Welcome to the North Mymms History Project

A growing collection of books, features, images, documents, and maps, collected, curated, and presented by a team of local volunteers keen to preserve the history of North Mymms

Policing North Mymms before ‘the police’

Early law and order in North Mymms

Two North Mymms men were transported to Australia  for stealing lead from the roof of the parish church  Sketch of St Mary's in the 1840s by Buckler from the Images of North Mymms collection  Courtesy of Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
Two North Mymms men were transported to Australia
for stealing lead from the roof of the parish church
Sketch of St Mary's in the 1840s by Buckler from the Images of North Mymms collection
Courtesy of Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies

In 1784 two North Mymms men, Robert Usher and James Day, were sent to the gallows for stealing a horse. Five years later Thomas Rumbold and Thomas Pateman were transported to Australia for stealing lead from the roof of North Mymms church. Soon after, labourers John Halsey and John Day were whipped for stealing a piece of bacon. Such were the punishments handed out for crimes committed in North Mymms in the 18th century.


The following feature is by local historian Dr Elaine Saunders, whose thesis ‘Men of good Character, strong decent and active: Hertfordshire’s Petty Constables, 1730-1799’ was written for her Open University PhD in 2018. One of the team from the North Mymms History Project (NMHP) read the thesis and contacted Dr Saunders asking whether she had any information regarding petty constables in North Mymms. She wrote the following piece for the site. The NMHP is grateful to Dr Saunders for sharing her research. If anyone has more information about early constables or petty constables in North Mymms the author would like to hear from you. You can contact her on Twitter @earlypolicing or by email at earlypolicing (at) gmail.com.

Policing North Mymms before ‘the police’

By Dr Elaine Saunders 

A decade after the formation of the Metropolitan Police, the Rural Police Act 1839 gave counties the option to create their own Metropolitan-style constabularies. Hertfordshire immediately began debating the issue and appointed its first chief constable in April 1841. The new constabulary replaced an ancient system of policing in which, broadly speaking, every Hertfordshire parish had its own ‘petty’ constable, who came from that parish and wielded authority within it.

The three-year enquiry into rural policing that spawned the 1839 act had found these old-style constables to be incompetent, reluctant, low-status and dishonest, and existing policing arrangements inadequate for preventing and investigating crimes, or arresting offenders. However, research into Hertfordshire’s 18th century petty constables has established that these conclusions did not always hold true.

In Anglo-Saxon times, shires were divided into administrative districts called ‘hundreds’, which were subdivided into ‘tithings’. Law enforcement was founded upon collective responsibility, requiring the most senior person, or ‘tithingman’, to report transgressions to the county sheriff, who then punished the whole community for any wrongdoing.

From the early 13th century, the Crown also required sheriffs to appoint two new types of constable – head constables of the hundred and local under-constables. When sheriffs’ courts declined later that century, the Crown granted some manorial lords the right to hold a ‘court leet’ to deal with minor offending and appoint under-constables. The latter office merged with that of tithingman to produce new manorial constables, elected by the residents to be both community representatives and Crown peacekeepers. The head constables of the hundred were thereafter appointed by magistrates and became known as ‘high’ or ‘chief’ constables to distinguish them from the manorial or ‘petty’ constables.

North Mymms parish had several manors within it, all of which held a ‘court baron’ that supervised agriculture and recorded land transactions, but only the main manor of North Mymms had the court leet franchise and appointed constables for the entire parish. Conversely, Barnet Manor was much larger and appointed constables for Chipping Barnet, East Barnet and South Mimms.

The manorial system allowed parishes to tailor law enforcement to local need, so the number of constables depended upon the parish’s size and location. In the 18th century, Ridge and Northaw had one constable each, whereas busy Cheshunt had three.

North Mymms appointed two constables annually at its Easter leet, who were sworn into office by the leet’s steward or by local magistrates. In common with many places, North Mymms also appointed two ‘headboroughs’, or assistant constables, who shadowed the constables for training purposes and stepped up whenever extra manpower was needed.

Larger manors sometimes also had officers to regulate trades or the environment, such as aleconners to oversee beer sales and production, or pinders to supervise the common fields. Sadly, the author has not yet located the leet records for North Mymms in the archives so, although Hertford Quarter Sessions swore in two headboroughs in 1632, it is unknown whether they, or any other type of regulatory officers, were appointed every year.

Furthermore, around a third of courts leet are known to have ceased operating during the 18th century, at which point the vestry began appointing constables. Without vestry minutes, it was not possible to determine whether the North Mymms leet continued until 1841 or was wound up before this. Research on this continues.

In all, 52 of the men nominated to serve as petty constable were found for North Mymms between 1630 and 1840, along with two headboroughs and six local men who served as Dacorum Hundred’s high constables. These are listed below showing some biographical details.

A leet jury of local residents elected constables to office, although the lord of the manor for North Mymms apparently had some say in their choice. In 1643, Hertford Quarter Sessions ordered Thomas Coningsbye to present two constables in place of the outgoing officers, but Coningsbye proposed a non-resident and a member of a parliamentary committee, neither of whom were able to serve.

Few Hertfordshire men refused to act as constable in the 18th century, but two from North Mymms asked to be excused in the 17th. Edward Greene in 1676 was deemed too old to serve and justices replaced him with Leonard Pratchett, whilst William Battell in 1696 claimed to be too old, sickly and partially sighted to act.

However, constables did not need to be young and fit, and it was not uncommon for Hertfordshire's to first take office in their 40s, 50s or even 60s. Many were also infirm, as shown by Hertfordshire’s militia records which listed the men eligible to fight and the disabilities preventing them from enlisting.

More than 50 serving constables had various complaints including asthma, epilepsy, lameness and poor eyesight, but some served extended terms. Neither did constables need an unblemished character. Many of Cheshunt’s men had convictions for trading offences, one of Berkhamsted’s was prosecuted for fraud, and two of Hitchin’s were tried for serious assaults before taking office. 

Notwithstanding this, reports of misconduct in office were rarely found, even though the 1839 report into rural policing branded constables as neglectful, dishonest and incompetent. Occasionally constables failed in their duty by allowing prisoners to escape from custody, including two in North Mymms. In 1779, Constable William Lawrence, together with publican Thomas Rosewell and labourer William Warner, were each fined 4d for abetting carpenter Richard Faulkner’s escape. Constable Thomas Devonshire (Denshire) was also indicted for allowing Thomas Day to escape from Bayford in 1781 but was found not guilty.

Hertfordshire’s 18th-century constables were not as low status as the 1839 report claimed. A survey of the occupations of more than 1,200 constables found that three-quarters of men belonged to the ‘middling sort’ of traders, craftsmen, business owners and farmers, who were also usually literate. Only around a quarter were low-status, wage-earning labourers.

North Mymms had more labourer-constables than the county average – 10 out of 17 known occupations – but also had a carpenter, a blacksmith and five wealthy farmers serving. Seven of the 52 known constables were also illiterate. This does not mean that these men were ineffective: their communities must have been satisfied in their suitability or would not have appointed them.

Constables served part-time around their regular employment and were not paid a salary, but submitted an expense account to the vestry at the end of each year in office. This claimed fees for time spent on various duties throughout the year which would have been a useful supplement to the income of any older, unfit or labouring constables. No such accounts survive for North Mymms but those from other parishes reveal that petty constables had a far wider remit than the later ‘police’ constables.

‘Police’ had a very different meaning before 1800. Pre-constabulary policing involved taking care of the overall wellbeing of a community, including its security, social welfare and local government. As will be seen, petty constables were not merely crime-fighters, but also acted as social welfare officers and local administrators. In this, they operated amongst people they knew well or were related to in some way; the entire parish being connected through family, friendship, church or business. These local connections were important in resolving parish disputes.

Hertford Assizes heard the most serious offences, such as the case of Robert Usher and James Day hanged for stealing a grey mare from Thomas Malbrow of North Mymms in 1784. The quarter sessions dealt with administrative and poor law matters, but also conducted jury trials, including that of Thomas Rumbold and Thomas Pateman, transported for stealing lead from North Mymms’ church roof in 1789. The following year, labourers John Halsey and John Day were ordered to be whipped for stealing a piece of bacon worth 7d. However, more than 90% of cases reaching court were heard informally by magistrates in petty sessions. An even greater number of disputes were settled informally within the community.

The position of the constable as both authority figures within parishes and intermediaries with the magistrates made them essential in mediating disputes, so that only the most persistent offenders ended up in court. However, one North Mymms man took informal sanctions too far when dealing with a suspected thief. Farmer William Owen of Water End was prosecuted for assault in 1812 for keeping Joseph Kimp imprisoned for a day without food and water and for suspending him by his feet for almost an hour. The case was dismissed.

The stocks at Hadley Green
Image from the Peter Miller collection
Constables had certain equipment at their disposal when making arrests. They firstly carried a staff of office which was a decorative object to mark constables out in crowds, rather than a truncheon. They also had handcuffs and other ways of imprisoning offenders temporarily. Most villages had a set of stocks for short, sharp punishments whilst offenders cooled down or sobered up. Many also had a lock-up or ‘cage’ such as the surviving one at Shenley which had straw on the floor and few home comforts. For this reason, constables often chose to guard prisoners overnight in local pubs.

A new prison history project by the Open University seeks to map every place of local incarceration, including stocks, lock-ups, police stations and courthouse cells, but currently has none in the North Mymms area. The project would love to hear about any you may know of.

As well as acting within the parish, Hertfordshire’s petty constables collaborated with officers from neighbouring parishes to tackle major crimes – including bread and wage riots in the later 18th century – during which they were routinely assaulted.

Under the guidance of Dacorum Hundred’s high constable, the petty constables in North Mymms joined forces with constables from around a dozen other parishes, creating a small ‘constabulary’ of 25-30 officers. These were deployed for crowd control or to pursue thieves who had committed violent robberies on the main roads out of London.

Countywide, these same groups also met their high constables regularly to pass on information to justices (such as the names of local licensees or militia men), or to receive instructions and training. These meetings would have encouraged local cooperation and were convivial affairs because some constables claimed expenses for attending the ‘high constables feast’.

This involvement in administration marks the difference between petty and later police constables. Petty constables visited magistrates often on county administrative matters but were also ‘project managers’ for the parish. They compiled lists of ratepayers for the vestry, might arrange for the poor to be nursed or buried, and kept the parish free of troublemakers. Where a woman fell pregnant outside marriage, constables sometimes ‘persuaded’ the father to marry her in a hastily arranged ceremony, and claimed the costs of any expenses or bribes in their accounts. They also helped overseers remove poor families with no right to live in the parish (or ‘settlement’), and prevented travelling paupers from taking root. Vestry minutes and constables’ accounts show them using money and menaces to keep these vagrants moving along the main roads out of London, particularly if they were pregnant or an invalid who would become a drain on parish resources.

In 1834, Edwin Chadwick’s New Poor Law made it an abuse of funds for parishes to continue paying their petty constables from the poor rates, and the County Rates Act 1836 also cut funding from magistrates. Many petty constables could no longer afford to serve.

The Lighting and Watching Act 1833 and the Municipal Corporations Act 1835 allowed ratepayers to employ paid watchmen for crime prevention, but many of Hertfordshire’s smaller towns and villages still lost the services of a petty constable. However, in 1840 three officers in North Mymms are described as ‘policeman’ in court records, suggesting their role had perhaps moved from local administration to crime-fighting.

The enquiry into rural policing, also chaired by Chadwick, began in 1836 when funding cuts had taken effect and petty constables had, understandably, become demoralised and reluctant to serve unpaid. Concurrently, the new-style constabulary ‘policing’ was redefined as crime prevention and criminal law enforcement, rather than the wide range of administrative, social welfare and local government duties once undertaken by petty constables.

Hertfordshire created its county constabulary soon after the Rural Police Act 1839 came into effect, replacing the system that had been in existence since the 13th century. This did not necessarily result in a ‘new’ or ‘improved’ force, but rather something ‘different’ that replaced the petty constables who had previously performed their duties effectively and conscientiously within the old-style policing roles assigned to them.

By Dr Elaine Saunders @earlypolicing