John William Freeman: an extraordinary soldier and policeman

Condensed from an article by BTPHG committee member Kevin Gordon

Very many officers served in the armed forces before joining the ranks of the Police, and railway and dock forces were no exception. For some it meant a lifetime in uniform but few can match the exploits of John Freeman who served in four wars and joined or re-joined, the railway police four times in between.

Born in Kettering in 1872, John first joined the army at 19 and a year later, in 1892, he was posted to India as a private in the 21st Hussars. Two years later he was sent to Sudan in Africa, serving there for six years. On the 2nd September 1898, as a member of the 21st Lancers, he took part in the Battle of Omdurman. He was in good company, 24 year-old Lieutenant Winston Churchill and Douglas HAIG, later to distinguish himself in the Great War, also fought in the battle and took part in the last full-scale cavalry charge of the British Army.  As John remembered, the fighting was frenetic as was the “merciless savagery and fanaticism of the enemy”. He was struck by a spear in his side and his horse was killed from under him. John spent six months recovering and a piece of the spear remained lodged in his back for evermore.

John went onto the Reserve List and on the 19th July 1899 he joined the Midland Railway Police as a Constable stationed at Somers Town, a goods yard near St Pancras Station in London at a weekly wage of one guinea.  It must have been a far cry from African battlegrounds. Yet just six months later he was recalled to the Colours for service in the Boer War serving as Corporal in the 17th lancers until October 1902. During this period he broke his shoulder and some ribs when his horse fell on him.

John Freeman rejoined the Midland Railway Police and in 1904 he received his first commendation for being “observant on duty and for the smart capture of a thief.” This probably helped his career prospects because on 1st July that year he was promoted to Sergeant and transferred to Birmingham. During the next four years he was to receive five more commendations including one for his work during a strike when he was posted to Belfast for two months. There had been an unprecedented year of strikes in Belfast culminating in the Royal Irish Constabulary (RIC) striking in July after they were refused payment for extra duties they had to perform during the other strikes. Sergeant Freeman had his first and only brush with discipline in February 1908. He failed to keep a proper record of his supervisory visits and was insubordinate to a senior officer. He was reduced in rank to Constable and transferred to Leicester Railway Station.

John worked hard to regain his stripes and in 1911 he was promoted to Sheffield, transferring to Leeds a year later. In September 1913, two express trains collided on the Carlisle to Settle railway. Sergeant Freeman attended the scene with its eighteen fatalities and was awarded a gratuity of £1 for his work in dealing with the disaster.

At the outbreak of the Great War John rejoined the army as a Sergeant in the Military Foot Police, and spent the entire War on the Western Front and was on one occasion hospitalised suffering the effects of chlorine gas poisoning.  For three months he was one of Lord Kitchener’s personal escort. In March 1918 he was mentioned in despatches and in May was awarded the Military Medal for “conspicuous conduct and devotion to duty”.

In 1919 John once again resumed police duty at Commercial Road in London. Despite his wartime injuries he had a good sickness record, being sick just once during his first twenty years service.  However, from 1935, then in his sixties, he had three long periods off work with influenza and bronchitis. On 23rd September 1937 he reached the age of 65 years and retired.  But he was not done yet, with the outbreak of the Second World War he found himself duty bound to “play his part” once again.  He joined the London, Midland & Scottish Railway Police as a Special Constable at Camden where he served a further year before another severe bout of bronchitis forced him to hang up his helmet for good in October 1940.

John did get his well deserved retirement. He lived to the ripe old age of 96 in Nottingham.  His wife Ethel, who bore him ten children, outlived him. Sergeant John Freeman had a long and distinguished life earning eight medals and twelve police commendations.  At his funeral on 2nd July 1968, Major G.A.S. GRAHAM, represented the 17/21 Lancers and the regimental bugler sounded the “Last Post” and “Reveille”.  A fitting tribute to a truly remarkable man.


Update: November 2018

As a footnote, Chris Nixon contacted us via our Guestbook with his personal recollection of John Freeman:

I’ve just found your entry for John William Freeman. Your members may be interested to know that I knew John and Ethel in the last few years of his life; he lived next door to my grandparents, and on Saturday mornings I would go and spend time talking to him about his long career. His medals were in a display case on the sideboard, and a framed print from the battle of Omdurman on the wall. We were instrumental in getting the Army to look to his welfare, with the result that one Saturday, there was a Major General at my grandfather’s door asking if we would take him and introduce him to Mr Freeman. His medals were remounted, the print was cleaned and he was supported. I believe his medals are in the 17/21st Museum now. Wonderful man – I treasure the stories told over a glass of South African sherry!