Snuffing out crime in Leeds

With the generous help of The Friends of Leeds City Museums, we have recently purchased a silver snuff box. We already have several in the museum collection, but this one stood out – not for its decorative qualities – but because it was owned by J. Hainsworth.

Hainsworth was a police inspector in Leeds, having been appointed by the Watch Committee. He is referred to in Leeds trade directories relating to 1837, 1839, 1842 and 1843. To the modern citizen, this is nothing new or exciting – we have police all over the city. The difference with Hainsworth and his contemporaries is that they were the original police. The Leeds City Police force was first formed in 1836, with as few as 20 day officers and a chief constable. The force disappeared in 1974, when it underwent a merger to become part of the West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police.

By 1841, the Leeds City Police had reached 133 officers. The book ‘The Leeds Police 1836-1974’, lists for 1841 “the arms, accoutrements, clothing and other necessaries for the Day Police”:

“1 Constable’s staff, 1 pair of handcuffs, 1 walking stick (note, this is paid for by the Constable himself), 1 dark blue top coat, 1 blue dress coat or body coat, 1 black stock or collar and clasp, 1 box of Crumb’s yellow, 1 button brush, 1 oil cape case, 2 pairs of shoes per annum, 1 pair of blue pantaloons, 2 pairs of white drill pantaloons, 1 hat, 1 armlet to denote when on duty (note: the armlet is not worn by the Inspector but only by the Sergeants and Policemen), 1 printed book on instructions, 1 leather waist belt, 1 pair of white cotton gloves, 1 button stick”

Most items on the list are familiar, but others such as Crumb’s yellow are more of a mystery. We have not found out exactly what it is, but are leaning towards a cleaning substance as it is listed next to the button brush. There were also 40 cutlasses available if needed, but these were more for appearances than everyday use.

A 1974 postcard from when the Leeds City Police were merged with other forces.  It represents a policeman from the period 1836-1860.

The sorts of incidents dealt with by Hainsworth have been recorded in the local press. Not every crime was recorded in this way, but the occasional report appears in the Leeds Mercury or other local papers from the time. For example, this piece, taken from the Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser, April 27th 1839, goes under the heading of Sunday gambling:

Three young men were brought up at the Court House, on Monday, charged by the churchwardens of the parish with having been found gambling on the previous day, in a lane in Burmantofts. Inspector Hainsworth stated that one of them, on his approach, drew a knife from his pocket, with which he threatened to stab any one who should lay hands on him. They were reprimanded by the Bench, and liberated on entering into their own recognizances for their good behaviour for six months.”

Whilst there are undoubtedly familiar aspects to this statement, there are some obvious differences. Nowadays, football matches are just one of the many organised sports played on Sundays, with people being able to bet as they are any other day of the week, and I doubt that any criminal would be let off on a good behaviour bond for threatening a modern police officer with a knife.

As well as small incidents like the one above, there were far more serious issues that Hainsworth and his colleagues would have had to deal with – for instance in August 1842, they had to deal with the Holbeck and Hunslet Chartist Riots. Around 1,600 special constables were sworn in to assist the regular police, alongside soldiers from the Yorkshire Regiment and 17th Lancers and even horse artillery. They had to contend with a mob travelling from one mill to the next, where violent disturbances quickly followed.

Events came to a head when Chief Constable Read managed to beat most of the mob to a mill on Dewsbury Road, and locked a few inside the mill whilst ensuring the others could not get in. A large number of the special constables then caught up with the mob where the Riot Act was read, the crowd told to disperse and 38 people were arrested. Sentences for those convicted ranged from being bound over to keep the peace, to being deported for several years.



An example of a police sword from the museum collection – probably a little after Joseph Hainsworth’s time as it was used in the 1889 Gas Riots.



Overall, some aspects of modern policing would be unrecognisable to their predecessors such as Hainsworth, but in some ways the challenge remains the same – maintaining law and order and keeping the people of Leeds safe and riot free.

Written by Nicola, researched by our placement student Hollie Scott from Leeds Trinity University College.


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