Law and Order in St Neots


Local historian Charles Tebbutt has published extensive research into St Neots’ history. What follows has largely been gleaned from chapters in his book.


Parish Constables

Until the early-19th century the churchwardens appointed Parish Constables to impose law and order.  Constables were private citizens, elected every year at the parish vestry meeting. If there were incidents that parish constables could not cope with, they could call on any able-bodied person to help. constable.shtml

They had a whistle and everyone was expected to chase the person until they caught them (Hue and Cry). It was an offence not to help!


If there was serious trouble like a riot then the army was called in.


Anyone who was unruly, e.g. drunk and disorderly, was arrested was kept in the local ‘Lockup’ on the Market Square. There was another in Eaton Socon near the church.

The ‘Lockup’ was unused after the Police Station cells were built in 1850. These cells can be seen today inside St Neots Museum. family/stoke-golding.html


Stocks and Whipping Posts

For minor offences people were put in the stocks. These were wooden frames into which your feet and head were locked. ~MidAges/jenmon.html 2003a/feb-stocks.jpg



Sometimes they were sentenced to be whipped or flogged at a whipping post. This had been practiced since at least the Middle Ages. There were stocks in the northeast corner of churchyard of St Mary’s, St Neots, near the north churchyard gate of St Mary’s Eynesbury and a set outside St Mary’s church in Eaton Socon.

Men, women and even children used to be tied to a post and whipped by the parish churchwarden. They got paid to do it.  In the St Neots’ churchwardens’ accounts it refers to ‘whipping a boy 4d.’  in 1686.  In 1701 ‘whipping a man 4d.’  In 1710 ulture/poppy.htm    whipping two boys 8d. and in 1712

 whipping a boy 6d.’


Another word for whip was to flog. The last two men to be flogged were Billing of St Neots and Hunt of Eaton Socon. The last man to be put in the stocks was Jeremy Tupp of Toseland in 1824.


Justices of the Peace

Government laws were enforced by the local squire and the vicar. These included administering the Poor Laws – collecting rates to look after those in need. They were appointed Justices of the Peace and had great powers in the district and county. They met every three months at Quarter Sessions.




Some people thought the punishments were too severe and tried to get their Member of Parliament to change (reform) the laws. Changing the criminal justice system took many years.


In 1808 Parliament reduced the penalty for pick-pocketing from hanging to transportation for life.  It was still a hangable offence for stealing 5s. (£0.25) from a shop.


In 1815 the death penalty could be imposed for 220 offences. It was up to the conscience of the judge and the jury to decide. Capital punishment was done at Huntingdon Gaol. leisure/archives/p...


Following the ending of the war with France in 1815 a lot of soldiers returned home and it is claimed that the crime rate rose. Local farmers and landowners set up a private protection scheme e.g. the Local Defence Association. In return for an annual subscription, members were offered shared defence against crime, help in prosecuting offenders and rewards for information.


In 1820 the J.P.s were Ousley Rowley, the Lord of the Manor and Rev. Palmer, the vicar of Eynesbury. The Court House was at Church House, 3 Berkeley Street, where Mr Wells, the attorney, lived. Later court sessions were held at the Cross.


In 1829 a full-time, professional Police Force was set up in London by Sir Robert Peel. (St Neots didn’t get a police force until 1856.)


In 1832 the crimes of house-breaking, sheep stealing and forgery stopped being capital offences.


Town Commissioners


In 1819 the newly appointed Town Commissioners appointed night watchmen to look after property in the town and arrest troublemakers. They were provided them with arms, ammunition, weapons and clothing. They also built watch-houses and watch-boxes at various points in the town centre.


The night watchmen’s hut was an old barn on the corner of the High Street and Church Street (what became the Salvation Army Citadel). From here the watchmen patrolled the streets. They started at 22.00p.m. and finished at 05.00a.m. They had to shout out the hours at 23.00p.m., 01.00a.m and 03.00p.m.


Each man carried a staff, handcuffs and keys to the Lockup at 14 High Street.


In 1850 these watchmen (known as ‘Greatcoats’,) were appointed as Special Constables instead.


The first Huntingdonshire \Police Force was formed in about 1848.


The St Neots stocks were dismantled in 1850.


When the first newspapers began to be published in the 1850s they reported local crimes.


Charles Sibley was the head parish constable in St Neots before the Police Force was established in 1856. A Police Station, Court House and prison cells were built on New Street (now used as St Neots Museum).


One of the first duties of the police constables was to deal with a large in-migration of railway ‘navvies’  - labourers who were building the new railway line. One time, twenty navvies were caught poaching on the Croxton estate. They were tried, found guilty and sent by wagon to Huntingdon Jail. However, a gang of their friends set out to rescue them but the police sent the wagon via Eltisley and foiled their plan.


In 1864 an 11-year old and 8½-year old were sent to jail for 21 days for stealing a muff, shawl and other oddments.


In the 1870s the first county councils took over from the Quarter Sessions the role of administering justice with county law courts. Local J.P.s dealt harshly with local crime. 


In 1870 three boys aged 14, 15 and 16 were given six week’s hard labour for stealing sweets from Wildman’s shop in St Mary’s Street, Eynesbury.


In 1873 the Huntingdonshire Farmers’ Defence Force was advertised in the newspaper. It offered to defend farmers when agricultural labourers went on strike for higher wages. 


In 1875 a 13-year old girl from Yelling was sent to a reformatory (school where students were taught to reform - behave properly) for five years after a month in jail for stealing two oranges, 43 marbles, eight thimbles, a length of ribbon and a piece of cake from a shop.


There must have been some stealing from people’s gardens and allotments as in 1880 the Eynesbury Garden Protection Society was formed. They paid a halfpenny a week subscription and held an annual dinner. One member put up a notice saying: ‘God helps those who help themselves, but God help those that I catch helping themselves from my garden.’


In 1888 a man was sent to prison for stealing two turnips. He claimed that was all he had to eat for Sunday dinner.


In 1897 a man was fined 20s. (£1.00) for disorderly conduct.  As he didn’t pay the fine he was sent to Cambridge Jail to be put on the treadmill.


In 1898 the local police were issued with bicycles.


Source: Tebbutt, C.F. (1978), St Neots – The History of a Huntingdonshire Town, Phillimore, pp. 22 - 42