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Northern Watch: The Belfast Town Police 1800­-1865

Jim McDonald provides a fascinating insight into the Belfast Town Police, or Bulkies as they were known, who had a short but fractious history. The article also provides an insight into the sectarian tensions, which punctuated the decades of the force’s existence.


I propose to give you a view of Policing in Belfast with a particular look at the Town’s police which existed from 1800-­1865.  Looking at the backdrop to policing in Ireland before formal policing was established, the military provided troops to deal with unrest mostly in the rural areas, but also in the towns and cities. In rural areas the baronial constables provided a police service though a very poor one. The larger towns had a watch system which only operated at night. The common factor was the shortage of money to pay for police services.

The controlling body in the towns was the local authority, who were also responsible for the rating system and, of course, those paying rates did not want to pay more. The other element in policing was the question of control, and those in power – who raised the finance – were reluctant to hand over control, e.g., to central government. This question was dealt with in Ireland with the establishment of the Peace Preservation Force of 1814, which was further consolidated in 1836 with the formation of the Irish Constabulary responsible to Central Government.

There was a retained direct link with the old Belfast Watch and Town Police with the provision by the Town Authorities of a grant to the Constabulary for the provision of a Night Hat. This continued until 1970 when the RUC gave up wearing the night hat. The current troubles had started at the end of 1969 and the old city night foot patrols ceased. The car and Land Rover were introduced for virtually all patrols and made the wearing of this London Bobby type hat impractical.

The Belfast Police Act

Throughout the 18th Century Belfast and its citizens were not well served by the Corporation. The care of the poor had been left to the Charitable Society­ Clifton House. The development of trade and the port was undertaken by individual merchants and the Belfast Ballast board and even the development of fresh water was carried out by the Spring Water Commissioner of the Charitable Society. To counteract the inaction by the Corporation the Dublin Parliament passed the Belfast Police Act. This act related to cleansing and lighting and improving the several streets, squares,  lanes and passages within the town of Belfast and for removing and preventing all encroachments, obstructions and annoyances therein and also for the establishment and maintenance of a nightly watch throughout. The act further stated that the Watch should be responsible for protecting the persons and property of all His Majesty’s subjects­from fires, thefts, burglaries, assaults, violence and other outrages and injuries during the night.

This act established a police board consisting of two parts. The Sovereign and the burghers appointed by the Marquess of Donegall were ex officio commissioners for life. Twelve Commissioners elected by £1 parish ratepayers were elected for life. The Police Committee of nice and twenty one were elected annually at the Parish Vestry of Belfast by the £1 ratepayers. As can be seen from the Police Act, the Commissioners and Committee had powers greater than merely controlling the Watch. They carried out the functions of a local government which we take for granted today.

The cost of providing the ‘other’ services of lighting, paving, development of drains, etc was so costly that there was no money to provide a watch, so initially the board distributed hundreds of handbills, setting out the by­laws and the penalties. For example, shaking carpets after 8am incurred a fine of two shillings and eight pence. However, as there were only two inspectors of nuisances these laws could not be enforced. In fact, one of the inspectors – John Jeffries – was dismissed in December 1806 for taking bribes to influence the Police Committee’s selection of men and horses in its employment, and for selling the ‘public dung’ for his own profit.

Complaints from the public about the poor protection afforded led to a brief attempt in 1806 to provide a volunteer watch. Another attempt was made in 1810 and caused the Belfast Newsletter to express the hope that ‘this society will follow up their measures with energy, for when bad men combine it is time for good men to associate and convince these offenders that the law is not dead, thought it may sleep.’

In 1816 a bill was passed in Parliament which altered the rating system in Belfast and made available more money to the Commissioners. This allowed for the establishment of a paid watch. The first Watch consisted of 30 officers and men, but was quickly expanded to 40. 35 night watchmen were paid 8/4 per week or £21.13.4 per year. Four night constables (officers) were paid 11/4 per week or £29.11.6 per year. A head constable was paid 15/6 per week or £40.60 per year. A Superintendent acting as a city magistrate was paid a salary of £200.00 per annum. Duty was performed from 9.00am until 6.00pm.

The uniform was a long grey overcoat, black belt and a loud rattle. They were armed with a large pike with a hook on the end to be used to catch runaways. These men were to patrol the streets unlike their counterparts in Dublin who were static and housed in boxes. The Officers were to oversee the patrol to ensure that the watchmen were on the move and alert, rather than finding comfortable places to sleep while on duty.

The new watch was hailed as a great success. The duties to be carried out were set out in the act. The officers duties included: people throwing dirt, ashes, dung or other offensive articles; emptying privies on to the street; people who obstructed the pavements with baskets, caskets, carts, wagons, building material or by obtrusively displaying meat, fish or other wares for sale which could damage the clothing of a passer-­by.

People who failed to sweep their pavement before a fixed hour could also be prosecuted. Wandering swine were to be seized, killed and given to the Belfast Charitable society. Furious drivers and carters who rode on their carts were to be arrested. Dogs within 50 yards of a public road which had not got a block of wood weighing at least five pounds round its neck led to a fine on its owner.

So you see the enforcement of by­laws was an important part of the duties, but these offences mostly took place in the daytime. This led to the extension of the Watch to cover also a day watch. The extension of the Belfast Borough in 1853 led to an increase in the size of the force. In 1858 the day force consisted of 61 policemen out of a total strength of 165. This was the maximum size of the force.

Pay and Conditions

The position of watchman or constable, in spite of being exposed to some danger and all sorts of weather, was attractive. They were, if they obeyed the rules, assured of continuing employment for twelve months each year. This was not the norm for a working man. The pay was sufficient to attract recruits. In addition a good uniform was supplied and thus no need for other clothing. I have already referred to the grey coat for the early watch. The day constables were supplied with a blue uniform (based on the London Met) which consisted of a tall stove pipe top hat which was reinforced with whalebone and a tailed coat with brass buttons. In summer, white duck trousers were worn.

In 1839 woollen capes were issued for cold weather use. In 1856 oil capes were issued for wet weather use. In 1848 leather collars were issued to help protect the officers’ necks. They carried a short wooden baton. It is estimated that the free uniform was worth some £11.00 per annum in the 1850s. There was no regulated sick pay or pensions for the early policemen, so officers were in the hands of their authorities when claims were made. In 1822 Robert Boyce was paid five shillings a week while off suffering from a sprained ankle sustained on duty. This was about half pay. In 1823 Ed Martin sustained a similar injury on duty and was given one month’s pay having been off for 15 weeks.

After March 1848 5% was deducted from the men’s wages to create a superannuation and relief fund. A portion of the fines imposed was also given over to this fund. In 1850 an officer who had served two years was discharged due to epilepsy with a gratuity of £10.00. £15.00 was the gratuity given to night constable Thomas Green after five years service. Pensions were hard to get because of the length of service required. The first pension in 1848 was paid to Patrick Mallon, aged 73 after 16 years service. The pension was 3/6 of £9.20 per annum, Discipline was complicated by the two tier control system, but normally it was the police committee which dealt with cases.

The most common offences were drunkenness, sleeping on duty and being absent without leave or missing off their beat. Drunkenness was a common disciplinary offence in all forces at the time. Sometimes the excuse of taking strong drink for medical purposes, for example to ward off cholera was accepted.

Incivility to civilians was a noted case and the Police Committee, to make identification easier and thus complaint easier, issued numerals which were painted on the tunic collar. Constables were warned that refusing to give their name or hiding their numerals would lead to dismissal. Belfast was mainly an industrial town which, with the industrial revolution in 1800, began to expand. The population increased from 19,000 in 1801 to 121,000 in 1861. This increase brought with it tensions both in terms of the gulf which existed between the poor and the wealthy merchant and industrialists and in terms of the religious divide. The fact that Belfast was a major port meant that seamen from throughout the world added colour and, of course, spice and vice. Crime in Belfast increased with the town’s expansion.

Vagrants were associated by the Police Committee with crime and a continual campaign was mounted to arrest this class of people. However, the permanent residents often provided a bigger risk in terms of crime and certain areas became notorious. One such area was Caddell’s Entry which lay between High Street and Rosemary Street. Here were located ‘shebeens’ and brothels, and those were the base from which other crimes were committed. Other areas mentioned as centres for prostitution were Gordon Street, Mitchell’s Entry, Millfield, Francis Street, Bluebell Entry, Millar’s Lane off Berry Street and Little Edward Street.

Juvenile crime was a problem because the young people often moved in mobs to steal goods and to pick pockets. The Northern Whig of 1837 advocated a special reformatory for young offenders, claiming that it is a melancholy fact that youthful offenders of five, six or seven years of age are so well drilled in the art of evasion that it is almost impossible to ascertain their names or the place where their parents, or those who receive and dispose of their plunder, are to be found.

Sectarian Divide and Riots on the Streets

In terms of the religious divide, the tension manifested itself in the traditional manner… riots. The penal laws, although not as severe now, were still in existence at the beginning of the 19th century. There was a liberal Presbyterian movement in Belfast led by Dr Henry Montgomery of ‘Inst’. The Orange Order was still a strong force and through its Brunswick Clubs it petitioned Parliament to maintain ‘the constitution in its Protestant essentiality’. This was in vain. The next year, 1929, Westminster passed an Act for Catholic Emancipation.

Three years later in 1832, following a Westminster election, there was a major sectarian riot in Hercules Street and on Royal Avenue. Two elderly men and two boys were killed during the rioting. At the inquest allegations were made that the shots were fired by police and others stating that Catholics fired the shots. Rioting continued over the next fifty years. Even the peace of Christmas day was shattered in 1833. The Belfast Town Police were not trained to deal with major street disorder and were equipped with only a short baton. In times of major trouble the Irish Constabulary were drafted in to support the local police and cavalry from Victoria Barracks were also turned out.

Probably the most serious rioting occurred in 1857 and 1864. In 1857 the rioting arose from fire brand street­ preaching by Rev Thomas Drew, Grand Chaplain of the Grand Orange Lodge of Ireland and by Rev Hugh Hanna, known as ‘Roaring Hanna’. Hanna was particularly anti-­catholic and, in spite of appeals by the authorities, continued with his oratory.

The trouble started on 12 July, following a service at Christ Church which stood between Sandy Row and the Pound, an area which always figured in the Belfast riots. Ten days of rioting ensued, in spite of the Irish Constabulary and Hussars. On 23 August, following the death of a young Catholic mill girl, allegedly shot from Sandy Row, a Catholic mob attacked a preacher at the Custom House steps. Stoning between both mobs followed. The mission preaching was cancelled. Enter ‘Roaring Hanna’, Minister of Berry Street Presbyterian Church, who declared he would preach ‘despite the Romish mobs or the magistrates’. On Sunday 6 September at 4.00pm Hanna began to preach at the Duncrue Salt Works.

The Catholics gathered at the Custom House expecting Hanna to be there, but on discovering where the meeting was taking place, they charged along Donegal Quay to Corporation Square, and attacked the Rev Hanna and his supporters. It took several charges by the Hussars to clear the Square and adjoining streets. The Lord Lieutenant ordered an enquiry which reported in November. The report of the Commissioners was inconclusive but they criticised Orange festivals, ‘leading as they do to violence, outrage, religious animosities, hatred between classes and, too often, bloodshed and loss of life.’

The riots of 1864 followed a major event in Dublin to lay the foundation stone for a monument to Daniel O’Connell, the Liberator. The train bringing back the Belfast people was attacked from the Boyne Bridge. A large effigy of O’Connell was set alight. The following evening an attempt by the Sandy Row crowd to have a mock funeral to Friar’s Bush graveyard on the Stranmillis Road was foiled. From then until the end of August there was continuous attack and counter attack between Sandy Row and the Pound. Very severe rioting took place with the shipwrights raiding gunsmiths in the centre of Belfast. The Catholic mob was greatly reinforced by navvies from all over Ireland.

The navvies were recruited to help develop the Belfast Docks. The severity of the Troubles can be gauged by the assembly of Government forces; six troops of the 4th Hussars, half a battery of artillery, 89th Regiment of Infantry, 1000 Irish Constabulary, 150 Town Police and 300 Special Constables. Both the Union and General Hospitals were filled to capacity and Clifton House was asked to make its private ward available.

It was reported that 12 had been killed and 75 were admitted to hospital with gunshot wounds, fractures and other serious wounds. A further 60 suffering serious wounds refused to stay inhospital, probably for fear of detection by the authorities. The situation only calmed following very heavy rain. A parliamentary enquiry was established to enquire into ‘the causes of the rioting.’ During this enquiry it was reported that a Town Police Officer was seen to be urging the Protestant mob while another was arrested for stoning the Catholics.

The Commission found: ‘It is certainly remarkable that in this body of 160 men (Town Police), only five Roman Catholics are to be found; the proportion of Roman Catholics in Belfast being one third, and in the class of life whence the Police is recruited considerably higher…it must be regarded as strange that in those circumstances Roman Catholics are to be found in the Belfast Police Force in the proportion of only one to thirty one.’

The recommendation that the Town Police be disbanded was accepted by Government and the Irish Constabulary took over responsibility for the policing of Belfast. On the night this announcement was made, rioting again took place on the Shankill and Sandy Row.

The Commission concluded: ‘Belfast is liable to periodic disturbances on occasions well known as the Orange Anniversaries…if these celebrations be attended with such risk we might well ask why any party should obstinately adhere to it. The above question was not answered in 1864 nor is it today. Riots continue to punctuate the intermittent peace of Belfast. Riots policed by the RIC in 1872, 1886, 1907, 1922 and continued to be policed by the RUC in 1932, 1935, 1938, 1939­45, 1964 and 1969 and still continues being polices by the PSNI from 2001 to date. The last major street disorder took place in 2005 following the Whiterock Orange Parade in West Belfast. With the establishment of a new political order, we hope that major street disorders will be in our past, but history has a habit of repeating itself.





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