A Policeman’s Lot

A Policeman's Lot - Thomas Caswell

Thomas Caswell

The regiment was posted to Ireland in 1857, probably because the government of the day anticipated trouble in the general election of that year, when the Irish Independence Party fielded candidates under their own banner for the first time. Contemporaneous reports suggested that Caswell was a “bit of a martinet” whilst in the Army, and that he was subjected to an equally tyrannical drum-major. He left the army before the Irish deployment, perhaps deeming it prudent because of the unit’s imminent departure and because he was planning to marry a local girl.

Once de-mobbed he spent several months as a member of the South Shropshire Yeomanry – the Army Reserves/Home Guard of the time – also as a bandsman, from where he joined the Shropshire constabulary on a weekly wage of 16 shillings (old shilling sign /-), about £400 at today’s values. The work was hard and sometimes violent, and hours were long. Nevertheless, 16/- was a very good wage at that time.
His uniform consisted of a shaped, high hat with glazed top, which acted as rain proofing, with side supports that protected the ears. These can just be glimpsed in this picture. Caswell sported luxuriant side-whiskers, which were common at the time. There was also a short, tailed coat called a “magpie”, white gloves and boots. These were waterproof rubber boots with laced, high tops made of leather, which provided flexibility around the ankles. The design was adapted and marketed by an American, LL Bean, at the beginning of the 20thC as “duck” or “bean” boots.

Caswell was the first policeman to be posted permanently to Cleobury. His military service was put to good use among the local ne’er-do-wells where he won a reputation that he was not to be trifled with.
After only three months as a probationer, Caswell solved a burglary case and impressed the then Superintendent of the Division, Mr Baxter, who promoted him to Constable Second Class. The Division included Packfield, Broseley and Much Wenlock, a much larger geographic area than those of towns and cities, which made keeping the peace and detecting crime difficult in those days of “shank’s pony” and “bone-shaker” bicycles. The population was made up significantly of coal miners, bargemen and other industrial labourers alongside rural residents scattered throughout farms, hamlets and villages. Perhaps Caswell’s piercing stare – see photograph – helped the impression he gave of a no-nonsense law enforcer.

When Superintendent Baxter was transferred to Church Stretton he asked that Caswell should be transferred as well. Caswell was stationed at Bromfield in August 1860, where he was promoted again, this time to Sergeant Second Class. As the child of rural Shropshire, it’s unlikely that Caswell had a comprehensive education. Central government made its first education grant in the year Caswell was born, but children’s education, especially for those of the rural and so-called labouring classes, was patchy at best before and for some considerable time afterwards. Those who could afford too hired nannies and tutors for their children, but those of limited means had to rely on philanthropists and local churches, a system that had been prevalent for hundreds of years. Thomas would have known Acton Scott farm but would not have known the school, which wasn’t built until 1866. It’s likely, therefore, that he had only a very basic education consisting of literacy, numeracy, religious studies and some simple geography and history. Promotion to Sergeant, Second Class, however, suggests that he was self-taught beyond his childhood schooling by then.

It was about this time that Caswell had a significant success. He arrested two men who were part of a “smasher” gang – currency counterfeiters – one of whom was carrying a large number of counterfeit florins (2/- pieces) and another who was passing them off as genuine in transactions. At this time, an unskilled farm labourer in the north west of England would have earned between 3/- and 4/- a week, and a florin would be worth about £12 in today’s purchasing power, so this was a significant crime and a major arrest.

Incidentally, the florin derived its name from an Italian coin, the first of which was struck in gold in 1253 in Florence. The 2/- piece was the last coin circulating immediately prior to the UKs decimalisation in 1971. The 2/- and the 10p were the only two items of the new coinage that had the same value, weight and size in both the old and new currencies and they circulated alongside each other until 1993.
Another transfer and promotion saw Caswell rise to Sergeant First Class based at Craven Arms and, in 1865, to Chief Clerk and Inspector, on which he was transferred to Shrewsbury. After serving in yet another promotion for a time, to Superintendent of the Division, he was transferred to the Church Stretton Division as successor to his retired mentor, Superintendent Baxter.
In 1887 Caswell sent a contingent of 40 Sergeants and Constables to Montgomeryshire, to quell the Meiford Tithe Riots, and 50 to Ruabon and Wrexham to police Queen Victoria’s visit to North Wales in 1889. These deployments illustrate the reach of Caswell’s jurisdiction and the manpower strength of his Division.

The Tithe Commutation Acts of 1836, 1837, 1839 and 1860 set out laws surrounding a change from payments in-kind to the payment of fixed rents by rural tenants to landlords in cash. These rents were calculated to 10% of the estimated value of the farm’s produce. Farming tenants were adept at mitigating their original tithes by hiding animals and crop yields, depriving landlords of what they considered to be their full dues. However, poorer tenants often had insufficient cash with which to pay rents under the new laws, and rural poverty increased alongside the number of evictions.

The Tithe Acts were part of a suite of changes that included the 1834 Poor Law. This law was intended to reduce the cost of looking after poor people, take beggars off the streets and encourage poor people to work harder to support themselves. The Law ensured that poor people who couldn’t support themselves were housed in workhouses where they were clothed and fed, and children who entered the workhouse would receive some basic schooling. In return for this care, all workhouse “paupers” would have to work for several hours each day. These upheavals caused significant social unrest, hence riots that broke out across the UK.

Caswell remained in Church Stretton for 16 years until his retirement in October 1891 after almost 33 years of service. He refused further promotions that would have transferred him away from the town.
During his career Caswell had an enviable record of service. He rose from the bottom of the hierarchy through police ranks by his own efforts and application to duty, and would have risen higher had it not been for his love of Church Stretton. For 15 years he neither requested or took a day’s leave and in 33 years he failed to attend a Government inspection of his Division only once (although his history doesn’t record why) and his record is clear of any complaint or irregularity made against him by a member of the public or any fellow officer.

In retirement Caswell trained a village drum and fife band, tended his garden, spent time on carpentry and bookbinding, and was the district correspondent for the Shrewsbury Chronicle. He published a retrospective in 1903. His great-great-grandson, Peter Broxton, says “From it, I learned that in nineteenth-century Shropshire much of a police constable’s time might be spent fighting with drunken Irish navvies and other ‘queer customers’, like Joe Thunder, a coal-wharf worker with a wooden leg, who ‘brought down several constables like lightening’ during a fracas in Mrs Dolphin’s beer-shop. I also found that my forbear wasn’t reminiscing about his time as a police sergeant, but rather about his boyhood in the ‘picturesque’ village of Atcham, which ‘at that time never echoed the shriek of a railway whistle’.”
Caswell died in 1911.

Material used by kind permission of British Police History website
Picture provided by Peter Broxton (great-great grandson) via Excavations at Tavernium.

Christine Williams
Co-editor, Stretton Focus