Explore the collection: the story behind two photographs

The grim exterior of the Police and Prison Museum in Ripon Prison & Police Museum
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Victorian policeman photo

May’s Object of the Month is a pair of photographs of John William Thornton, who served as a police officer in Leeds in the early 20th century.

John William Thornton was born on 11 June 1885 in Headingley to James and Alice Thornton. In the 1891 census, the family – James, Alice, John and five siblings – were living in Headingley, and James’ occupation was recorded as ‘Police Constable’. According to the records of West Yorkshire Police, James joined Leeds City Police in 1884 at the age of 26, having served three years in York City Police. The record of James’ appointment states that he was six feet tall, had brown eyes, dark brown hair and a fresh complexion.

By the time of the 1901 census, the family had moved to Chapel Allerton. James is recorded as a ‘Police Sergeant, Leeds City Police’, and from the West Yorkshire police archives, we know that after 17 years’ service, James had been promoted to sergeant that year. John William is now 15 years old and is employed as a ‘Tailor’s Cutter’.

Early in 1905, John married Eva Speight, a dressmaker; their daughter Gladys was born in the September of that year. A few months later, John followed his father into the police force, becoming a Police Constable in March 1906. In the left-hand photograph, his police number ‘58’ is visible on his collar and also on his helmet plate. The design of this type of helmet plate dates from 1893 when Leeds gained city status. In the later, right-hand photo, John is wearing a more recent helmet design with a ‘comb’-style crest.

The record detailing John’s police service states that he was six feet tall, (like his father), and, at the time of his appointment, that he was employed as a professional cricketer. Although we have not been able to locate any detailed information about John’s cricketing career, he does crop up in a few newspaper reports of local cricket matches. For example, the Leeds Mercury reports that in June 1902, John played for the Bainbridge Brothers cricket team in a match against Sheepscar, taking six wickets for seven runs. At the time, Bainbridge Brothers was a large drapery business in Leeds, and this tallies well with John’s initial employment as a tailor’s cutter – presumably he was employed there and played for the company team before becoming a professional cricketer. In June 1914, John also took part in a Charity Match in aid of the Northern Counties Police Orphanage between the Leeds and Hull Police teams, scoring 13 runs and taking two wickets, however the Hull team won by 10 runs!

John’s police record shows that he served in the Leeds City Police for five years until May 1911 when he resigned from the force. He rejoined the police in August 1912 and was then given leave to join the Army in December 1915 during the course of the First World War. John appears to have returned to policing by August 1917, but sadly, he died as a result of a cerebral tumour later that year, at the age of 32. He was buried on 9 October 1917 at Holy Trinity Church, Meanwood. His widow, Eva, received a gratuity of £71 & 10 shillings – approximately equivalent to £6000 in today’s money.

These photographs are part of Ripon Museums Trust’s photograph archive, which contains about 800 photographs. Volunteers are currently scanning, documenting and researching the collection, to make it more accessible to the public. Nicola Bradbury, one of those volunteers, researched and wrote this article.

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