We have been really excited here at the Press about our latest release: Beerhouses, Brothels and Bobbies by David Taylor. The culmination of David’s detailed research, the book explores issues facing the police in the 19th Century, focusing on Huddersfield and the surrounding district. The stories contained in the new book are real eye openers, and give a tangible taste of life for policemen, criminals and everyday families over 150 years ago.
You can order a paperback copy or read the open access version online today.
Prior to the launch we caught up with the author David Taylor to chat to him about what it was like to research the book and to explore some of his favourite stories from it.
Interview with David Taylor
What inspired you to take an interest in nineteenth-century policing?
My initial interest was in the incidence of crime and, particularly, in Asa Briggs’ contention that crime-ridden Middlesbrough (where I was teaching at the time) was ‘the British Ballarat’. I quickly became fascinated by the extent of inter-personal violence in the town and the overt, and often large-scale, hostility towards the police, especially by members of the Irish community. This raised the intriguing question: who, in their right mind, would want to be a policeman in the Victorian ‘frontier town’ that was Middlesbrough? The answer, of course, was that few truly wanted to become policemen, at least in the early years of the “new police”, and policing was seen as a stop-gap occupation either to tide men over in times of trade depression or to provide a stepping stone to a more “respectable” occupation, such as a railway porter. However, within a surprisingly short period of time, policing became seen as an acceptable career and not just in Middlesbrough as I demonstrated in my first monograph, Policing the Victorian Town. Although I have written more generally on the development of nineteenth-century policing, I remain convinced that local studies are a most valuable way of exploring the complexities and contradictions of early policing. Hence the latest book looking at Huddersfield and the Huddersfield district that has enabled me to research a region, which in economic and political terms was central to some of the most important developments in the nineteenth century, and yet in terms of policing has been largely overlooked by historians.
Was there anything surprising that cropped up during the research for the book?
Two things – both relating to the Huddersfield district – were surprising. The 1862 Honley anti-police riot and its aftermath was an eye-opener, even more so as no academic historian had mentioned it. However, perhaps the most surprising aspect of the research, given the received wisdom among police historians, was the amazing career of Thomas Heaton, the superintending constable of the Upper Agbrigg (Huddersfield) district in the two decades before the creation of the West Riding County Constabulary. He must have been an absolute pain to the dozens of beerhouse keepers found serving outside licensing hours, the numerous young men playing pitch-and-toss in the streets and lanes and even the old men watching a cricket match on Sunday, all of whom he prosecuted – but he was certainly a determined and single-minded constable!
Do you have a favourite chapter? And why?
It’s difficult to pick one (though I would say that!) but chapters 7 and 9 would be in joint first place. The sheer indefatigability of Thomas Heaton, whether chasing-down law-breaking beerhouse keepers in Fenay Bridge, Shepley, Shelley and Netherton on Christmas Day, or organizing and leading the pursuit and capture of the Wibsey gang of cloth thieves in an all-night, all-action operation, makes for an important, and often amusing story. Similarly, the anti-police disturbances in Honley and Holmfirth (discussed in chapter 9) constitute a story that just keeps on giving with large-scale protests and court-room drama driven by insensitive local policing and misguided judgment calls by senior police figures.
Do you think your research has any relevance to present-day policing?
Although it would be naïve to suggest that there are lessons that can be learnt from the past and applied (largely unproblematically) to the present, I am convinced that the study of the past – important and interesting as it is in its own right – has a relevance beyond the period under study, precisely because history is essentially a dialogue between past and present. There are two points that I would stress from my study of policing in mid-nineteenth century Huddersfield. First, the persistence of the specific problem of beerhouse-brothels, and the associated practice of trafficking young women, and the difficulties facing determined police officers seeking to eradicate that problem, (discussed in chapter 5), provide a longer-term perspective on seemingly unique current problems. Second, the overarching theme of the book – policing by consent, its meaning and extent – is very pertinent to an age which has been experiencing for several years a crisis in policing. By considering the complexities of the concept and establishing a realistic definition of the term; and by exploring the difficulties in establishing and maintaining a realistic degree of policing by consent in the “safe” context of the distant past of mid-nineteenth century Huddersfield, it is possible to raise and explore the difficult and sensitive questions that relate to present-day policing.