Perils of Beat Duty
The duties of police Constables were extensive, arduous, and around the clock. After drunkenness and common assaults, misdemeanours against Constables on duty formed the most prominent sub-category tried at the Police Court. Throughout the nineteenth century, one of the most prevalent offences was destroying a policeman’s uniform. This would customarily occur on a beat while a Constable attempted to arrest an offender for drunkenness, or for drunk and disorderly behaviour. Nearly every other arrest would result in a torn uniform. The degree of damage often varied, and ranged from merely a button being bitten off to torn ‘tunic, waistcoat and shirt’.
This was of great annoyance to the policeman and his wife, assuming he had one, for she bore the responsibility of restoring the uniform; no additional allowance was provided for a replacement. According to the report of Police Commissioner Seymour, in 1866 a new regulation was passed which declared that the members of the force were supposed to provide their own clothing, ‘instead of its being as heretofore served out by the Government. The Constables having to pay for their uniform themselves will no doubt be more careful of it…’
Unfortunately, as the evidence shows, it was not always in the Constables’ power to preserve their uniforms regardless of their best efforts; as defendants were most commonly resolved not to ‘go down quietly’:
Edmund M’Sweeney was charged with drunkenness, and also with tearing the uniform of the Constable who arrested him, and on being found guilty was ordered to pay 40s., or to go to gaol for 18 hours. (Brisbane Courier, Friday, 27 May, 1864)
This, at times, relatively innocuous maltreatment of beat policemen was not a uniquely local phenomenon. In April 1859, the Irish Times reported that Rose Masterson, an amiable looking female, was brought up in custody of Police-Constable 154D, charged with being riotous and disorderly at Bow Street, Dublin. When arrested, she violently assaulted the Constable, ‘by making bites at tales of his coat, and otherwise ill-using his uniform.’ (Irish Times, 7 April 1859)