Found a policeman in your family tree and now wondering how to find out more about him? I’m here to help!
As Angela Buckley explains here, the structure and organisation of the police service was complex and evolved over time. But don’t let that put you off. Whilst you are unlikely to find everything you need to answer your questions online or all in one place – this quick reference guide will give you plenty to get started with.
I’ll guide you through the steps you need to take in order to find out more, starting with what’s likely to be the most accessible / easiest.
Table of Contents
Police Are Named in the News
It’s not just our criminal ancestors that are mentioned in newspapers. Those involved in solving crimes or apprehending “villains” were often included in newspaper accounts.
For very common names, try putting words like “Constable”, “Sergeant” in to your search. E.g. a search for Samuel Davies, might become a search for Constable S Davies, Constable Davies, Samuel Davies Constable.
Police Went To Court Too
Unsurprisingly, arresting officers, investigators and other police witnesses were (and still are) often called to attend the trials of those that they arrested.
Other court records outside of London may exist online too. Search the big subscription sites by card index and look using keyword “Petty” or “Quarter Sessions”.
Remember online records are just the tip of the iceberg. Visit the websites of local county archives and search their catalogues and guides in order to track down court records.
Different Types of Police
Finding a “policeman” on a census record provides you with a clue that needs further investigation. Your ancestor may have been:
- privately employed
- employed by railway companies
- part of a local constabulary / force
- London ancestors might have been part of the MET or London City
I was surprised to find my ancestor, a Bow Street Runner, took work from a private theatre company. A discovery I only made by tracking his name through newspaper records.
It is worth bearing in mind that private organisations, outside of police forces, may have some surviving records. Search for them at The National Archives, Discovery Catalogue. Of course, if the company is still active, then it couldn’t hurt to email them direct. The shoe company, Clarks (for example) has an archive at it’s HQ in Street, Somerset.
Lucky With London
Aside from private or transport related police service, your London ancestor could have been a member of the Metropolitan Police (MET) or the City of London.
A little confusingly, the City of London Police records (which are vast) are held at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Read their guide to the records here.
The MET records are NOT held by the LMA and instead reside with The National Archives (TNA), see their guide. This includes information on which records are available online, such as the pension records dating from 1852-1932 available on Ancestry.
Police Records Outside of London
For those with ancestors outside of London, local archives should be consulted and local police forces too – some may still hold records. I’d advise contacting the archives first as they should be able to tell you what they do and do not hold! Check their own collection and guides online.
This PDF might be old but it’s a good place to start for sussing out which forces were deposited to which archives – but bear in mind things do change!
Royal Irish Constabulary
The National Archives has a guide dedicated to the Royal Irish Constabulary, which can be viewed here. Partial records are available on Ancestry and at FamilySearch.
British Transport Police
Railway companies had their own private police and some records, particuarly pre-1921 are in The National Archives (TNA) “RAIL” section. See the TNA guide here.
Further records are held by the British Transport Police themselves and information about their history can be found here.
Died In Service
If you suspect that your police ancestor may have died whilst in active service, then check the Police Memorial website’s Roll of Honour. Where possible, order a death certificate and always check for newspaper entries.
This article is a light touch guide to point you in the right direction. Along with the links included within the main body, I also recommend looking at the below:
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