the numerous drinking establishments, or in the workhouse. This extended to who to believe. What if a known thief came up to you in Charlotte Street and said, ‘I’ve just been robbed’? Does a constable tell him to be on his way or listen to his story? To add to that, what if the thief had also been drinking. A dilemma in which officers may have thought, ‘Let the court decide’.

So, when John the thief went to a Charlotte Street brothel and was relieved of £2/14 (£2.70) – from his wallet by Ann the prostitute, the court decided: case dismissed.

Walking past the Caledonian Hotel, 27 Charlotte Street, an officer may see local lady Angel Lucretia Donovan popping in for a drink. A pleasant ‘Good morning’ was exchanged. But would Angel be so pleasant after gin and whisky? A policeman had to know his locals to be able to police them.

The Town Hall police station, which fronted St Mary Street, from which those police officers ventured, was not one to be proud of. It had a yard in Westgate Street and over the road the small Fire Station but inside it was cramped. In its early years the river Taff flowed past the door of the Fire House, before it was re-routed. Many police officers of the time had dual roles, they were trained as fire officers. A dedicated Fire Department, run under separate officialdom, was yet to come.

There were two distinct centres in St Mary Street. The Town Hall where in the middle years of Superintendent Jeremiah Box Stockdale’s reign, Sergeant Tom Aubrey was the supervisor / station officer. The other was the Town Prison and Police Station with Stockdale himself in charge there.

In the Town Prison and Police Station all officers were in one small room, Superintendent, Inspector, Sergeants and Constables. All the paraphernalia of an office, desks and chairs etc, were packed into the room. The room carried the smell of the oil lamps the men carried and those that lit the room. There was no cell but there were outside yards where arrested people were paraded. This would change in later years. The females had to walk through the male yards which made the situation difficult. There were rooms that separately held men and women but only with space for one seat. In fact, they could quite easily talk to one another. Others simply lay packed together on the cold floor.

This was Cardiff’s main police station in the mid-nineteenth century. Not a place a cold and wet officer would want to return to for refreshment in the middle of the night.

 Constable Price paraded in the main yard at the rear of the building, with eight others. He stood there as part of a dead-straight line, immaculate in his Cardiff Borough uniform, holding his whistle and truncheon aloft for the Sergeant to check. He was given permission by the Sergeant to spend the first half hour of his duty completing his statement from yesterday.

He was the first officer to arrive at the Glamorgan Canal by the Hayes Bridge where a bargee had sighted the body of a newborn baby in the water. Price had hooked it out and put it in a sack to be carried to the Dead House. Not another one, he must have thought. It was a regular occurrence, sometimes monthly, to find a newborn in the back lanes, the canal, the feeders, or the River Taff itself.

He had to walk down to the dead house, where he knew there would be a place for it, and then most probably would have to observe the post-mortem. He would have appeared later that day at the quickly convened Coroner’s Court, usually at the Town Hall if in central Cardiff, where the jury would probably rule that the child was abandoned at birth then thrown into the canal. As was usual, the mother could not afford to keep it, or was forced into the sad crime by some other cause.

Yesteryear’s copper had a different world on his hands, dealing with many contradictory incidents we do not see today. Constable Price was given his beat by the Sergeant, a block of just a few streets, but those few streets were trouble whatever time of the day or night. His block was between Bridge Street and Bute Terrace. It commenced from Little Bridge Street to Stanley Street and everything south to Bute Terrace. A tightly packed and volatile area where trouble could occur without warning, usually caused by alcohol or overcrowding.

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This tale of Victorian policing comes from Horrors of the Dead House. As a former police officer, John F. Wake brings his investigative expertise to the macabre true crime stories that haunt Cardiff’s streets.


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Front-Line Officer’s Problems | John F. Wake

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