James Perry – A Village Policeman

By the time that James Perry first became a police constable, Shropshire policing had already been established for about forty years. Administration was split into two, namely the borough police forces and the county constabulary. The borough forces were established in the main population areas of Shrewsbury, Bridgnorth, Oswestry and Ludlow; whilst the county constabulary oversaw policing across the rest of the more rural parts of Shropshire.

Early Life

James Perry was born in 1861, approximately three months prior to the 1861 census in the extensive rural parish of Preston Gubbals, a few miles immediately north of Shrewsbury in Shropshire.

There are two primary hamlets within the parish and both Bomere Heath and Leaton are named as his birthplace in different records. However his baptismal record of 13 January 1861 has Leaton as residence.1 His parents were Jonathan and Ann Perry. Jonathan is listed as a retired soldier in the baptismal entry, but died around about the same time as James was born, as Ann is a widow by the time of the census a few months later. He had probably been retired for some time as he is listed in the 1851 census as a ‘pensioner agricultural labourer’.2

By the time of the next census in 1871 Ann Perry was listed as remarried to a John Coldwell in Bomere Heath, and like Jonathan Perry he was also an agricultural labourer. At this point James is at school and how much influence his step-father had on his future career as he grew up, is impossible to gauge, but it is tempting to think that the soldiering of his actual father was a factor.3

Despite this conjecture, we can be reasonably sure, as Clive Emsley in his book on the history of British policing suggests, that by joining the police James Perry was one of those from modest backgrounds who ‘had the opportunity to pull themselves a few rungs upward on the ladder of the Victorian social hierarchy’.4 James was not alone coming from a working class agricultural community, as Carolyn Steedman states in her book on the formation of provincial forces, ‘a large proportion of men came from the farm to police work’ at this time.5

James in the Police Force

Throughout his many years in Shropshire Police, James was engaged at a variety of rural and town locations. He was a member of the county constabulary rather than an officer in one of the borough police forces. Police records indicate that he joined the police on 15 September 1879; his warrant no. was 941 and his collar no. 82. The records also reveal that he was 5’8” inches tall (a little short given that the standard tended to be 5’10” inches), was single, and support the fact that he was born in Bomere Heath. The police archives also state that he was twenty years old, although other records indicate that he was, in fact, more likely to be eighteen possibly nineteen years old.6 Exactly why he felt compelled to potentially lie about his age remains a mystery, but as Steedman states, ‘There were no home office rules about minimum age, though most county rule books put the lower limit at eighteen or nineteen. It was rare for a man under twenty years to join a county police force’.7 Based on Petty Sessions found in local newspaper The Wellington Journal, it seems likely that James was on active duty shortly afterwards. At first he appeared to be based in south Shropshire and for a brief time in Wellington.8 By the 1881 census he was living in lodgings in the semi-rural village of Edgmond just outside the small market town of Newport. His occupation is listed as Police Constable.9 Further court records published in the Wellington Journal confirm that James seems to be policing in Edgmond, and the surrounding town and villages, and dealing with typical cases of drunkenness and poaching. The geographical location of Newport meant that there were frequent brawls in the pubs and taverns from migrants travelling towards the Black Country from the port of Liverpool.

Where Perry based his work (and lived) between census dates is open to some speculation, although the fact that his four children were born in five separate locations – Oswestry, Wem, Wellington, Shifnal and Newport – reveal just how much an ambitious policeman was expected to move around with the job.10 The migration was undoubtedly aided by the amalgamation of the borough and county police forces, since by 1889 Shrewsbury was the only borough with its own force. He seemed to spend little time in any one location until he became a superintendent. In the early part of the 1880s, James was learning his trade as a police constable and continued to be based either in Edgmond or in the rural parishes from Newport out towards Wellington. The continued numerous accounts from court proceedings in local newspapers that mention Perry, validate the census information and even extend the geographic extent of his movement around Shropshire. Only when living in Ludlow is his address described as a police house.

In terms of promotion, James Perry’s rise up the rankings in the constabulary is consistently regular. After an initial promotion to Acting 1st Class Constable in July 1884, he was promoted to 2nd Class Sergeant on 9th October 1889.11 This information is supported by the 1891 census, which confirms his rank as Police Sergeant but by now resident in Oswestry.12 He remains a sergeant until the middle of 1898, although he was promoted to 1st Class Sergeant in October 1892. At the beginning of August 1898 he was promoted to 2nd Class Inspector, a fact endorsed by the Shrewsbury Chronicle of 20 August 1898 referring to him as Inspector Perry. In May of 1900 he was stationed at Ludlow and this proved to be a successful move as, by October, he was already Inspector 1st Class, and on 1 January of the following year was promoted to Superintendent in charge of ‘H’ Division (Ludlow).13 This is clearly a meteoric rise over a couple of years. He may well have gained recognition in part by being a stickler for appearance and discipline. A clue about this is revealed in 1900, when the Shrewsbury Chronicle wrote about Ludlow being the ‘best drilled force in the county’ and with Inspector Perry in charge they, ‘were put through various movements … and performed them in an excellent manner. We congratulate Inspector Perry and his men upon their success.’14 The same paper of 8 February 1901 revealed the court’s feelings when they rose at the end of a hearing: ‘… the Bench would like to congratulate Mr Perry upon his promotion to the rank of superintendent. He was the right man in the right place and they hoped he would live many years to discharge his duties in that district.’15 The promotion came just before a coronation procession through Ludlow by the recently crowned Edward VII, and James was in charge of police proceedings for the day

The 1901 census confirms his rank as ‘Supt. of Police’ and his residency in Ludlow, and the next one in 1911 reveals that he is still a superintendent in Ludlow and appears to have reached the top of his career ladder.16,17 The following information from the book Policing Shropshire 1836-1967 by Douglas Elliott, neatly sums up why Perry had been promoted to superintendent in the first place. In Ludlow in 1901 there was a crackdown by the police on unlicensed ale-houses when navvies were building the Birmingham Waterworks pipeline. As Superintendent, James led a successful raid on the premises of one of the chief suspects. There they found evidence of a ‘damning character’. The operation was a clear success: ‘The police had a field day, altogether they issued 14 similar summonses. The penalties totalled £1,300 or six years imprisonment. It had been a large scale flaunting of the law, which had been successfully squashed.’18

Perry remained in Ludlow for the remainder of his career, and retired from the police on 11 October 1919 after forty years and twenty-seven days’ service. Interestingly, records indicate that he was sixty years old, although in actual fact he was fifty-eight instead. I am left to wonder whether he had to potentially lie about his age for the whole of his working life.19

Family Life

In the third quarter of 1889 James married Susan Elizabeth Dennis the daughter of an agricultural labourer/shepherd from Norfolk.20 The marriage took place back in her home parish, but how they met is unknown. James and Susan remained married until James’ death in 1933. Susan was approximately seven years his senior (b. March 1854) and they had five children, although one of them died when only two years old in 1896.

As all the living children were still at home at the time of the 1911 census it is difficult to ascertain the path of their careers after this date, but they appear to be much more middle-class in status, despite the lack of domestic servants. The eldest son, Philip, was awarded an aviator’s certificate by the Royal Aero Club in October 1914 (although he does appear to have lied about his birthplace and residence – again maybe to gain admittance when he didn’t qualify). He then goes on to join the naval branch of the Royal Flying Corps and gains promotion to Flight Lieutenant in May 1915. He is later invalided out from The Royal Navy, after an injury and a stint as a flight instructor.21

Death and Conclusion

James Perry died on 10 February 1933 aged seventy-two, whilst resident at 6 Castle View Terrace, Ludlow, and probate was granted in Shrewsbury on 26 May 1933 to his surviving wife, Susan, and his two daughters.22 Remembering his humble beginnings, the effects totalled £2,010 16s 1d, which was a considerable sum of money at the time (probably around £150k in today’s terms).23 Susan, his wife, lived on until 1946 dying at the age of ninety-two.24

Although it is difficult to establish ‘success’ in terms of facts and figures, they do suggest that James Perry had a very good career in the County Constabulary. He remained in the job for over forty years, gained regular promotion, had a seemingly successful marriage during this time and had four children survive to adulthood. When he died his monetary legacy would have left his widow comfortably off. I think that this fact alone is successful in most eyes. In terms of climbing the ladder of Victorian hierarchy, James Perry was undoubtedly a success.


  1. FamilySearch: England, Births and Christenings, 1538- 1975. Salt Lake City, Utah: FHL 918865, 22 June 2017. 
  2. 1861 Census RG9/1867 f.5 p.3.
  3. 1871 Census RG10/2767 f.11 p.16.
  4. Emsley, C. The Great British Bobby A History of British Policing from the 18th Century to the Present. Quercus, 2009, p.84.
  5. Steedman, C. Policing the Victorian Community. Routledge, 1984, p.81.
  6. Shropshire Archives – Police Card Index compiled by Douglas Elliott.
  7. Steedman, p.80.
  8. Various cases reported in the Wellington Journal found on the FindMyPast website e.g.: https://search.findmypast.co.uk/search/british- newspapers?date=1880-01-01&date_offsetdate=1889-12- 31&county=shropshireutf002c%20england&newspaper =wellington%20journal&keywords=constable%20perryv dfg
  9. 1881 Census RG11/2683 f.99 p.2.
  10. Civil Registration Birth Index, Oswestry, Salop 1891 Q4 vol 6a p610; Civil Registration Birth Index, Wem, Salop 1892 Q4 vol 6a p665; Civil Registration Birth Index, Wellington, Salop 1894 Q1 vol 6a p754; Civil Registration Birth Index, Shifnal, Salop 1896 Q3 vol 6a p589; Civil Registration Birth Index, Newport, Salop 1898 Q2 vol 6a p726.
  11. Shropshire Archives – Police Card Index compiled by Douglas Elliott.
  12. 1891 Census RG12/2117 f.12 p.18.
  13. Shropshire Archives – Police Card Index compiled by Douglas Elliott.
  14. Shrewsbury Chronicle on FindMyPast (23 March 1900): https://search.findmypast.co.uk/bna/viewarticle?id=bl%2 f0000401%2f19000323%2f129.
  15. Shrewsbury Chronicle on FindMyPast (08 February 1901): https://search.findmypast.co.uk/bna/viewarticle?id=bl%2 f0000401%2f19010208%2f106.
  16. 1901 Census RG13/2504 f.69 p.2.
  17. 1911 Census RG14/15872/8/ED 05.
  18. Elliott, D. (1984). Policing Shropshire 1836-1967. Brewin, 1984, p.129.
  19. Shropshire Archives – Police Card Index compiled by Douglas Elliott
  20. Civil Registration Marriage Index, Guiltcross, Norfolk 1889 Q3 vol 4b p415.
  21. Ancestry.com UK, Navy Lists, 1888-1970 – January 1919 https://www.ancestry.co.uk/interactive/2406/40565_625 988_2616- 01074/8702221?backurl=https%3a%2f%2fsearch.ancest ry.co.uk%2fcgi-bin%2fsse.dll%3fgst%3d- 6&ssrc=&backlabel=ReturnSearchResults.
  22. Civil Registration Death Index, Ludlow, Salop 1933 Q1 vol 6a p881.
  23. Ancestry.com England & Wales, National Probate Calendar (Index of Wills and Administrations), 1858- 1966, 1973-1995 https://www.ancestry.co.uk/interactive/1904/31874_222 511- 00725/1965877?backurl=https://www.ancestry.co.uk/fa mily- tree/person/tree/10525044/person/25126113250/facts/cit ation/110211879011/edit/record.
  24. Civil Registration Death Index, Ludlow, Salop 1946 Q3 vol 9a p92.