THE PAINTED TRUNCHEONS
NEATH BOROUGH POLICE
Martyn J Griffiths
The Neath Borough Police Force was created in February 1836. Throughout its history the constabulary at Neath remained small and, even at its close in 1947, numbered just over 40 men. At the end of the Victorian era there were still only 14 Neath Borough policemen.
Times changed and with them the uniform and accoutrements that each officer had to carry, but one item remained a constant; the possession of a trusty truncheon which was also known as a staff or baton and was intended primarily for defence and only to be used for offense in extremis.
The early police officers in the town would have worn blue swallow tail coats, white duck trousers and top hats during the day and darker attire at night. They would have been equipped with various accessories to help with their duties; one of these being a truncheon.
The earliest truncheons were 20 inches long and were not meant to be visible. The uniform of the new policeman was intended to blend in with the man-about-town and to allay public fears that the police were an arm of the government intended to spy on them and perhaps to support tax collection. It is because of this that the truncheon was secreted in the tail of the swallow-tail coat.
Truncheons were gradually reduced in length with changes in uniform and by the 1860s some Police Forces issued leather truncheon cases to enable the staff to be suspended from the officer’s belt.
A Police Order dated 11th January 1887 introduced a new means of hiding this weapon. The truncheon was reduced to 15 inches and was secreted in a special pocket sewn into the police trousers. This remained the case up until the mid-1990s.
Police equipment, including handcuffs and truncheons, were produced by a number of companies including Hiatt and Co., a Birmingham company that closed in 2008.
Whilst every officer was issued with a truncheon, there is no evidence as to whether these were plain or painted. The idea of a decorated truncheon was that, by displaying a staff with a royal crown or coat of arms, it showed that the officer was acting with the authority of the Crown. Decorations varied, depending on the supplier and the needs of the purchasing authority.
Alan C. Cook, the author of ‘Truncheons – An Unequal Match’ (2014) believes that painted truncheons were widely issued. At the end of the 1830s several thousand were issued to Special Constables in Essex in order to deal with riots. An opposing view is that they were not general issue but, more likely, issued to certain officers or on special occasions. Whilst special constables might need a decorated truncheon to show their authority as they were not uniformed, it is less likely that Police Forces would go to the huge expense of producing painted staffs for every uniformed officer. In Neath, with a very small constabulary and with a watch committee that was always aware of cost, it is unlikely that any were made except for special presentation purposes.
What is not disputed is the fact that painted truncheons were issued widely. Former police officer, collector and author, Mervyn Mitton, conducted a survey for his book in 1985 and found well over four thousand painted truncheons in museums and police collections.
Victorian Crown (left) and Later Crown (right)
There are very few staffs in existence relating to Neath Borough Police. The earliest was believed to be one offered for sale thirty years ago for about £200. Its present location is unknown. There was some doubt about its validity but the paint is believed to date from the 1830s. This would place it right at the formation of the Neath Borough Police. This particular truncheon differed from later variants in that it was made of oak, was hand painted and did not have a black background i.e. the crown etc. was painted onto bare wood.
Painted truncheons at the South Wales Police Heritage Centre in Bridgend
Neath Borough Truncheon at the Police Heritage Centre in Bridgend
(It seems a lot shorter than other similar truncheons)
A later truncheon was owned by Doug Harris. He was born in 1900 and joined the Borough Police in 1926, becoming chief clerk and then transferring to the Glamorgan Constabulary on amalgamation in 1947, where he became an Inspector.
Truncheon owned by Inspector Doug Harris
There is another Neath Borough Police truncheon which formed part of the private collection of former policman, Alan Swain, who served in the Cambridgeshire Constabulary 1951-1982 (he died in 2015). It is in excellent condition and is described as ‘18” long, with Crown above Gartered Arms of Neath (gold) turret on blue background Neath Borough Police with the garter Acanthus decoration to reverse.’
A truncehon in the Alan Swain collection
Yet another truncheon is displayed in the Mayor’s Parlour at Neath Port Talbot Civic Centre.
Staff in the Mayor’s Parlour, Port Talbot
It is 17 inches long and does not have a maker’s mark
Ross Mather, a former police officer and also a former curator of the South Wales Police Museum, has one of the finest private collections of police memorabilia. This he readily displays on the Facebook page entitled, ‘Virtual Museum of Police in Wales’. He has also shown some items on the People’s Collection Wales webpage of the National Library of Wales. Many more items are on his website https://www.britishpolicecollection.com/
Three truncheons in the Ross Mather Collection
The one on the right was presented to a Neath Mayor in 1920
Most examples of Neath Borough truncheons are not dated but there is one truncheon in Ross Mather’s collection which bears a plaque stating that it was presented by Neath Borough Police to JR Jones, the Mayor of Neath in 1920. John Rowland Jones was on the Neath Borough Council from 1902 to 1938. He worked as a railway signalman and was an active trade unionist.
The seven truncheons so far located seem similar in design though the handles differ slightly. Some constabularies produced decorated truncheons to mark the end of World War 1 and the General Strike of 1926. It may be that the Neath staffs were issued around this period.
Two other painted Neath Borough truncheons are known to exist. One was owned by Sergeant Grey and the other by Constable David Samuel Williams. Evan Grey joined the Neath Borough Police in 1923 and was promoted Sergeant in 1941, becoming Detective Sergeant two years later. He served in WW1 and after WW2 was seconded to the Civil Control Commission in Germany. David Samuel Williams joined in 1926 and claimed to be the first motor cyclist in Neath Borough Constabulary. Both of these truncheons were made by another police equipment supplier, Parker Field. These would have been nineteenth century truncheons as Parker Field closed in 1883. Many smaller police forces saved money by re-using equipment and it is clear from the design that these truncheons were painted after Victoria’s reign ended.
There is no doubt that more Neath Borough painted truncheons are or were in existence. Mervyn Mitton, in his 1985 book, ‘The Policeman’s Lot’, has a photograph of one which seems to be another 1920s truncheon. Although the markings on the truncheon are quite clear Mr Mitton has unfortunately described the Neath truncheon as a Scottish painted truncheon.
The use of decorated truncheons as a badge of office would have come to an end when warrant cards were first issued in the late Victorian era.
WITH THANKS to Ross Mather, Bob Grant, Alan C Cook, Laurence Swain, David Michael, Neath Port Talbot County Borough Council, South Wales Police Heritage Centre and the family of Doug Harris.