Force Archivist takes us on a journey through the history files
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Did you know that Chief Constable Simon Cole is the only officer in the force allowed to carry a cutlass? Or that Leicestershire Police was the first force to use DNA fingerprinting to solve a murder case? We were also one of the first to mobilise an underwater unit.
These are just a few of the many things our Force Archivist knows about the history of Leicestershire Police. Neil Bell has always had a very keen interest in police history and has written books and countless articles about the Whitechapel murders. So when a Chief Superintendent approached him in 2015 to ask if he could help collate historical artefacts and information with the view to writing a book on the history of Leicestershire Police, it was an opportunity Neil couldn’t refuse. He signed up as a volunteer and took up the title of Force Archivist.
This isn’t Neil’s only role though, he also works full time as an usher for Leicester County Court. Although he enjoys both roles immensely, he found that his volunteering with Leicestershire Police became his solace last year when he was recuperating following a serious illness.
He said: “Leicestershire Police supported me through my recovery. Volunteering as the Force Archivist allowed me to take things at my own pace, working on the archives when I felt able to; it became my saviour.”
Along with writing a book which will follow the history of policing Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland, Neil is also working hard to collate all the archives into one place as they are currently scattered across the force area with some national archives even holding some of our history. One of these items is a letter written from a Leicestershire Chief Constable telling Northumbria Police he believes some of Leicester’s wanted individuals are hiding out in their force area and could they please send them back to Leicester.
The force’s history spans 184 years and during that time there have been eleven chief constables and several name changes. Starting out as Leicester Borough Police Force in 1836 with just five sergeants and fifty PCs, it was renamed to Leicester City Police in 1919. Leicestershire Constabulary formed in 1839, quickly followed by Rutland Constabulary in 1840. The years that followed saw various amalgamations of the three forces, until 1967 when they all merged to become Leicestershire & Rutland Constabulary. From 1974 the force was known as Leicestershire Constabulary, until 2012 when it was changed to Leicestershire Police, in keeping with modern policing.
It’s clear from talking to Neil that he has a really keen eye for police history. Neil says: “It’s not just about looking back through history but also considering what the future archives will look like.”
Over the past few years Neil has collated information and items which we will look back on in many years’ time, he’s making sure we record those firsts as well as the milestones. For example, in 2017 we waved a final goodbye to the traditional custodian helmet to make way for caps. And in March 2016 spit guards were given to frontline offers as an extra level of protection.
Even now, during this pandemic Neil is busy collecting items. He has a copy of Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s letter to all households, examples of PPE that officers are using to protect themselves and others, the additional powers given to police and the issuing of fixed penalty notices. All these snippets of history will allow the older generation to look back and remember while the younger generation can learn about the 2020 Covid-19 pandemic and how the emergency services, partners and the people of Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland all worked together to battle the virus and protect our NHS.
While delving into the archives, Neil has found some real gems when it comes to the history of the force. Many of you will be familiar with Leicestershire’s ‘laughing policeman’. For those of you who aren’t, PC John “Tubby” Stephens was an officer in Leicester for 22 years, up until his death in 1908. Known as ‘England’s heaviest policeman’ he weighed over 24 stone and was well known for policing the clock tower in the city centre. Although he was a much loved pillar of the community, he was buried in an unmarked grave. In 2017, with support from the Chief Constable; Neil, the Police Federation, LPF Trusts, the Baker family and the Friends of Welford Road Cemetery located PC John “Tubby” Stephens grave and a headstone was placed at his final resting place.
Another historical event which sent Neil diving into the archives was the 1920s ‘green bicycle murder’. Chief Constable Simon Cole wanted to honour the 100 year anniversary of the murder of Bella Wright who was mysteriously killed after being shot in the head. She was last seen riding her bike alongside someone with a green bicycle, a century later and the murder of 21-year-old Bella is one of the force’s most notorious unsolved crimes. Neil worked alongside De Montfort University’s (DMU) Heritage Centre and the Leicestershire and Rutland Records Office for two years, putting together an intricate exhibition that gave an insight into the timeline of events, including the trial and what happened after. A number of key artefacts were displayed including a replica of the green bicycle and the notes from PC Hall who was the first officer at the scene; these were items which had never been viewed by the public before.
Neil Bell is not alone in his campaign to tackle the police archives and bring all of Leicestershire Police’s history together, volunteer Danielle Watson works alongside Neil in her spare time. Working at HMP Onley as a case administrator, Danielle has over 100 prisoners on her caseload at any one time, she’s responsible for calculating all of their sentences from when they arrive at the prison to when they are released. Together, Danielle and Neil make the perfect team! Neil is a fountain of police knowledge but he openly admits where he lacks in organisational skills Danielle more than makes up for it, she’s already created a database where everything they find is being logged as they build up a complete history of Leicestershire Police. The duo are also in the midst of applying for National Lottery Heritage Funding which could allow them to create a space where the archives can be kept in special conditions to preserve them as well as enabling them to continue working closely with partners, with local universities and the local communities to archive and document the culture and heritage of Leicester, Leicestershire & Rutland.