The Oldest Railway Policeman?

by Philip Trendall
January 2022

Mr James Wright

In 1898 Superintendent James WRIGHT, Chief of the Great Central Railway Police, died. He was 77 years old, (but see below).

At the time of his death the newspapers proclaimed that he was the oldest serving railway policemen in the country.

It’s a well know fact that Superintendents have an easy life but 77 is a bit much, especially in a time when the average life expectancy for a male infant aged one year was 46. Of course, life expectancy figures are skewed by high rates of infant mortality. At birth James WRIGHT had a life expectancy of just 41 years.

The railway police were not covered by the pension provisions of the Police Act 1890 and instead each railway company made its own arrangements with special benevolent funds being established and financed by subscriptions and donations from police officers. It was to be another 10 years before a national old age pension would be introduced for the over 70s. WRIGHT never got as far as a pension, dying in office, but he left effects in his will worth a little over £2,000.

WRIGHT joined the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Police (the forerunner of the Great Central Railway) on 22nd August 1856. He was the first Superintendent of police on a salary of £200 a year – about average for the rank across the Borough and County forces. This had risen to £250 by 1897.  He could afford one young servant in 1891.

But his police career had started even earlier. Various reports claim that he joined the Metropolitan Police in either 1838 or 1839, giving him a total of nearly 60 years police service.

Like officers of his rank all over England he was responsible for prosecuting cases before the magistrates. At this level most of the cases were routine ones relating to drunkenness, theft, fare evasion and trespass.  Occasionally his duties brought him before the assizes including in one case in 1859 of a serious obstruction of the railway. The defendant was a ten year old boy who had been arrested by WRIGHT. The railway company, through their counsel and from the evidence of Superintendent WRIGHT, asked for no punishment to be inflicted saying that they had instituted the prosecution only to safeguard the public. In sentencing the boy to 3 months imprisonment the Judge suggested that the law could be improved by providing whipping as an additional penalty. The railway provisions of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 and the mirror legislation in the Malicious Damage Act of the same year are still in use and the penalties have been amended several times, but the beating of children has never been thought to be an essential element of keeping the railway safe.

The overlap between railway and canal policing mirrors the history of those modes of transport. WRIGHT prosecuted at least one boatman for offences committed in the canal basin at Sheffield.

In 1884 our subject was one of the passengers injured in the railway accident at Penistone in Yorkshire. He was lucky not to be one of the 24 killed when a train derailed and ran down an embankment. The details of his involvement are unknown but he would appear to have been badly effected by the accident. Penistone is something of an accident blackspot with several serious accidents recorded in the vicinity, the most recent incident occurring in 2021. Of course, there have been several railway accidents that have seen senior railway police officers as passengers. In more recent times these have included Clapham Junction and Polmont.

James WRIGHT was born before the system for the registration of births existed. On joining the MS&L Railway police he declared his age as 36, giving him a date of birth in 1820. Later, his staff record, quoting his membership of a provident society, suggests he was born in 1826, although if he joined the Met in 1838/39 the earlier date of birth would necessary.

On 19th January 1897 WRIGHT was the guest of honour at a large dinner in London given by the Police Superintendents of the various railway companies from all over Great Britain. Officers of the Metropolitan and provincial forces were also in attendance. In the previous year he had been presented with a silver cigar case, other articles of plate and an illuminated address by the officers of the Lincolnshire Constabulary, to mark his long service.

He died from diabetes, at home in Sheffield on 15th April 1898.His funeral took place on 19th April 1898. It was well attended with representatives of railway companies, railway and local police forces, family and friends in attendance. His coffin was carried by detectives and uniformed police officers from the Great Central Railway.

We do not know why he served for so long but his record of service as a superintendent is unlikely to be exceeded in the modern age. He was predeceased by his wife and son. His estate went to his grandson. Policing in Victorian England was a tough career, but clearly it was one in which James Wright excelled.

 

Originally published on the blog: Policing Public Transport: A Neglected History

Also see: The Longevity of a Railway Policeman!

Sources:

Office National Statistics How has life expectancy changed overtime

Railway Obstruction. (1859). Lincolnshire Chronicle, 29 Jul., p.3.

The Late Superintendent Wright. (1898). Sheffield Telegraph, 20 Apr., p.7.

Burial Records

Supt James Wright. (1897). Police Review and Parade Gossip, 5(214), p.50. [including Photo Credit]

‌Census records at Find My Past

Railway staff records at Ancestry.co.uk

Nominal Roll – British Transport Police History Group (BTPHG)

Probate and Will [1898] (Wakefield) Will dated 30 03 1895.

England , General Register Office, Deaths [1898], WRIGHT, James, Sheffield Quarter June, Vol 09C Page 311