In 1836, Ripon Borough set up a watch committee and recruited Thomas Sweeting, a local tailor, as its first policeman. He received £30 per annum and a uniform. But his tenure was not without incident or controversy.
As Borough policeman, Sweeting’s duties were directed by the local council and the Mayor. He attended public functions, took prisoners to the court house and enforced court orders and local byelaws. On market days he often dealt with drunks and petty thieves, while on his evening beat he was regularly called upon to sort out fights in pubs and disturbances in the streets. Despite being sworn at, threatened with knives, assaulted and even thrown in the mill-race, he usually stood his ground and made the necessary arrests.
Sweeting was also appointed Bellman (or town crier) and given a new coat and hat for attending meetings of the council. As part of this role he was paid £5 to open the market and collect the tolls.
Compared to many officers of the time, Sweeting appears to have been dedicated to his role as Borough policeman. However, it appears that there were times when he was absent from his duties. This may have led the local council to declare in November 1846 that Sweeting ‘be not allowed in future to leave the precincts of the City and Borough (except on duties connected with his appointment), without the consent of the Mayor or of two aldermen.’ Despite this, Sweeting was given the role of Inspector of Lodging Houses in August 1851.
In 1852 things changed dramatically for Thomas Sweeting. In April of that year the local workhouse master, John Adams, came home drunk and threw his wife, Jane, out into the street. The next day ‘she went with Sweeting, the police officer, to the mayor and swore the peace against her husband’. Sweeting arrested Adams and incarcerated him in the Borough’s House of Correction.
A month later, Jane Adams was ejected from the workhouse after attempting to install a new master and matron at the site. Sweeting, as Bellman, announced this in the town’s Market Place where upon ‘a mob of persons commenced an attack on the Workhouse with terrific yells, breaking the windows and battering the gate down with paving stones’.
It appears that the locals remained restless, and in July, after a vote to elect an MP, a disgruntled mob began to tear down the hustings in the Market Place where the candidates stood. Sweeting tried to stop the crowd, but a man called John Hargrave, who was carrying a large whip in his hand, called out to his associates to ‘go at him lads,’ and commenced lashing Sweeting with the whip. He continued to hit Sweeting until blood ran down the policeman’s face.
Despite placing himself in danger and saving the politicians, Sweeting was summoned to a council meeting in August and told that numerous complaints had been made against him in regards to ‘his inattention to his duties generally and particularly that he has on many occasions neglected orders given to him by the Mayor and also been absent when his services have been required in the Borough.’ The council went on to state that if they received any further complaints about him they would take steps to remove him from his position as Borough policeman. To rub salt into the wounds, Hargrave was found not guilty of assault and was released from prison.
As was no doubt the case for the many policemen operating in towns and cities across the country during this time, Sweeting had to deal with what was seen to be the increasing problem of youths congregating on local streets and public highways, insulting and throwing abuse at passers-by. This came to a head in September 1853 when Joseph Mounsey was killed after his pony was pelted with sticks, bolted, and overturned its cart, crushing him in the process.
The coroner was in no doubt that it was ‘the inefficiency of the present force’ that was to blame for Mounsey’s death. The local council now moved against Sweeting. At a special meeting on 3 October, it decided that ‘in consequence of repeated acts of Neglect of Duty and general inefficiency the present Police Officer and Lodging House Inspector be dismissed on the 9th November. His services will not be required after that day.’
Despite this proclamation, Sweeting, who was 65 years old at the time, continued his police duties, even arresting a man armed with a knife after a street brawl. But his days were numbered.
That wasn’t the end of the story, however. Shortly after being dismissed from the police force, Sweeting sued the council for earnings due as Lodging Housing Inspector, a positon he had held since 1851. He won the case and was awarded £11 5s and costs.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Thomas Sweeting and his wife Beatrice moved away from Ripon, to live with their son John, who was the landlord of The Great Bull Hotel in Wakefield.
Thomas Sweeting, Ripon Borough’s first policeman, died in March 1867 aged 70.
The research into the life and career of Thomas Sweeting was carried out by Jonathan Price, a former teacher and a volunteer at Ripon museums.
Ripon Borough Council Minute Books 1835 – 1853. North Yorkshire County Record Office, Northallerton.
Census Records available on Find My Past