Victorian Police Truncheon

Victorian-era wooden police truncheon belonging to Mark Merritt
Victorian-era wooden police truncheon belonging to Mark Merritt

This police truncheon is believed to have been used by Victorian policeman Mark Merritt, to defend himself during a number of violent assaults.  In 1838 Mark Merritt was appointed Tavistock’s first full-time Chief-of- Police serving until 1857.  The truncheon was donated to Tavistock Museum following many years in the Merritt family.

The standard issue Metropolitan Police truncheon has finger grips, is probably made of oak or elm and is 400mm in length. Constables were taught to use their truncheon to strike, jab and block an attack. Wooden truncheons remained the main defensive weapon for police until the mid-1990s when an extending baton came into general use.

During the 1830s, Tavistock saw a large influx of mining families into the area. The arrival of this rougher, tougher element coincided with the breakdown of the old parish constable style of policing. John Benson, the Duke of Bedford’s agent, already had a low opinion of the unpaid parish constables, who he believed exercised little control over local hostelries and were often drunk themselves. Following the passing of the Poor Laws in 1834 and the subsequent building of a workhouse at the top of Bannawell Street, he nervously noted an increase in resentment against the authorities by the lower classes. By 1837, he had become sufficiently alarmed to request help from the Metropolitan Police, who arranged for two of their constables to come down to Tavistock. One of these was Mark Merritt, who had been a constable for eight years with the Met.

The ‘London Police’ received a mixed welcome. Their arrival in the town was supported by Tavistock’s magistrates, gentry and professional classes, but the working classes met the newcomers with suspicion. One of the first tasks the constables faced was to prevent drunkenness and rowdy behaviour in the town – but this was not done without difficulty! The Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of the 21st October 1837 reported a violent assault on Mark Merritt outside the Union Inn, which resulted in four local men each being jailed for one month with hard labour by the magistrates. This harder-line of policing was regarded as a success by John Benson at the local Bedford Office. With the support of the magistrates, he arranged for Mark Merritt to be appointed Tavistock’s first full-time Chief of Police, giving him the rank of Superintendent, along with a weekly wage of twenty five shillings. Initially, Mark set up his office in the dilapidated Old Guildhall, but in 1848 moved into the basement of the new Guildhall, with its purpose-built offices, cells and courtroom above.

Although born in Wiltshire (in 1806), Mark Merritt made Tavistock his home, remaining in post for the next twenty years. He married a local dressmaker, Elizabeth Cook, in 1839 and they went on to have four children – two daughters and two sons – all born in the town.

During his time as Superintendent, there were relatively low levels of crime in the area, although serious incidents occurred from time to time. One such incident took place in July 1846, when Mark tried to arrest a man, only to be violently attacked by both the man and his brother. The perpetrators received eighteen months hard labour as punishment. In 1852, Mark Merritt investigated the brutal murder of Mary White, an elderly widow in Milton Coombe, who was killed for a small amount of cash she kept in her bedroom. Despite there being a suspect in the crime, nobody was ever convicted.

Mark Merritt suffered ill health towards the end of his policing career, partly as a result of injuries he had received in the line of duty. Having taken on a second paid Deputy Officer to police Tavistock, Mark was able to take less of a front-line role, becoming Inspector of Weights & Measures.

In 1857, the Devon Constabulary was formed and took over policing in the area, with paid constables and officers. Due to age and ill-health, Mark Merritt was not part of the new policing order and faced redundancy. Fortunately, he was held in high regard for his service to the town, and was offered employment by the local Bedford Office, as a collector of rents in addition to remaining the Inspector of Weights & Measures.

Mark Merritt died aged 55 on 14th April 1861 at his home in Brook Street, Tavistock and was buried in an unmarked grave at the Dolvin Road cemetery.