Crime in Wincanton

Unlawful activity in rural areas of the West Country was similar to crime anywhere. Minor crimes consisted mainly of poaching, burglaries and theft of property, crops, and occasionally the rustling of sheep or cattle. Chickens were a favourite to steal as they were portable and easy to kill to add to the family pot. Assaults featured frequently, usually due to overindulgence of alcohol and particularly through Cider, a commodity produced on West Country farms mostly by the farmer and often used in part payment to his workforce. On other occasions local arguments could develop into full blown battles between villages.

Policing prior to the mid 19th century was rudimentary, any arrests largely performed by either the Parish Constable or in more severe cases an officer appointed by the courts; even the famous Bow Street Runners could be called in.

Following a court appearance, punishments were harsh. Poaching was common as was theft and the penalties very severe. From 1787 to about 1860 transportation to Australia was the most favoured penalty and this divided families, often driving the remaining members into penury with the wife left to provide for the children.

“The Poacher” by Frédéric Rouge – Own work, Public Domain,

Imprisonment of varying terms would be served in local prisons. Until 1843 malefactors were sent to Ilchester prison. In 1819, after the Peterloo Massacre, Henry ‘Orator’ Hunt, the famous leader of the Chartists movement, was sent there for two years. His publicised report at the end of his sentence in 1821 later led to Ilchester being closed due to the corruption and cruelty of the Chief Warden, its overcrowding and insanitary conditions. Thereafter Shepton Mallet was Wincanton’s local prison, although wrongdoers for more serious offences could be sent either to Portland or Dartmoor.

In 1829 the Metropolitan Police followed Glasgow and set up its own dedicated police force. Two main Acts of Parliament then followed for outside London. The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 enabled towns and boroughs to create police forces. It was followed in 1839 by the Town and County Police Forces Act which enabled more voluntary forces to be created.

In 1856 another County and Borough Police Force Act made it compulsory for these forces to be created.
It was in this year that Valentine Goold became the Chief Constable of the newly created Somerset County Police with its HQ at Glastonbury. Although it covered the county, many towns had already formed their own forces: Bath 1836 – 1967, Bristol 1836 – 1974, Chard 1839 – 1889, Bridgewater 1839 – 1940, Glastonbury 1856, Wells 1856 and Yeovil Borough 1859. All these forces were independent and bureaucratically organised with full time paid officers to enforce the law. Later they were all gradually absorbed into the county force.

On its inception Mr Goold set up 14 police districts, one of which was Wincanton. This area encompassed the 18 parishes that the Wincanton Workhouse covered under the Poor Law Acts; later each had their own dedicated constable stationed there. Wincanton police station opened in 1856 with Superintendent Emson supervising a sergeant and two constables who together covered the town itself. The two constables had lodgings in Mill Street.
The outlying towns such as Bruton had a sergeant and one constable whilst Castle Cary had a sergeant and two constables. Outer villages each had one constable and even isolated Stoke Trister had its own policeman.

The superintendent had an arduous task, not only supervising his constables but he also had to ride large distances to attend various chores such as seeing that farmers complied with varying agricultural acts. During one bout of Cattle Plague (Rinderpest) one superintendent’s horse actually died from overwork!

Communications were also rudimentary, and much information was either sent by mail or passed to neighbouring districts by constables meeting on boundaries and handing over non-urgent paperwork; anything more pressing would be taken by hand on what public transport there was. The advent of the telegraph transformed communications considerably.

Somerset Constabulary Badge by Rodw – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Most police officers patrolled on foot and this could mean many miles covered unless they could hitch a lift with a farmer going to town.  The outlying village constables would have to report to the superintendent at Wincanton at least once a week or if they had to attend the local magistrates court to give evidence.  For anyone posted to a village far from a railway station, such as Penselwood, this could mean a long walk.

Likewise, prisoners had to employ ‘Shanks Pony’ when being taken to court.  Luckily Wincanton had its own magistrates court with a town notable as the magistrate.  His powers to commit to prison only extended to a maximum of six months so the more serious offences would be committed to the Crown Court either at Taunton or Shepton Mallet.

In 1901 Superintendent Williams of Wincanton Police District released the following information:

WINCANTON 1901. the police court on Monday, the Superintendent Police (Mr Williams) presented his annual report, showing that there were in the district, with a population of 17,749, 49 fully licensed houses, 23 beer licenses, 2 off licenses, one refreshment and wine license, and 5 grocers’ licenses, making a total of 80.

There were 10 transfers to new people, one new house at Cole Station in exchange for one at Sunny Hill, and there were two cases for permitting drunkenness, both of which were dismissed. There had been no conviction against holders of licenses in the district for two years.

There had been 29 males prosecuted for drunkenness, of whom 25 were convicted, and two females, one of whom was convicted; four of these were strangers to the district. He had no objection to make against any of the present holders of licenses.

The Chairman and others of the magistrates said that the report was very satisfactory. There were two transfers granted, namely, the Wellington hotel, Bruton, from Amanda Smith to Herbert Clarence Hole, and the Queen’s Head, Penselwood, from Alfred Masters to Fred Hicks, of Silton.

A bouncing bounder

Around 1865 Edward Moody of Ireson Farmhouse, Wincanton was arrested in Bristol, having passed forged cheques in Brighton, London and Bristol. It was thought he was about to leave the country. He was taken back to London for his trial, where his father, Thomas, had to testify against him as the cheques were drawn on Thomas Moody’s bank – Stuckey’s in Wincanton. Edward was sent down for four years mostly in the prison in Portland. During his time there he was found to have ‘sent a parcel surreptitiously out of the prison’, losing him any remission. Following his release he emigrated to USA where he eventually died in a New York poorhouse.