Saturday, 19 October 2013

Plebs to Plods

Officers of the Metropolitan Police appear more than once on our family tree, rising from rural beginnings to join the police force in the great metropolis.

A Victorian Police Officer, circa 1850

My ancestor Ernest ELLISDON, was born in 1846 in Moulsham, a hamlet on the outskirts of Chelmsford, Essex. By 1881, he is recorded on the census as a police sergeant, living in the High Street in Southwark, with his large family.

William PERCIVAL 1864 - 1892

William PERCIVAL, born in 1864 started life in rural Chappel. He left the world of the agricultural worker and joined the Met in 1883. He was 19 years old, though he must have lied about his age to the authorities! Recruitment was usually between 21 and 27 years.

William Percival, aged 7, on the 1871 census

But William's new life-style was to be short lived. After less than four years, he was forced to leave the Met in 1887 after being seriously injured while on duty and losing the sight in one eye. He was awarded a police pension which, ironically, would have been equivalent to the wage of an agricultural labourer. Sadly, his health deteriorated over the next few years - the assault possibly a contributory factor - and he died in 1892.

The Metropolitan Police force was set up in 1829 under Home Secretary, Sir Robert Peel, from where the nickname 'Bobbies' or 'Peelers' came. By 1899 there were 16,000 serving police officers.

That my two ancestors would have been eligible to join the force indicates that they'd been educated sufficiently to satisfy the necessary criteria. Applicants had to be able to read, write legibly and have a 'fair knowledge of spelling.' 

Many, like William, would come from an agricultural background, others might have a military background and most recruits were born outside London. All had to be in good health and not less than 5' 9" tall.

Unmarried officers lived in a section house and, like the military, would have to seek the permission of their senior officer to marry. Potential brides would often have to undergo an interview by an inspector or even the chief constable!


Useful sources in searching for information on police ancestors include The Metropolitan Police Heritage Centre and they will be attending WDYTYA Live at Olympia, London from 20-22nd February 2014.

The Essex Police Museum has lots of information on its website, including a search facility and another site full of fascinating facts, stories, books to read and images about policing in London is the wonderfully entitled History by the Yard.

Happy hunting!


  1. Do you have any ancestors from Kentucky?

    1. Yes the Gay family from Eastern KY

  2. Not that I've discovered yet! So far, the only US connection I know about are some of my ancestors who moved from the UK to California in the early 1900s. But you never know what will turn up one day.
    You've got a comprehensive family history website, there. Some great photos, too!