This thread was originally written and published in March 2021. It has been lightly edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
Today’s auction house artefact is this Victorian Leith Burgh Police truncheon.
Policing in Leith goes back to the 17th century, when the first High Constables of the Port of Leith were established. They were appointed by the Magistrates of the Royal Burgh of Leith to uphold “cleanliness and orderliness, keeping the peace, law and order“. But at this point they acted as empowered individuals, rather than a force. Orders were given in 1725 stating that “they were responsible for the apprehension of beggars and vagabonds, persons guilty of a crime or disturbance, informing on houses of ill repute, bringing order to mobs and overseeing weights and measures.”
At this time, the principal civic building of Leith was the Tolbooth. It functioned as a seat of municipal government and administration, a customs house, a guardhouse, a jail and a meeting house and was one of the three essential public buildings of the Scottish Burgh; the others being the Mercat Cross and the Kirk.
In 1762, the seven constables held a meeting and elected a moderator, treasurer and clerk, and drew up regulations to form themselves into the Honourable Society of the High Constables of the Port of Leith. In 1771, Parliament passed the “Act for Cleansing and Lighting the Streets of the Town of South Leith, the Territory of St. Anthony’s and Yardheads thereunto adjoining, and for supplying the several parts thereof with fresh water“. The description of the act itself is a reminder that at this time, the municipal police were primarily concerned with lighting, cleansing and water supply; not watch keeping or law enforcement.
The act saw the election of 30 Police Commissioners to enact its provisions; the electors were the 2 magistrates of Leith (appointed by Edinburgh), the masters and 6 assistants of the 4 Leith trade incorporations (the Cordiners, Carters, Tailors and Weavers) and all heritors (the feudal landholders of a Scottish parish who were obligated to pay tax), liferenters (landholders for life) and proprietors of lands and tenement within the burgh. Basically, the people (men) with claim over land and/or property. Added to the Commissioners were the Lord Provost, Town Clerk of Leith, The Baillie (a civic officer) of St. Anthony’s Preceptory, and 2 others elected by the feudal heritors of Yardheads and St. Anthony’s.
So the Police Commissioners were basically a committee of the local worthies who were charged with keeping the streets clean and supplying water. At this time, Leith had no piped water, sewers, pavements or metalled roads (causeys) of any kind so they had their hands full. Such was the difficulty in resolving these issues in Leith, that for the next 20 years the Commissioners were fully occupied with water, cleansing and lighting. It was not until 1791 that attention turned to “watching and warding”, i.e. something more akin to modern policing.
The Commissioners had always employed a part time “Police Officer”, but his job was to keep order at the wells and to try and keep people to the schedule of the carters who carried away the filth of the town. Perhaps he is the officious looking man in Serres’ illustration conferring with the carter and the town drummer and poring over a schedule?
In 1791, this was made a full time position, and Leith’s first professional polisman was hired; at £25 a year. 10 years later, in 1801 the officer, one John Ross, was finally provided with a uniform. “A blue coat, red neck with buttons thereon and a red vest with a pair of boots“. In 1802, lawlessness in Leith was such that one of the Baillies proposed to the Police Commissioners that a part-time force of sixty men, in three watches, be hired for the purposes of law enforcement. At this point, Edinburgh stepped in and said “naw”, and that it would sort it. Edinburgh then did nothing for Leith, as was frequently the case; as James Scott Marshall puts it. “Edinburgh’s policy of masterly inactivity once more frustrated [Leith’s] desire for improvement.”
A new Leith Police Act, in 1806, made provision for the recruitment of watchmen for “Guarding, Patrolling and Watching the streets“. But again nothing was done, this time for want of money. Leith had 20,000 inhabitants, but Edinburgh absolutely and tightly controlled its purse strings. Finally in 1814, the size of the Leith Police force was tripled; to 3. Two watchmen were employed to assist the “intendant” (the man in the blue and red coat). The appointments were made by the Paving Committee as they had responsibility for safety on the streets.
In 1815, the force doubled in size, to 6, with 3 more watchmen being recruited. Finally in 1816, a special “Watching Committee” was formed, rather than leave the Police under the direction of the Paving Committee. But the new force was not well thought of and there were complaints asking for it to be better organised. The watchmen were also unhappy, as the day shift worked 6AM-9PM (!) and were unable to take on labouring work on the side as a result like the shorter nightshift could.
The force grew no further until the Municipal and Police Act of 1827, when the whole force of 6 was disbanded and then re-hired under a new system under a Superintendent; one James Stuart on £120 a year. The new force totalled 20, 1 Sergeant Major, 3 Sergeants, 3 “Daymen”, 3 “Night Patrol” and 10 Watchmen. Superintendent Stuart had the force raised to 27 with 1 more Dayman, 2 Night Patrol and 4 more Watchmen. The senior ranks were paid a guaranteed basic rate, which was supplemented by the court fees of each offender they brought in; half to the Sergeant Major, and the other half split between the Sergeants.
The 1827 act finally settled the boundary of the Leith Police, which had been rather vaguely defined up until this point due to the fragmentary municipal boundaries and land superiority of the separate parishes of North and South Leith. When the 1832 Great Reform Act extended the boundary of Leith to the red line on this map, the reach of the Leith Police extended too. A deal was also struck with the Edinburgh Sheriff to charge him for the lodging of prisoners sent from Edinburgh to languish in Leith.
The 1827 act also got round to the business of providing Leith with its first modern courthouse and police station, to replace the ancient Tolbooth. Some of the land of “Dr. Colquhoun’s Chapel” was acquired; a 99 year lease being taken on it. Dr Colquhoun was the minister of St. John’s Chapel of Ease on Constitution Street. This is how Leith’s first court house and police station came to be built on the corner of Constitution Street and [Queen] Charlotte Street, where they are to this day – although the courthouse is long unused.
The Leith Burgh Police were established in 1859 to cover the wider burgh of Leith defined in 1831 by the Great Reform Act. Policing of the port and docks was subsumed into the new force as a division, but the High Constables were maintained as an honourable society for ceremonial occasions. They still exist in this form, the uniform still being top hats and tails and the badge of office still being an ornamental baton. Until recently it was strictly a gentlemens’ club, although they have more recently elected a woman to their ranks.
They can be seen performing these same ceremonial duties for royalty here in Alexander Carse’s painting of the arrival of George IV in Leith back in 1822, backs to the artist with their top hats off. The fellows with the broad bonnets, white sashes and curving long sticks (bows) are the Company of Royal Archers .
At this point, the need for separate Commissioners of Police was redundant, as Leith was finally an independent burgh, The responsibility for oversight of the Police passed to the new Town Council, who made their home in the police station and court on Constitution Street.
And here is a picture of the Town Hall / court house / police station in 1870. It shows St. John’s, after the mock Tudor tower was built and parish school buildings were added to the front. Between the two is the small burgh fire station building .
The helmet badge adpoted by the Burgh Police was from the traditional Leith coat of arms; the Virgin Mary and child on a galleon, underneath a tent. The date of 1563 beneath refers to a letter signed by Mary Queen of Scots granting South Leith permission to erect the Tolbooth. Granting Leith this was a big step in its ancient struggle to exert independence from Edinburgh. The English had burned Restalrig Tolbooth in 1544 during the “Rough Wooing” (Restalrig at that time was the administrative centre of South Leith parish) and since then Edinburgh had been trying to prevent Leith from re-establishing its own local centre of law, order and taxation.
Anyway, Leith Burgh Police was a small force, but one well respected for keeping law and order in the potentially lawless port town. They were merged into the Edinburgh City Police as D Division in 1921.
Leith policemen were distinctive for wearing a “ball top” to their custodian helmet, Edinburgh had these only for upper ranks, the rank and file had a “button top”.
Leith’s greatest contribution to the world of policing is of course the legendary tongue twister “The Leith Police Dismisseth Us” – which was apparently a test for drunkenness (but just try saying it sober!)
The Leith police dismisseth us, I’m sorry sir to say;The Leith Police Dismisseth Us, a version from 1927
The Leith police dismisseth us, They thought we sought to stay;
The Leith police dismisseth us, They thought we’d stay all day;
The Leith police dismisseth us, Which caused us many sighs;
And the size of our sighs, when we said our goodbyes;
Were the size of the Leith police.
However the origin of The Leith Police Dismisseth Us is probably nothing to do with Leith, however. It actually first originates in print on the other side of the Atlantic; in the Boston Youth’s Companion, October 20th 1887, as a line in a list of “verbal snares” or tongue-twisters. It is quite similar to an earlier American tongue-twister; variously The Sea Ceaseth and Dismisseth Us With His Blessing or The Sea Ceaseth And that Sufficeth Us and it is likely these were created for elocution purposes and inspired by biblical verse.
It first appears in a British newspaper shortly afterwards, in December 1887 in the Irvine Times, before being reprinted widely across English papers the following year. These early examples are always in lists of tongue-twisters, many of which are still familiar such as Peter Piper and She Sells Sea Shells. A fuller version does not seem to appear in print until 1919 (in The Childrens Newspaper) but it had been widely popularised before this by the Mancunian musical hall comedian Wilkie Bard, one of the biggest acts of his day, whose stage gimmick was tongue twisters. Variety magazine announced in 1909 that he was appearing in London at the Tivoli, Oxford and Paragon with “a new tongue twister. It is called The Leith Police Dismisseth Us. Bard gets a whole lot out of this number with the aid of an assistant who does a lisping souse.“
The rhyme is still used for elocution, particularly in helping non-native English speakers master the “th” and -“s” sounds of the language.
Thank you to Chris Wright for his assistance and advice in researching the early details of “The Leith Police Dismisseth Us.”
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These threads © 2017-2023, Andy Arthur
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