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Crime and Punishment: Policing Middlesbrough in the 1930s

A group of policemen in uniform stand facing the camera. They are outside standing on grass. Image is in black and white.
Police officers photographed in Arysome Terrace park football grounds, Middlesbrough, 1905 – 1920. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.

Middlesbrough began life as a booming industrial town at the beginning of the Victorian age in the 1830s, with a population of 5,500 people by 1841 growing to 30,000 just 30 years later. As a hub of industry, the town grew quickly attracting people from all over the world who came to work in the town. From the start lawbreaking was common as many workers lived in desperate poverty turning to petty crimes as a way of surviving. Because of this the town was an early pioneer in policing and introduced a uniformed police force in 1853.

To begin with there was only a dozen police constables to keep order in the town, which regularly topped crime statistics in the country, levelling out around the 1870s but remained top of the statistics for drunkenness well into the 1940s.

In the 1930s a young man joined the Middlesbrough Police Force and later recalled his day to day working life in an oral history recording, now held by Teesside Archives. George Hunter came from a mining family in County Durham and was expected to follow his dad down the pit. But he wanted more and tried for years to get a job as a policeman, fitting the height and build qualifications but he didn’t have the education to sit the exams. He recalled how frustrated he would get because all the new recruits he saw were the sons of policemen who had managed to get good qualifications.

After a few years working in the mines George went to work on the railway as a signalman and started attending night school. It took five and a half years of night classes for maths, English and shorthand before he was finally successful. In the late 1930s George became a policeman in the Middlesbrough Police Force.

Star shaped badge with a crown on top and the words Middlesbrough Police in the middle.

Middlesbrough Police Force badge. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.

The first thing he notes about policing was the use of police boxes around the town as radios were not used at this point. Each police box housed a telephone that connected straight to the town hall, this was then directed to the police station. The police boxes covered an area or ‘beat’ where the police constables patrolled and from here, they would report in any activity via the phone.

George notes how people were able to use the police boxes to call in any emergency, whether it was crime related or not. Because of this George and his fellow constables had to learn first aid and, on many occasions, had to deliver babies when women in labour would use the phone to ring for help.

George recalls many stories from his time ‘on the beat’:

On Friday’s women who had been fighting each other would appear in court for sentencing. The judge always left them till last session because “after they’d imbibed a quantity of methylated spirits and Australian wine”, they caused a lot of “fun” in the court room. George recalled that once a woman came to the court room with a sugar bag full of hair, saying “this is what she did” about the other accused woman.

But one of the most notorious characters of George’s early years of the force was an elderly woman called Maggie. Maggie was often homeless and as a methylated spirit drinker, locked up by the police four or five times a week. Once during a snowstorm Maggie had fallen in the street and was covered by snow dumped on her by a passing snow plough. She lay there for 10 hours before someone noticed her. She survived and was treated for hyperthermia. Once George had to arrest her on a warrant for not paying her debts. He remembered how “she’d been in one lot of lodgings one week. She’d been sleeping in some toilets another. She’d been sleeping in the coke ovens down Dorman’s aye you know (…) nice and warm and that. To my knowledge we had three fatal accidents where people had been asphyxiated (by sleeping in them this way)”

Another notorious character George had to deal with was a man called Reuben who claimed to be epileptic. Reuben would throw a fit outside of a pub and people would rush to help him, many giving him strong spirits like whiskey or brandy to help bring him round. Once he had downed his drink he would get up and run off to the next pub and do the same there, getting free spirits all night.

A Middlesbrough Poilceman and his dog pose for a photograph, 1920s – 1930s. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.

One of the hardest parts of Georges job was helping to evict people from Charlotte Street, Florence Street, Robinson Street, West Street and Deport Street which were home to some of the poorer people in the town. He recalled often paying their rents for them rather than evict a family with little children onto the street. A big part of his daily duty was attending domestic fights between husband and wife. The police had no real powers to get involved in these arguments but often they could get physically violent.

As a constable during the war George had to deal with the many bombings Middlesbrough endured and was convinced that the green copper on the Dorman Museum and Park Wesley Church acted like a beacon to the German piolets. One night a bomb they called ‘Big Bertha’ fell on Albert Park, the constables on beat took refuge in the Museums basement and “I was a bundle of nerves, I had no hesitation of saying so. And then there was a sighing noise growing louder, and louder and louder (…) then there was a great thud and the ground shook.”

It was a direct hit on Linthorpe Road. George went out to see the damage and to direct traffic away from the massive crater the bomb had made in the road which had quickly filled with water. Middlesbrough was targeted a lot by the Germans during the war because of all the industries there.

George became chief constable in Middlesbrough and had a long career in the police force, leaving his memories to Teesside Archives in his later life.

silver metal handcuffs used by Middlesbrough Police. Cuffs connected by small chain.

Handcuffs used by the Middlesbrough Police Force. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum, Middlesbrough.


This blog was made possible thanks to Teesside Archives. George Hunters oral histories can be seen and researched at the Archives via an appointment, and is documented as OA/633.